First Monday

Television use in the 21st century: An exploration of television and social television use in a multiplatform environment by Jiyoung Cha

Recognizing the multiplatform and individualized video viewing environment, this study conducted focus groups to delve into reasons behind the choice and use of television over other types of video platforms, and the motives for using social television. The results suggest that the focus group participants feel affection for television as a medium itself — a feeling that is independent of the content available on television. The motives for seeking social television include a sense of community, social bonding with existing networks, reinforcement of an online persona, entertainment, information sharing, social movement, self-documentation, and incentives.


Literature review
Discussion and conclusions




In the past, watching television inherently meant watching television programs using a television set. Today, a television set is not the only platform available to watch television programs. Today’s audiences in the United States are living in a multiplatform environment. Different video platforms, including television, the Internet on a computer, and mobile devices, are available for watching video content. A recent trend is that U.S. viewers increasingly use the Internet on a computer and/or mobile devices to watch video content instead of using television alone. According to comScore, 85 percent of U.S. Internet users watched online videos, and they spent 18 hours watching online videos in February 2014 (Jarboe, 2014). As of March 2013, 10.2 percent of mobile device users in the U.S. used smartphones or tablets to watch video content, according to Ooyala (MarketingCharts, 2013). Given the increasing adoption of newer platforms for video consumption, some U.S. viewers are abandoning television as their dominant screen (Frizell, 2015). It is not difficult to find contemporary news articles that ask whether traditional television will disappear (e.g., Edelsburg, 2012; Edwards, 2013; Spangler, 2013).

The dynamic changes in the video marketplace may threaten parties associated with traditional television, including broadcast/cable networks, broadcast stations, and cable and satellite television service providers. However, the prevalent use of social networking sites might be an opportunity to boost television use in the U.S. The popularity of social networking sites has resulted in a growing phenomenon called social television: people share what they watch with others in different locations via social networking sites. In 2010, telecasts of big events, such as the Olympics, Super Bowl and the Grammys, achieved noticeably higher ratings compared to the same televised events in previous years. The 2015 Super Bowl was the most watched television event in U.S. history (Taibi, 2015). Industry reports concluded that social television is one of the primary contributors to these higher television ratings — even in a challenging multiplatform and fragmented video viewing environment (Humphrey, 2012). The 2015 Super Bowl generated more than 265 million interactions on Facebook and 28.4 million tweets on Twitter (Perez, 2015).

Traditionally, word of mouth and social interaction play critical roles in boosting the viewership of experience goods, such as television programs and films (Austin, 1981; Faber and O’Guinn, 1984). With the increase of television sets per U.S. household and the rise of single-family homes in the U.S. (Henderson, 2014; Nielsen, 2009), less people watch television with others. Thus, social television might fill the void caused by the lack of off-line social interaction and word of mouth of television. The present study recognizes the importance of understanding the roles of social television and social television users in reviving the use of television.

In light of the uses and gratifications (U&G) theory, this study aims to explore why social television users choose and use television in an environment where other video platforms are available, and investigate their motives for using social networking sites to share what they watch on television. For the purpose of this study, social television users are defined as ones who regularly use a television to watch video content and who are prone to sharing what they watch on television with others via social networking sites. The findings will provide fresh insights into how television networks, stations, and service providers can leverage social media. The findings will also redefine the meaning of an active audience and provide a twenty-first century perspective on the social interaction element of television viewing.



Literature review

Environmental changes in television viewing

U&G theory has been one of the most widely used theoretical underpinnings to explain television use. U&G theory emphasizes the functions and consequences of mass media use as a means to enhance explanation and understanding of mass communication influence. While previous media theories heavily emphasize the impact and effects of mass media on audience behavior, U&G theory stresses the audiences’ role in choice and selection of media (Rubin, 1981). U&G theory assumes that audiences are active in selecting a medium and/or a message, that they are aware of their needs, and that they are goal-oriented. The aim of U&G theory is to explain how individuals use a medium to gratify their specific needs (Katz, et al., 1974).

Broadly speaking, prior studies took three approaches to examine television use: (1) Examining motivations for watching television; (2) Investigating the use of a specific television program type on television; and, (3) Comparing motives for using television with those for using other types of media. Taking the first approach, several investigations yielded typologies of television viewing motivations and functions (Bantz, 1982; Rubin, 1983; 1981). Bantz (1982) found surveillance, entertainment, companionship encompassing boredom relief, voyeurism, and social resource to be motives for television viewing. Rubin (1981) discovered similar motivations for watching television, but added more motivations: relaxation, boredom relief, information, escape, arousal, companionship, desire to watch specific program content, and social interaction.

Researchers built upon the early works that categorized the motives for watching television in general by taking the second approach to examine further why people watch a specific genre on television. The specific television genres that have been examined include reality shows (e.g., Papacharissi and Mendelson, 2007), news (e.g., Diddi and LaRose, 2006), soap operas (e.g., Perse, 1986; Rubin, 1985) and religious programs (e.g., Abelman, 1987).

