CORVALLIS, Ore. - Watching television is the dominant leisure activity shared by American couples, but that togetherness can turn sour with a click of the remote control if conflict arises over whether to watch "Oprah" or Atlanta Braves baseball.
Now a new study confirms what most of us have known all along - when it comes to the remote, men are almost always in control.
The study by researchers at Oregon State University found that men are more likely to dominate use of the remote control, more likely to annoy their partners with its use, and more likely to "graze" - skipping from channel to channel in the endless pursuit of perfect television.
Women, on the other hand, are more apt to videotape their show to watch later and, on average, are more likely to say they are happy spending time together as a couple, regardless of what is on television.
"The most common complaint among women is that men not only dominate the remote control, they engage in 'unnegotiated channel surfing' without talking to their partners," said Alexis Walker, a professor of human development and family sciences at OSU.
"It is," she added, "a display of power. And it's annoying to the partner. Watching television is still a joint leisure activity, but with one person dominating the enjoyment. Men complain, too, but their complaints are usually that the woman is talking during a favorite show or that there isn't anything good on TV."
Walker first presented the findings of her study as the presidential address at the recent National Council on Family Relations annual meeting. Holder of the endowed Jo Anne Leonard Petersen Chair in Gerontology and Family Studies at OSU, Walker says she was surprised at how little academic research there was on the effect of television on relationships.
After delving into the topic, she found that the dynamics which shape societal attitudes and behaviors on gender relations are reflected in the television viewing habits of couples.
The main issue, Walker says, is one of power.
"Women struggle to get their male partners to watch a program they want to watch," Walker said. "Women also seem less able to raise issues of concern to them, they anticipate struggles if they do make their preferences known, and they predict a negative reaction to their wishes from male partners."
The OSU researchers also studied TV viewing habits of gay and lesbian couples and found that one partner tended to control use of the remote more than the other. Obviously, gender is not the defining issue among same sex couples, Walker said, but individual traits, strength of personality, or patterns of conflict resolution may help decide who controls the remote.
As part of the study, the researchers interviewed couples separately and nearly all of the individuals initially said they were happy with how they and their partner watched TV together. But further questioning found that 67 percent of the surveyed women and 59 percent of the men found their partner's behavior frustrating. Their comments suggest why:
- On behavior: "The only thing that's frustrating for me is when we first turn on the TV and he just flips through the channels," said a single woman with a live-in male partner. "It drives me crazy because you can't tell what's on, because he just goes through, and goes through, and goes through..."
- On switching channels during commercials: "I'm the guilty party," said one middle-aged married man. "My (family) would leave it there and watch the commercial. I just change it because I'd rather not be insulted by commercials."
- On getting her husband to watch a particular show: "I usually start a couple of days ahead of time when I see them advertised, and it is something that I am going to want to watch," said one woman, married for 18 years. "I tell him to 'get prepared.' I have to be relatively adamant about it. When the time comes up, I have to remind him ahead of time that I told him earlier that I want to watch the program."
Walker said resolving TV viewing conflicts sounds easy - simply share the remote 50-50. But, she points out, compromise "is not that simple."
"Taking away men's control of the remote may lower their appreciation of shared leisure time," Walker said. "Being equal isn't necessarily what women, or men, want. They want to be happy."
And while women are better than men at preventing "TV conflict" - by giving in, or watching their show on a second television, or taping it on the VCR - that does little to enhance shared leisure time, Walker said.
"Many people say why engage in a conflict over something so unimportant; it's just a television show. But it may not be so unimportant if a couple's primary shared leisure time is systematically less enjoyable for one partner."