Discussing How the Ideas of Place and Space Affected the Early Understandings and Uses of Television

Discuss how the ideas of place and space (private and/or public) affected the early understandings and uses of television.

Television appears as a new medium around the 1920’s creating certain controversy within the American culture. The early understandings and uses of television were to one point affected by the ideas of place and space, whether it was private or public made a significant difference. Anna McCarthy in the article “TV, Class, and Social Control in the 1940’s Neighborhood Tavern” mentions the understanding and use of television based specifically in the neighborhood tavern, where the TV was first set. Other ideas about the understanding and uses of television rise in the article “The Home Theater” written by Samuel Spigel, who mentions the understanding of television and its uses in the home of the Americans, as it enters the domestic environment. These two articles show diverse understandings about what television was and its uses, specifying how these ideas are affected by place and space like the neighborhood tavern, which was the public space and the home, which was the private space.

In the late 1920’s when television first appeared people understood what it was through radio. Unlike radio, television quickly became the dominant medium for most of the century. It first started in neighborhood taverns and was then transferred to the home. Both of these environments affected the understanding of what television was and its uses. Television first appeared in the taverns, which was the moment McCarthy focuses on the article. The 3-4 years in which television was seen in bars and taverns before it developed to be seen at home. At the beginning, the tavern was seen as a public, male dominated space. It was a space for conversation and drinking. The arrival of the television to the taverns created different attitudes about its understanding and uses. In the tavern, the television provoked certain concerns about the “privatization” of the tavern by undermining the traditional masculinist ideals of its conversational democracy. At this point the television had the power to reconfigure social relations in the tavern (McCarthy 33). The overall environment of the tavern changes as conversation and card games dissolve, as the men stopped talking and started watching TV. Some people, understood television as the one that killed conversation, thus killing the sense of community that the neighborhood tavern had.

Another understanding and use of television was as an entertainment center in taverns, this making the tavern become a space for leisure. In this space, television was understood as an addition to the taverns amusement. It was seen as a social and recreational practice that marked the temporal relations of the workday (36). In the taverns television showed mainly sports, this being a threat to the sports industry. With television, people could avoid the big crowds and discomfort, instead they would watch the game with their friends for free in the tavern as they drank and had fun. The passion for sports brought all of the neighborhood men together as a community with a common interest (38). Television gave to the tavern the cultural status as a space of male oriented comfort; it became more like a “home away from home” (41). Neighborhood taverns gave a sense of community and belonging to the gentlemen that frequented them.

After the tavern, television passed to the American home. It was a big change, from a public space to a private one. Once again the arrival of television into the home brought certain contradiction on how it was understood and used. The television appeared in the home, a domestic space as a home theater with the purpose of bringing the outside world inside the house. Architecture comes in the picture as something important that would enhance the space were the television was set. The domestic architecture of the period was more like a discourse on a complex relationship between public and private space (Spigel 101). The window wall, the wall murals and more were part of the architecture involved with enhancing the environment where the television was, bringing the outside world in. The whole idea of bringing the outside world in came with the fact that the television provided a maximum extension of the perceived environment within a minimum effort, television was bringing the world to the people’s doorsteps (102). The idea of the home as a private space changed as television with all the architectural enhancements made the home a public space; one that the neighbors saw through the big windows and the glass doors.

In the home, television was also understood negatively as this private place was also subject to pollution through the wires. Certain magazine writers were worried about the unhealthy psychological and physical effects that TV might have on children, who might become addicted to the medium (114). Television in the home was seen as a new disease that contaminated the American homes since the audience couldn’t control what the TV showed, the audience couldn’t control what the children were exposed to. The final negative understanding about the use of television was once again that it made the private space public, as the homes of TV owners were intruded by the neighbors who wanted to watch television (127). The negative understanding of television in the home was its undesired power to turn a private place into a public one.

On the other hand, there was some positive understanding of the use of television in the home. It was seen as part of a home entertainment center that promised to privatize and domesticate the experience of spectatorship. The home was transformed into a private pleasure dome with all the amenities were the family could watch movies and sports without all the complications from the outside world (106). Certain critics point out how television also privatized the home as it cleansed the space of social pollutants that would be seen in the outside world. It also brought equality as both black and white people could watch the same things (113).

In conclusion, place and space clearly affected how television was understood and used. It was the tavern, a public space versus the home, a private space. In both places there were diverse understandings of the purpose of television and its uses, some were positive and others were negative. In the tavern, television was understood by some as the one that killed conversation, thus the sense of community the tavern had before it. Another way television was understood in the tavern space was as an entertainment center that brought the community together with common interest. On the other hand, in the home television was understood as the one that made the private space public by bringing the outside world inside. The positive way television was understood was as a private entertainment center in the comfort of home, without the disturbances of the outside world.


McCarthy, Anna. Ambient Television: Visual Culture and Public Space. Durham: Duke UP, 2001. Print.

Spigel, Lynn. Make Room for TV – Television and the Family Ideal in Postwar America. Chicago, U. of Chicago, 1992 (99 –119, 127-9).