Another group of research compared television with other types of media with respect to motives for using each medium. Specifically, Perse and Ferguson (2000) concluded that the Web may serve as a functional alternative to television because entertainment is a salient motive for visiting the Web. Recreational activities on the Web are predicted by entertainment, pastime, and relaxation motives, which are also the primary motives of television use (Perse and Ferguson, 2000). Cha and Chan-Olmsted (2012) compared television with online video platforms and found that the two types of video platforms differ in the degree to which they fulfill timely learning and relaxing entertainment motives. They found no differences between online video platforms and television in satisfying audiences’ boredom relief, companionship, escape, and social interaction needs.

There are prior studies that investigated motivations for watching television in light of U&G theory, but they did not take into consideration the availability of other types of video platforms. A few decades ago, watching television meant using a television to watch television programs. In other words, it inherently assumed the use of a television. Thus, motivations for television use and consumption of television programs were not separable in a single platform era. Before other types of video platforms were introduced to the marketplace, Bantz (1982) found that there were no differences in terms of motives for television use and consumption of favorite television program types. A few decades later, however, U.S. audiences now have more platform choices when deciding to watch video content at a given time. Some may choose mobile devices or computers with an Internet connection to watch television programs or other video content at a given time. Others may still choose television as the dominant video platform. Today, content available on television can be separate from and independent of television as a platform. Shows available on television can be accessed on mobile devices or computers with Internet connections. As a result, the motivations for television use and the motivations for watching television programs are separate and can be different in a multiplatform era.

The present study distinguishes between television programs and television as a platform that enables viewers to have access to content. Given that other video platforms coexist with television and that some U.S. viewers are abandoning television (Frizell, 2015), the first research question focuses on the role of television as a video platform, and addresses why social television users choose and use a television in a multiplatform environment. Many prior studies (e.g., Barton, 2009; Cortese and Rubin, 2010; Diddi and LaRose, 2006) that employed U&G theory to examine motivations for the consumption of television or television programs adapted the motivations for television viewing from studies that did not take into account the existence of other video platforms (e.g., Rubin, 1983, 1981; Vincent and Basil, 1997; Wei and Tootle, 2002). They might not capture the motivational changes that mobile and online video platforms have brought to the television-viewing environment. Thus, the following research question is addressed:

RQ1: What are social television users’ motives for television use in a multiplatform environment?

Recent industry studies investigated how much time U.S. adults spend using traditional television, the Internet, and mobile phones to watch video content. They found that U.S. adults spent more time using traditional television in 2012 than they did in 2011 (Nielsen, 2013), but their time using traditional television decreased from 4.48 hours per week in 2013 to 4.36 hours per week in 2014 (Nielsen, 2014). Since new video platforms have been introduced and since the multi-television set-per-household era has arrived, the way consumers watch television might also be changing. As of 2014, Americans spent more time on smartphones than on TVs (Bergen, 2014). According to a KPMG report, 60 percent of U.S. television viewers now use the Internet while watching television (Chmielewski, 2013). Nielsen’s recent report indicates that 84 percent of U.S. smartphone and tablet owners used them while watching television in 2013 (Yarow, 2014). Given the increasing simultaneous use of multiple screens, the extent to which television audiences pay attention to television, and their involvement with television, is open to investigation. To better understand in-depth the shift in television viewing patterns, the present study addresses the following research question:

RQ2: What are social television users’ television consumption patterns? (e.g., use of other media or performing other activities during television viewing, attention to television, involvement with television, watching television alone versus with other people)

Social television

Many previous studies, which were rooted in U&G theory, consistently found that interpersonal utility or social interaction was gratification that people seek from watching television (e.g., Rubin, 1983, 1981; Lull, 1990). The measurement items of the social interaction construct from the studies conducted in the 1980s and 1990s represents the role of television as a medium that provides an environment for social interaction. The measurement items indicate that people watched television 1) because it’s something to do when friends come over; and, 2) so they can be with other members of the family or friends who are watching. In a single platform era, it was not uncommon for families and friends to gather together to watch television. Indeed, television was an important media that made individuals come together for social interaction. However, multiple platforms and multiple television sets in the environment have turned video consumption into a more individualized experience rather than a group experience. Furthermore, the number of single-family homes has increased over the past several decades (Henderson, 2014). These shifts in the living environment may also mean that many people now watch television alone at home.

Despite environmental changes, U.S. audiences’ desire for social interaction while watching television is reflected in the social television phenomenon. The term “social television” explains the integration of social networking and television. Chorianopoulos and Lekakos (2008) referred to social television as “a system that supports distant or co-located viewers to communicate with each other by employing several synchronous or asynchronous interpersonal communication modalities, such as an open audio channel, instant messaging, and emoticons” [1]. Sharing what individuals are watching and their comments on television shows with people in different locations became a popular activity among U.S. social networking service users (Adler, 2014). The number of television-related comments on social media increased 363 percent in the U.S. over the course of 2012 (Adler, 2014).

