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Home Entertainment...or Escape? - 2002-08-09

More than 20 million American households now include something called a "home entertainment center." Fans of these multimedia home systems say they have a positive nesting effect, drawing families together. But, others say these expensive home theaters are just the latest electronic toys that are isolating Americans from one another.

In an estimated 23 percent of American homes, families are "getting away to a movie" right at home. Stephen Gates, a spokesman for the Consumer Electronics Association, says home-entertainment centers typically consist of a DVD (digital video disc), recorder and player, a projector, a VERY large-screen receiver, and four or five speakers of what's called "surround sound" - all in a room set aside especially for this experience.

"It's time with your family, in your own home, without the hassles of other people being around. You know, the price of popcorn has always been relatively cheap in my own home. You don't have the annoyance of other people getting up and down, cell phones ringing. You know exactly where the bathroom is. If you need to pause the movie, by all means, go ahead and do it while you tend to something else. The conveniences have always been there. The technology has really caught up now to give people a much more complete experience."

Recently The Christian Science Monitor newspaper told the story of a man in Auburn, Massachusetts, who installed six actual movie-theater seats in his recreation room, where he and his family and guests watch movies on a 250-centimeter screen. "If I had the choice," the man told the newspaper, "I would never leave the house. I'm in control of every aspect of the experience here."

Suzie Prokell of Fort Worth, Texas, her husband, and their three children just moved into a home that has a built-in media room that the family loves.

"With the kids, it's wonderful," she says. "If somebody has a dirty diaper, or somebody's hungry, you can just kind of pause the movie and go into the next room and take care of what you need to take care of and come back. It allows us to spend more time together, because, when you have three children - to schedule child care and pay for it, and then to go out and pay for the movie - it's a lot. This way we go into our media room. The kids have sleeping bags and bean bags all over the floor. We've got the chairs we want, the food we want. It really is the neatest experience to have in your house."

The movies are inexpensive to rent, there's no searching for a parking place at the theater, and you can watch your favorite flicks any time of day or night. But is this entertainment or escape? Are these new multimedia pods further isolating Americans - as some behaviorists say air conditioning, swimming pools, television, and computers have already done?

Bernard Beck, a sociology professor at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, says high-tech entertainment centers are not quite the cozy cocoons we sometimes imagine.

"Very often the home-entertainment center becomes sort of like a time-share [apartment]. It's not so much that they're all together as that each member of the family gets to use it at a different time for his or her own social entertaining," he says. "The kids will invite their friends over to watch this, and the adults will invite their friends over to watch their own particular shows to their taste, and the question is, 'Who gets it when?' The actual amount of time when the family is sitting together at the entertainment center, I would have to see evidence that this really occurs."

Fern Reiss, who lives in Boston with her husband and three children, has written several books, including one about how to comfort kids in an age of terrorism. She sees a direct link between the events of last September 11th and the accelerated interest in home-based entertainment.

"What I see is what I call a sort of 'circling the wagons' mentality, where people are suddenly realizing they want to spend more time with their families," she says. "They want to spend more time at home. Whatever that means, they're bringing it in. You're seeing people who used to spend every night going out to restaurants, suddenly they've got a crock pot, and they're cookin' at home. And they're bringing food in rather than eating at restaurants. You see people who used to go out to the movies every night, or go to theater, suddenly they're buying entertainment systems. They're bringing movies in rather than going out. You're seeing it with vacations. You're seeing people who used to take really lavish vacations in foreign countries, all of a sudden they're taking driving vacations."

University of New Hampshire communications professor Joshua Meyrowitz wrote a book called No Sense of Place. He says there's confusion in America, these days, between things that happen in public and in private. We listen to music in headsets on a crowded bus, and we watch big-screen movies in our living rooms.

"The home has become such a porous environment now, where it's no longer a sanctuary from work," he says. "People call us. They page us. They leave messages on our answering machines. Our boss sends us e-mail that we retrieve at home. And so I think when people set up these intense technological experiences in rooms in their homes, where they have multiple speakers and intensely clear video, they're partly trying to recreate a kind of protected environment that stops the ring of the telephone, literally and metaphorically, where we kind of cut off other experiences and have this one, protected entertainment experience."

At the Consumer Electronics Show in early August in Las Vegas, Nevada, several exhibits showed off the various pieces of a home theater - including gigantic "flat screens" with high-definition picture quality, speakers of all sizes and shapes, remote controls, reclining chairs, and the wires and cables needed to bring the package together. Total cost to anyone who would choose a high-quality item from each booth - $35,000.

That's about a year's pay for an average American librarian, teacher, or firefighter.