La Croix: In March 2020, in full confinement, the time spent in front of the television had increased by an average of 44 minutes. After two weeks of curfew and just a few days of re-containment, this figure already stands at 11 minutes for the month of October. How to explain this return of the small screen in times of crisis?
Marie-France Chambat Houillon : For some time now, television has been regarded as an outdated medium. First, it is criticized for going against our constant mobility, unlike the telephone for example.
Then, it is accused of failing in the three main missions traditionally assigned to it – especially for the public service: inform, entertain, cultivate. Today, we are witnessing a certain return to television because the health crisis has put an abrupt end to any practice of nomadism and engendered a withdrawal into the home.
The missions of television channels are amplified: they help citizens on a daily basis, by informing them of the practical steps to follow when going to work or do their shopping, and fill the cultural offer which has disappeared in “face-to-face”. On the other hand, we should not forget the phenomenon of seasonality: people systematically spend more time in front of their television in winter than in summer. Even though the trend reversal was clear for the first lockdown, I would say it is still a bit early to draw conclusions about this new period.
In such a confusing context, what is the privileged role of television: continuously informing, taking a step back, reassuring, entertaining?
MF.CH: We should not fantasize about the role of the media in times of crisis: they are certainly not there to reassure the population and do not replace other activities or institutions. On the other hand, it is clear that a channel can counterbalance the anxiety-provoking scope of the information by lighter programs, and we clearly saw, during the last confinement, that some antennas had adapted their grid. In general, what is anxiety-provoking is more the repetition than the event itself.
I want to compare this balance to nutritional balances: their effects are seen more over a week than over a day. From this point of view, television should not be thought of as a unit, but rather function in terms of channels: each provides different content; we are free to circulate between them as we wish. The viewer must reason with himself and assume his share of the responsibility: to be well informed does not mean continuous information.
Among the returning viewers, there are in particular young people -15-24 years old – who were thought to have seen deserting television in favor of social networks or platforms. How does television differ from these new media?
MF.CH: Unlike the new “on-demand” media, television is a so-called “supply” medium. Because it provides programming all day, it offers appointments that turn into landmarks for viewers, especially in a context where the anchor points have disappeared.
Then, during confinement, young people who can join the family home or relatives. Often, however, television is not just a medium but it is also a piece of furniture in a living room or a kitchen, which catches the eye and brings them together in the same place and at the same time. While they have become accustomed to individual consumption of information on a telephone or a computer, young people can rediscover this more traditional way of getting information or having fun.
→ MAINTENANCE. Covid-19: “The information was a paroxysm of uncertainty, of fear, of expertise”
More than a safe haven, I would say that television in times of crisis plays a structuring role because it sets up daily and weekly rhythms that are reassuring. Around these common temporalities, things are tied which are precisely endangered by the virus and the crisis: the collective and family ties.