The breaking of ratings records of recent televised events, such as the Super Bowl, Grammys, and Olympics, has driven the television industry to pay acute attention to social television. Television networks and service providers are attempting to leverage social television. They have been experimenting with various ways to seamlessly connect a new form of social interaction with the television viewing experience. Some television firms have added instant messaging features directly to television screens (Cesar, et al., 2009). Concerned about disruption caused by the direct integration of social networking functions to television screens, other television firms have urged viewers to use social networking sites to discuss their programs. Some are more aggressive than others, lunching their own social television apps or partnering with existing social networking sites for social television.

Industry officials hope that buzz about television shows via social television will generate higher ratings. Source trust is a critical construct to understand the media hype behind social television. Social trust refers to the degree to which receivers of a message trust the sender. It focuses on relational characteristics between the sender and receiver of the message (Huh and Shin, 2012; Soh, et al., 2009). In the context of viral e-mail, the likelihood to pass along the message to other people increases according to how close the sender and receiver are interpersonally (Chiu, et al., 2007). Consumers tend to trust communications from other people they know more than communications generated from marketers (Goldsmith and Horowitz, 2006). Today, consumers are turning away from a traditional marketing mix — advertising, personal selling, public relations, publicity, direct marketing, and sales promotion — created by marketers and gaining a great amount of information about products and services from social media (Mangold and Faulds, 2009). Given the fact that information about television programs via social television are communicated through people that individuals trust within their own relational network, social television may boost the awareness and viewership of a television program communicated via social television.

A few industry reports show inconclusive results regarding the relationship between social media buzz and television ratings. A study conducted by Optimedia US examined whether online buzz prior to the initial broadcast of a show is correlated with the audience size for the show’s premiere. However, the study found no correlation between the two variables. The study concluded that online buzz reflects the network’s marketing rather than serving as an accurate gauge of how many people will eventually watch it. It also noted that television shows with potentially controversial storylines might be more likely to draw more buzz as a matter of course (Steel, 2011). In contrast, another study from NM Incite, a Nielsen/McKinsey Company, and Nielsen found a statistically positive correlation between social media buzz and television ratings. In other words, television programs had higher ratings as the number of the comments on the television programs increased on social media (Subramanyam, 2011).

The mixed findings indicate that the benefits of social television might not be universal across various program genres. Audiences might be more likely to talk about certain types of television shows than other types due to the inherent nature of the genre. Thus, audiences might be more likely to seek social television for certain genres of television programs than other genres, because for example certain genres typically generate controversy or deliver powerful messages, etc. Although industry reports show inconclusive results on social television, it is apparent that the social television phenomenon brings an excitement to the U.S. television industry. In the individualized video consumption patterns and the increasingly fierce competition derived from multiplatform environments, it is imperative for television networks and service providers to redefine the social interaction of television consumption. Thus, the following research questions are addressed:

RQ3: What social television vehicles do social television users use, and how do they use social television?
RQ4: What are social television users’ motivations for seeking social television?
RQ5: What television genres do social television users seek out for social television? Why do they use social television for those genres?




Data collection


This study utilized focus groups. Qualitative research allows researchers to explore selected topics in detail and to illuminate the way individuals create meaning through interactive discussion (Patton, 1990). Focus groups in particular are valuable “when insights, perceptions, and explanations are more important than actual numbers” [2]. There exists scant research that examined social television users’ motives for using a television in a multiplatform environment, how social television users seek social television, and their motivations for seeking social television. Thus, an exploratory approach is more appropriate here.

Four focus group sessions were conducted during a two-week period. Four focus groups were chosen because three to five focus groups suffice for a research project, while more than five groups seldom provide meaningful new insights (Morgan, 1997). Participants were recruited through social network web pages of local businesses, communities, and universities in a city located in the southwestern part of the U.S. A total of 25 adults participated in this focus group study. The focus group participants were required to have two qualifications. First, the focus group participants should be ones who regularly use a television to watch video content. Second, they should be ones who are prone to sharing what they watch on television with others via social networking sites. After the screening, a total of 25 adults participated in this focus group study.

Each focus group session lasted approximately 90 minutes. Prior to each focus group discussion, the participants were asked to fill out a short questionnaire regarding their demographic information and were informed about informed consent. A carefully constructed yet flexible interview guide was used. The same focus group guide was used for each session. One moderator led the discussions throughout the four focus group sessions. One note taker also attended all of the focus group sessions. Each session was audio recorded. Two graduate students transcribed the focus group discussions after each session ended. The researcher trained the moderator to facilitate discussions effectively and to fully understand the purpose of the study. At the end of each focus group session, the moderator summarized the important points of discussion and asked whether any important points had been missed. After the focus group session, the participants received US$20 gift cards.


