HOUSING TELEVISION – A film, a fridge and social democracy – John Hartley

Without the fridge, there would be no television.

“The home refrigerator, one of the earliest household technologies and markers of

the value of the private sphere, is not unlike broadcasting in that it provides a clear

illustration of the option of the split between centralized production and distribution

and private home consumption.” (Paul Attalah, 1991)

In other words, the choice to invest in homes as sites of privatized consumption, the very

cultural effect so often claimed for television, was already made before television was invented.

The fridge was indeed ‘not unlike broadcasting’, and like broadcasting it allowed for

mutually interdependent changes in both production (entire industries were transformed) and

consumption (people changed their uses of time, space, food and semiosis).



Television was invented not as a ‘mass’ medium, but a domestic one. Its economic platform
and cultural form were developed in the USA in the 1940s to provide programming as
entertainment, rather than individualized two-way communication like telephone or video.
Programming was supplied by centralized agencies (networks) to private consumers. In New
Deal America, in a process which accelerated throughout the 1940s and 1950s, ‘mass’ housing
was perfected, in suburbs and high-rises, as the necessary precondition for television, which in
turn became the advertising medium of choice for promoting the values of domesticity and
the products and services by means of which that ideology could most visibly be espoused (see
Attallah, 1991; Spigel, 1992). For TV to ‘happen’, the consumers had to be at home. To be at
home, they needed two things:
1. capital investment in the home to sustain their activities there;
2. an ‘ideology of domesticity’ which would maintain their pleasures there, rather than in
the street, pub, cinema, music-hall . . . or even in brothels or communism.
For the above conditions to be met in practice, every home had to have a refrigerator.


semiosis). The fridge allowed people (housewives) to go to food markets once a week instead of once a day. It allowed different kinds of foods to be stored – uncooked, leftover and ‘convenience’ foods – and the
freezer compartment stimulated dietary changes with ‘fresh’ meats and non-seasonal or foreign
vegetables, and exotic foods like ice cream. It was a technology accessible to all ages in the
family, requiring little parental surveillance or manual skill (though there were occasional
suffocations of toddlers who had shut themselves inside), and thereby encouraging juvenile
decision-making in food choices. With this capital investment, family habits could change.
Weekly shopping was different in kind from daily shopping. It encouraged shoppers not only to
buy in bulk but also to buy different things, including impulse-buys and specials. Like the fridge
itself, weekly shopping was often a family affair, increasing men’s and children’s choices in
purchasing decisions, and supermarkets used ‘loss-leaders’ and shelving layout to entice them
further. Concentrated shopping (meat, groceries and bakers in one store), bought in bulk,
means that non-food products can be sold alongside the perishables, including all those things
needed in wet areas, magical cleaning agents for house, body and baby, inside and out, floors
and furniture, hair and skin, dishes and cars, liver and teeth. Increasing amounts of
entertainment products (toys, records), hardware (for improving the home) and convenience
foods displayed at the same store suggest that staying at home is a pleasurable option. Such bulk
shopping soon required a car. Weekly shopping entailed different kinds of retailing – a change from cornerstore and daily-market to supermarkets. In supermarkets, people were widely
believed to be prone to distraction and bemusement, so they needed strong branding to remind
them of what they wanted. Supermarkets needed TV advertising, where people at home
would be reminded every day (hour) of what they were going to buy in the weekly trip to the
supermarket, and also to familiarize consumers with the surprising range, surprising novelty
and surprisingly low prices of the products available.
TV advertising was, and remains, obsessively orificial and alimentary – concentrating on
what people put into their mouths, and with the cleanest and most efficient way of getting it
through their alimentary canals and then out of the house. Everything edible was constantly
harassed throughout its domestic career by cleansing. Besides this image of endless eating and
evacuation, assisted by consumer-chemicals from toothpaste and antacid pills to toilet cleaners
and deodorizers, from airwaves to peristaltic waves, TV programming supplied a virtualized
image of the urban life and community involvement which people were foregoing by staying
at home and watching TV. They may not have spoken to many neighbours in suburbia or in the
high-rise, or talked to fellow-shoppers in the supermarket-aisle, but they were kept in touch
with the talk and tactility of the back-alley and the street by soap opera (set in these very
neighbourhoods), magazine programmes and advertising itself. Because it was both orificial
and clean – handsomest of the ‘white goods’ – the fridge itself became a central icon in both
TV ads and in daytime TV shows, which got going in the USA in the period 1950–5. Daytime
shows and ads centred on convenience-food preparation, and on the wonders of products
which could clean, and keep clean, the house and kitchen in which these foods were stored and
prepared. This TV was explicitly educational – teaching women at home the ideology of
domesticity, and incidentally how to watch TV as part of that. Food preparation was the most
important part of it, followed by home and body hygiene. The fridge was the centre of both
of these aspects of the ideology of domesticity – it became the point of intersection between
food (sustenance) and cleanliness (maintenance).

I want to show that TV in general, and its textuality in
particular, involve much larger cultural developments, so much so that its supposed ‘behavioural
effects’ actually precede its adoption by large populations. The downside of the domestic
scenario, according to the critics, was the supposed anomie and isolation of living in nuclear
families without neighbourhood or community contacts; the supposed decline of public
civilization and national culture in the wake of the mass media; and the supposed evils of
unabashed consumerism, which was criticized on the Left for being a capitalist plot and on the
Right for debasing the taste and authority of the nation.


This pathologization of everyday life (achieved by treating social technologies as bodily
symptoms) proceeds from two things:
1. a fear of democratization, fear of a popular culture which is perceived as beyond the
control of established agencies of surveillance and discipline;
2. the ascendancy of psycho-sciences, from clinical psychology to mass media research
science, whose function and professional purpose it is to pathologize others – all others,
from individuals (clients) to populations (TV audiences).


Instead of controlling such a beast from the outside, with repressive state apparatuses
like the law, government, armed forces, prisons, police and, eventually, psychologists, it was
thought by some to be better to create the conditions for self-control and self-administration
by the populace; a regime in which their wilder tendencies would be governed by themselves.


The home became more than a
dwelling, more than a refuge – it became a lifestyle in itself and in the activities it was expected
to sustain.