A total of 25 people participated in the focus groups. Rakow (2011) suggests that “a sample for focus groups is sought not for generalizing to the rest of the population but to ensure that the range of meanings and experiences in the research population are discovered” [3]. The focus group participants varied in age, gender, living arrangements (i.e., with whom they lived and family structure), ethnicity, and education level. The diversity of the focus group participants expanded the range and reason for opinions. Sixty-eight percent of the participants were female and 32 percent were male. The mean age of the participants was 25.76 years old (SD = 12.14). Sixty-eight percent of the participants completed high school, and 34 percent identified themselves as college graduates; eight percent completed graduate schools. A majority, 64 percent, of the participants were single, whereas 20 percent were married and 16 percent were “other.” Caucasians accounted for 44 percent of the participants. African Americans made up 32 percent of the participants, and 12 percent identified themselves as Hispanics.

Data analysis

The transcribed focus group discussions were analyzed using the inductive data analysis method suggested by Hatch (2002). The analysis aimed to identify and organize “patterns of meaning in data so that general statements about phenomena under investigation can be made” [4]. The researcher analyzed the transcripts line by line in order to identify relationships and categories. This process allowed the researcher to move from describing the specifics of the data toward thinking more conceptually about commonalities and differences among the concepts (Spradley, 1979; Strauss and Corbin, 1990). Unique, exceptional, or different perspectives were also included in order to prevent the fallacy of too much coherence in data, which is often singled out as a weakness in qualitative data analysis (Aldoory and Van Dyke, 2006).




RQ1: What are social television users’ motives for television use in a multiplatform environment?

The motives for watching video content via television, when taking other types of video platforms into account, include its less disruptive nature, companionship, quality, convenience, co-viewing, relaxation, familiarity, nostalgia, flow, and live television programs.

Less disruption. Many of the participants said that they use television because television is less distracting compared to mobile video platforms and online video platforms. One participant said, “Television is just on in the background. It’s nice to not to have any distractions, which is the reason why I like television rather than a computer to watch video content.” Another participant remarked, “Like the Discovery Channel — I’ll turn it on when I’m taking a shower and when I get dressed; it’s just on in the background. It’s nice to not have any distractions. It’s just one little show.” Another participant said, “If I am about to go out, I’m not going to get on the computer and watch TV, because I have other stuff to do.”

Companionship. Several participants mentioned that the television keeps them company. They said that they use television to fill the silence or loneliness. One participant said, “It’s like company, hearing the people talking. You feel like you are not alone.”

Quality. This motive focuses on the quality aspect of television, including picture quality, picture size, and viewing environment quality. One participant said, “With the Internet, you will have a banner across the bottom and pop-ups ... all over the place.” Another participant said, “I do not like the buffering thing, and then I have to wait through the ads. I would rather watch them on television.” Several participants agreed. Some of the participants also said that they use television because of its bigger screen size versus mobile video platforms and online video platforms. One participant said, “My television has the biggest picture, and it’s the best looking picture.”

Relaxation. The focus group discussions revealed that the participants sought to gain more relaxation from television than from any other type of video platform. One participant said, “I don’t like sitting very close to TV screens. I prefer to sit far away and be comfortable. I sit on the couch and maybe curl up with a little blanket or something and just watch. Television would be fine for that.” Another person added, “I watch television because it’s nice to settle down and have this thing in front of me that doesn’t move. When I watch things on my phone, I feel like I am glued to my phone ... It’s nice to separate TV from other things.”

Convenience. Many of the participants concurred that they use television because it is convenient and easy to use. One participant said, “If you watch a show on the computer, you have to look up the show you want to watch, and type in a name. It’s a lot more steps to get to the end game. But with the TV, you just turn it on. If you know what the channel is, you just turn on the power button and type in the channel number.” Another participant said, “TV is the most accessible.” And another said: “Mainly I use television because it’s easy, it’s there. I turn it on.”

Co-viewing. The focus group participants remarked that they also use television as part of a co-viewing experience. A participant said, “I watch television to watch some shows with other people. The shows that I end up watching on the computer are the shows that nobody else wants to watch.” Some participants said that they watch television with others because it is a bonding experience. One participant stated, “If I am watching a drama and the plot develops in each episode, then I don’t want to watch it with other people. On the other hand, if it is something like Jersey Shore and music awards, I will watch with others.” Another said, “When I was at home, I rarely watched TV by myself. We make ridiculous comments about everything.”

Familiarity. Ease and comfort comprise one motive for using television in a multiplatform environment. The focus group participants felt more familiar with television than with other types of video platforms. One participant remarked, “From the time we were born, there was television, so we are used to at least hearing it in the background. We are used to it.” Another person expressed a similar opinion: “Although I have been using my computer and mobile phone to watch video, I grew up with television. We are just used to it because we grew up with it.”

Nostalgia. Several participants addressed the nostalgic nature of television as a reason why they use television. One participant said, “I will probably keep using television as the world evolves. It will bring back some nostalgia.” Another participant said, “Television is almost like books. They have e-book readers like Kindles, but I would prefer to read a physical book. It’s nostalgic.”

Live TV programs. Another motive for using television lies in the immediate availability of live television programs. There is usually a time lag before a show can be seen on Internet and mobile video platforms after it has aired on television, and the availability of live events on the Internet and mobile video platforms is limited. One participant said, “If a show is not live, I have other options, such as mobile platforms and computers. But if the show is a live TV show, I want to be there to see it all go down as it is happening.” Another participant stated, “I do not like reading spoilers on the Web, so I watch the show on television.”

RQ2: What are social television users’ television consumption patterns?

Few participants said they sit down and watch television without doing anything else. Multitasking indicates that the levels of attention to and engagement with television are low. Several of the participants said they use their laptops while watching television. Other participants said they do homework, eat, cook, wash the dishes, do laundry, or talk with others. The majority agreed that television provides a backdrop for other activities. One participant said that it depends on what she is watching. “If I am watching a drama, comedy, or something that has a storyline to unfold or something that I am interested in, I will stop everything else.” Nearly all of the focus group participants also said that they do not watch commercials. They do something else when commercials appear on the television. The following is an excerpt of dialogue among participants who described the way they watch television:

Participant: Whenever I am just cleaning up, I hear the TV going on. If I hear something interesting, I will turn my focus to the TV.

Participant: For the past few years, I don’t think that I have ever watched TV just sitting there. If I hear something interesting, then I will stop what I am doing and listen.

Participant: I can never just sit down and watch TV. I am usually on social network or searches.

Participant: I’m either on the computer or eating or doing homework or something. I don’t ever really watch it completely, doing nothing, unless I am with family or something. If it’s just me, I am probably multitasking.

With respect to whether the participants watch television alone or with others, many participants said they watch certain shows with other people who like the shows. But they remarked that they mostly watch television alone, even if they live with other people. This is because television show preferences differ, and because group viewing disrupts attention to and understanding of the storyline. One participant noted, “For movies, it’s fun to watch with friends. With a comedy, it is funny to watch their reaction. Other times, I guess it may be obnoxious on my part. I like to get into my show and get submerged into what’s going on.”

RQ3: How do social television users seek social television?

When sharing what they watch with others via social networking sites, participants tend to use general social networking sites, such as Twitter and Facebook, rather than niche social networking sites that are specifically designed for social television purposes, i.e., GetGlue, Tunerfish,, etc. Facebook and Twitter were the most frequently mentioned sites throughout the focus group discussions. The other social networking sites mentioned include Google+, Myspace, Tumbler, and GetGlue. Some participants preferred Twitter over Facebook or vice versa. The reason why some focus group participants prefer Facebook over Twitter or vice versa depends on whether they want to build a deep connection with their existing networks or on whether they want to build a new community through social television. One participant said, “I wouldn’t post what I am watching on my Facebook page, mainly because there are just too many people on there that I wouldn’t really care what they thought about my TV habits. But, I basically keep a Twitter account to watch TV because it’s so easy to live-blog and live-tweet your thoughts.” Another participant said, “My Facebook account is full of people who I know in real life, so I do not want to use Facebook for that purpose. I am more likely to get responses from companies on Twitter.” On the other hand, many of the participants said they use Facebook to share what they watch, in order to solicit more responses to their comments. Several participants also mentioned GetGlue and Tumbler. GetGlue users said that they get stickers if they share what they watch, and they feel good when they get a sticker. Some of the focus group participants said they use Tumblr because you can see media on it, not just text. They said that Tumblr is more visual than any of the other social networking sites or blogs.

Regarding what activities social television users specifically do to share what they watch, participants said they tended to simply reproduce an excerpt of the television show they watched or post their own thoughts about the show. To do the former, they include links of video clips or pictures of the television episodes and post funny or witty quotes from the episodes. The latter encompasses discussing the wardrobes of people who appeared in the television program, commenting on the content of the show, and recommending that others should watch the show. One participant said, “I’m generally commenting on the content of the show. It may not be the entire show, just certain parts that I find most interesting or most appalling.” Another participant said, “If I see an episode that I really like, I will try to find the clip of the episode on YouTube because that is how my friends will pay attention to it.”

RQ4: What are social television users’ motivations for seeking social television?

Broadly speaking, the motives for seeking social television are threefold: interpersonal communication-driven, self-presentation driven, and benefit-driven. Interpersonal communication-driven motives for seeking social television include a sense of community, social bonding with existing networks, and information sharing. Self presentation-driven motives for seeking social television are entertainment, self-documentation, expression of attachment to TV shows, and reinforcement of online persona. Benefit-driven motives are incentives, and supporting social movements.

Sense of community. Focus group participants seek social television to find and to network with people who have the same interests. The social television activities endow them with a sense of community. One participant said, “I share what I watch, because I am trying to communicate with people who are also watching the TV show.” Another participant remarked, “It makes it easier to see who your real friends are ... and to figure out who likes what.”

Social bonding with existing networks. Many of the focus group participants believed that social television helps them deepen connections with people they already have relationships with. One participant said, “I think it is the internal bond of entertainment, and that’s how I bond with my friends. I have a friend that I haven’t seen in a year and a half, but after every episode of Breaking Bad, I send a comment like, ‘How did that happen?’ We go through those emotions together.” Another participant said, “It is for the same reason I would share music or an experience with somebody. The show that I am watching elicits a response from me emotionally, and I feel like I am a good person by indicating to my friends that they might also have the same response. And by doing so I form a deep connection somehow.”

Reinforcement of online persona. Some participants share what they watch to build up their online presence and strengthen their online persona. One participant remarked, “Since I started using Twitter, I’ve been developing my online persona. I feel like I am kind of entertaining people with my own personal brand. I feel like my followers definitely care about my opinion.” Another participant had a similar view, “I notice that a lot of social networking is becoming key toward getting jobs and getting your name out there. So, I continually try to comment more.”

Entertainment. Participants share what they watch with other people via social networking sites because it is entertaining. One participant said, “I share if I find something funny, because it makes us laugh.” Similarly, another participant said, “It is always fun to have a conversation about it with your friends or relatives.” One participant said, “It’s fun to see who gets the quote, and they’ll know where it is from.”

Information sharing. Another motive for why focus group participants share what they watch is to provide others with information about what is going on, what they didn’t know about, or what they should tune into. One participant said, “My primary news source isn’t available in the United States. It’s Al Jazeera. I watch that on my iPad and then I will post links for other people to see. I really like to do that, to get them to see things from other perspectives.” Another participant said, “If you like a book, you can carry that book wherever you are and pass it on to a friend. You can also do that with television shows. Social television is the socially interactive version of passing on a book.”

Social movement. Participants seek social television to promote a social movement. One participant said, “Sometimes I need to feel I’m getting an education, like on the Discovery Network. Or sometimes I want a certain program to continue. Like Arrested Development — it got cancelled because no one was watching it, and it was a great show. It was before social movement. Perhaps if people had been checking in about Arrested Development and if there had been Internet discussion, it could have been saved. It’s like a syndrome where we are on the Internet so much that there is something bigger and better that we are missing, so we tend to over-broadcast what we are doing so that no one is missing out.” Another participant said, “One of the shows that I sat down and watched with my daughter is about bullying, so I definitely researched the show and shared a link because it was important. I was very sentimental and very maternal; I want to protect my child and other children.” Another participant had a similar opinion, saying: “I just hope that someone sees my post. Sometimes I think that this post will be helpful for 20 people or so.”

Expression of attachment to TV shows. Interpersonal communication is not the only reason for seeking social television. Some of the motives for seeking social television are more self-driven. Expression of attachment to TV shows is one self-driven motive for seeking social television. A few of the participants said they share what they watch via social networking sites just to express how much they like the shows and how attached they are to the shows.

Self-documentation. Another self-driven motivation behind social television is self-documentation. Some of the participants said they want to document their personal history somewhere on the Web. One participant who uses GetGlue said, “I think it is an interesting place to log your history. It’s just one more place to leave your trail.”

Incentive. Tangible benefit is a motive for seeking social television. One person said, “I’ve only recently got GetGlue in the last month and a half or so. What you do is check in to a TV show, saying that you are watching it live. They’ll give you some sort of sticker. You’ve checked in to this episode, so you get this sticker. And, I use it for that ’cause. Hey! Free stickers! You get them in the mail. I just got my first batch in the mail, and I thought ’Hey that’s kind of cool. I got some mail.’ So, I like the incentive of it all. I’ll tell you that I’m watching a TV show for whatever reasons you need to know, but if you give me something free back, that’s even better.”

RQ5: What television genres do social television users seek out for social television? Why?

Many of the participants said that they are most likely to share comedies, sitcoms, sports, reality shows, and news through social networking sites. A few participants also mentioned documentaries. In particular, the majority of the participants agree that they are more likely to share comedies and sitcoms than other television genres. By sharing comedic material, they hope to make other people laugh. The high likelihood of positive and immediate reactions to comedies makes them the most popular recipients of social television activity. On the other hand, participants pointed out that it is difficult to share dramas, because the storylines of dramas should be understood within the full context. One participant said, “If a drama is well beyond its first season, you know it’s only a clip or a quote, and not everyone will get it. But usually with a comedy it doesn’t matter, because anyone can pick it up.” Another participant remarked, “With drama, it’s more one on one.”

The other genres that the participants are likely to share include reality shows, sports, news, and documentaries. These genres are non-fiction. Some of the participants said they are more likely to comment on documentaries via social networking sites because documentaries present real facts. Reality shows, particularly music talent competitions and music-oriented shows, are also more likely to be shared. One participant said, “I just feel that people like watching talent. I feel like it’s something enjoyable for everyone to watch.” News is also likely to be shared because news broadcasts elicit strong opinions. One participant explained, “It’s normally facts, but the take on it can be very personal or opinionated. I feel that if I was more involved, I would be more likely to post something about the news. Because CNN is more liberal and Fox is more conservative, you can be like, ‘I agree with this.’ And you can share with someone that thing that happened.” Sports are also likely to be shared because sporting events are live and elicit loyalties to teams. One participant said: “When my favorite teams play games, I post about every single game.” Another participant added, “I have so many opinions about one team. And the event is happening live.”



Discussion and conclusions

This qualitative study recognized the existence of other types of platforms to watch video content and found different motives for using television from those in earlier studies that did not take a multiplatform environment into account (e.g., Rubin, 1981; Perse and Ferguson, 2000). The motives for using television in a multiplatform environment today include less disruption, companionship, quality, relaxation, convenience, co-viewing, familiarity, nostalgia, flow, and live television programs. These motives for using television represent the types of psychological and functional fulfillment that audiences seek from television use. Psychological motives refer to emotional fulfillments that audiences seek from using a medium. Psychological motives for using television in a multiplatform environment are familiarity, nostalgia, relaxation, and companionship. Previous studies that did not consider a multiplatform environment commonly found relaxation and companionship to be the motives for watching television or a certain genre on television (e.g., Rubin, 1981; Papacharissi and Mendelson, 2007). Because the present study took other types of video platforms into account, the findings from the present study imply that television may fulfill the needs for relaxation and companionship more fully than do other types of video platforms. With respect to the relaxation motive, the result is consistent with Cha and Chan-Olmsted (2012), who found that the relaxation motive along with the timely learning motive differs in using television and online video platforms among U.S. audiences. The present study further introduced familiarity and nostalgia as the other psychological motives for watching television in a multiplatform era.

Functional motives refer to the attribute-oriented types of fulfillment that consumers seek from using a medium. Functional motivations for using television in a multiplatform era include less disruption, quality, convenience, co-viewing, and live television shows. Functional motivations for television use are worth noting, because the majority of previous studies disregarded functional motivations in examining why people use a medium, focusing instead on psychological motives. Some prior studies did identify functional motives for a medium use. McClung and Johnson (2010) found that time shifting, advertising, and library-building capabilities are motives for using podcasts along with psychological motives of social interaction and entertainment. Papacharissi and Rubin (2000) found that convenience is one of the motives for using the Internet. Zeng (2011) found that control and less disruptive nature are functional motives for using MP3 players along with the psychological motives of entertainment, companionship, and status. Although these studies did find motives that are attribute-oriented gratifications sought from using a medium, they tend not to distinguish between psychological and functional motives. As platforms are being diversified for video consumption, the present study suggests that functional motives may be as critical as psychological motives to understand why audiences choose and use a medium over other media. Another reason why scholars should not disregard the importance of functional motives in understanding media use in a multiplatform era is because the attributes of different types of video platforms may enable audiences to have different experiences although they consume the same content. Note that medium and content are separable in a multiplatform environment, whereas content and medium were not separable in a single platform era.

Some previous studies categorized the motives for media use into content and process gratifications. Content gratifications focus on the messages carried by the medium, whereas process gratifications focus on the gratifications that come from actual use of the medium itself (Cutler and Danowski, 1980). Stafford, et al. (2004) suggested that information and entertainment are considered to be content gratifications, whereas enjoyment of the usage processes of random browsing and site navigation is classified as process gratification. Nevertheless, numerous prior studies have mingled the entertainment motive and enjoyment motive, ignoring the distinction between content and process gratifications. A possible reason may be that it is difficult to apply the typology because it should be understood within a specific context. For instance, enjoyment can come from the content of a medium as well as from the process of using the medium. Considering the weaknesses and complexity of the content and process gratifications typology, the present study clearly defines the categorization of motives for media use and suggests a distinction between psychological and functional motives. The distinction is based on whether individual fulfillments in using a medium are emotional or come from the medium’s functional attributes.

The findings of the present study also highlight the role of audiences as active participants in a multiplatform environment. Passive theory emphasizes that habit is an important factor that affects audiences’ decisions to watch television. Indeed, habit has been identified as a motive for watching television in earlier television studies, when television was a sole dominant video platform (e.g., Rosenstein and Grant, 1997; Rubin, 1981). In comparison, the present study using focus group data did not find that habit played a prominent role in audiences’ decisions to use television in a multiplatform environment. Instead, this study revealed that familiarity is one of the motives for using television in a multiplatform environment. Habit represents a repetitive, passive and ritualistic behavior of using a medium. On the other hand, familiarity comes with an emotional comfort felt from the medium as one’s personal history with the medium cumulates. Considering that the quantity of prior interactions with a medium influences familiarity (Gefen, 2000), it is apparent that audiences feel much more familiar with television than with newer types of video platforms, which motivates them to use television. As new types of video platforms are introduced to the marketplace, it appears that audiences have become more active in making the decision to select a specific medium to watch video content at any given time. While Adams (2000) found elements from both the active and passive theories in television consumption, the current study illustrated the strong evidence of active theories in today’s television viewing within a multiplatform environment.

The present study also revealed that focus group participants feel affection for television as a medium. Adams (2000) suggested that the affection for a medium is tied to specific programs and expected moods. A decade later, the findings from the present study suggests that audiences in a multiplatform environment have a strong love for television as a medium itself, independent of specific programs on television. Many of the participants said they won’t abandon television, even though online video platforms and mobile platforms may have relative advantages in some aspects and deliver the same content that is broadcast on television. That is because they seek nostalgia, relaxation, less disruption, and convenience from television.

With respect to television consumption patterns, this study shows that television’s minimally disruptive nature encourages the focus group participants to multi-task while they are watching television. When television was the only video platform, and video content was limited, the distraction caused by viewing it with others was the factor that lowered the level of attention paid to television. Today’s individualized television viewing dilutes that particular cause, but the attention level paid to television is still low because of prevalent multitasking. The availability of video content across different types of video platforms may be another possible reason why audiences do not pay much attention to television. The simultaneous use of the Internet and television is particularly worth noting. On the one hand, the simultaneous use of television and the Internet may decrease the displacement effect of the Internet on television. On the other hand, it decreases the level of attention audiences pay to television.

The motives for seeking social television include sense of community, social bonding with existing networks, reinforcement of online persona, entertainment, information sharing, social movement, expression of attachment to television shows, self-documentation, and incentives. All of these motives are affiliated with psychological motives. The finding again stresses the role of television as an important medium for social interaction. This study shows how environmental changes have transformed the way the focus group participants socially interact and co-view with others through television. In the single platform era, television was a medium that encouraged individuals to physically gather together and interact with one another. Social interaction around a television was common. In the multiplatform era, television per se is not a medium that encourages participants to physically gather together; rather, television programs are a source of communication that encourages them to gather virtually together via social television. When asked why they seek social television, the focus group participants said that sharing what they watch on television with others via social networking sites helps them build deeper connections with people in other places.

An interesting finding is that social television users in this study share what they are watching not just for social interaction but also for self-presentation. Specifically, they feel social television activities fulfill their entertainment needs and want to self-document what they are watching and what they think about television programs. They also want to express their attachment to specific television shows and believe that social television activities reinforce their online presence and persona. Smock, et al. (2011) found that the expressive information-sharing motive for using social networking sites has a relationship with the frequency of status updates on social networking sites. Given that the present study found self-presentation and information sharing motives for social television use, social television activities may play an important part for social networking site users. Future studies can examine how the interpersonal communication motive and self-presentation motive, respectively, drive up the frequency and intensity of social television activities.

The focus groups in this study show that the amount and intensity of the feedback that audiences receive is a factor that influences what television programs they will discuss via social networking sites. Focus group participants said that they tend to choose television programs that are easy for anybody to participate in for social television conversations. By doing so, recipients of a message who are not familiar with the story or the context of the television program can still join in the social television conversations. Focus group participants also tended to choose television programs for social television such that they can solicit positive feedback. The results imply that whether or not social television can boost television program ratings may not be universal across different types of television programs. Social television might increase ratings for specific genres or types of television programs, but may not work for all television program types. Specifically, focus group participants mentioned comedies, sitcoms, sports, competition-based reality shows, documentaries, and news as television programs that they frequently discussed via social networking sites, but the qualitative nature of this study limits the generalization of the findings. In the future, quantitative research can examine how social television activities are related to the popularity of television programs across different genres.

The focus group approach revealed various dimensions of participants’ motives regarding television use and social television activities in a multiplatform environment. The focus groups generated rich insights that were previously unexplored. Because focus group research intends to facilitate a comprehensive understanding of a topic, focus group researchers use small samples and do not intend to generalize (Krueger, 1994). The results of the present study are not generalized to the population. Interpretation of the results should thus focus on the questions of why and how instead of the questions of what and how many. As such, future studies can employ quantitative research methods to further delve into how the motives found in this study predict the use of social television and choice of television in a multiplatform environment. Focus group participants explained why they are more likely to use general social networking sites than niche social networking sites that are designed for social television purposes. Thus, future research can take a quantitative approach to examine whether the perceived network size of social networking sites and perceived network externalities are important factors driving the choice of a vehicle for social television. End of article


About the author

Jiyoung Cha, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the Department of the Broadcast and Electronic Communication Arts at San Francisco State University. Her research aims to understand the competitive dynamics of the media marketplace, how new media change audiences’ media consumption patterns and the business principles of media firms, and why audiences adopt or reject new communication technologies. Her research has appeared in peer-reviewed journals, including the Journal of Media Economics, International Journal on Media Management, Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly, Telematics and Informatics, Journal of Electronic Commerce Research, First Monday, and Journal of Advertising Research, among others. She earned her Ph.D. in mass communication with a minor in marketing from the University of Florida.
E-mail: jycha [at] sfsu [dot] edu



The research study was funded by the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC).



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Editorial history

Received 24 July 2015; accepted 19 January 2016.

Copyright © 2016, First Monday.
Copyright © 2016, Jiyoung Cha. All Rights Reserved.

Television use in the 21st century: An exploration of television and social television use in a multiplatform environment
by Jiyoung Cha.
First Monday, Volume 21, Number 2 - 1 February 2016