"What we are really seeing," says Zerubavel, "is a reaction to bureaucratization, and a redefinition of privatization. As people use computers at home instead of working in offices, they will lose their sense of boundaries and the home will represent something less private. Instead of going to bars or the town square, they will be able to meet people via their computer terminals. And that will lead to a lack of desire to lead a public life."
Peter Cohn, a 31-year-old Manhattan screenwriter, puts it more simply. "The motto of this generation," Cohn says, "is TBIF—'Too Bad It's Friday.' "
Since Couch Potatoes spend most of their time indoors and in private, you may be wondering how to spot one. Here is a brief guide to the salient characteristics of a Couch Potato:
Couch Potatoes often share their living space with at least one other Couch Potato, usually a spouse, and often with at least one child, or New Potato.
Couch Potatoes own a VCR and are thinking of buying a new one, frequently rent Splash and the films of Paul Mazursky, and often feel that they belong to the wrong video club.
Couch Potatoes do not attend events at Lincoln Center.
Couch Potatoes have watched at least three recent episodes of Murder, She Wrote and usually figured out who did it before the first commercial.
Couch Potatoes love to live in New York because of all the wonderful cultural opportunities.
"I can either not go out," says VH-1's Jessica Falcon, "or go out and be miserable. It's an easy choice."
There is no way to prove that the number of Couch Potatoes has increased, but the National Center for Health Statistics documents the widely held notion that more people are getting married later and having children later—which is the most important motivational force behind the trend. In 1963, the center's studies put the median age for marriage at 21 for women and 24 for men; by 1984, the median number had climbed to 23 for women and 27 for men.
And children have followed. In 1984, the last year for which the center has figures, women 30 and older gave birth to 882,205 babies—a 69 percent increase over a decade earlier, when women in that age group had only 520,611 babies.
But while every generation gets married and has kids, one technological innovation has made this generation more supine than ever: the videocassette recorder, the magic machine of the new Couch Potato.
VCRs have come close to overtaking all forms of live, outside-the-house entertainment. In 1986, the number of video-cassettes rented (1 billion) matched the number of movie tickets that were sold. Close to 45 million homes now have VCRs—more than half of the nation's TV households. An Arbitron survey last November showed that in New York City, roughly 3 million households, or 44 percent, owned a VCR.
The growth has taken place largely over the last five years: In 1981, Americans spent only $141.8 million on videocassette rentals, and by 1985, that figure had grown more than ten times, to almost $1.7 billion. A recent survey showed that one week in March, 41 percent of American households with VCRs rented at least one videocassette. And on top of that, Americans bought 275 million blank videocassettes in 1986.
This isn't meant to suggest that other cultural offerings have suffered at the hand of the VCR. But many are dependent on suburbanites, tourists, and older people for business.
At the New York City Ballet, for example, more than half the season-ticket holders are 50 or older, and about half come from outside the city. The League of American Theatres and Producers reports that only one in four Broadway-ticket buyers comes from Manhattan; a spokesman has his fingers crossed that "when the baby-boomers' kids grow up, they'll come to Broadway." With The Mystery of Edwin Drood, the New York Shakespeare Festival went so far as to assemble yuppie focus groups to find out why more of them weren't buying tickets and what could be done to attract them.
And then there's that most telling statistic of all: couch sales. They're way up.
A spokeswoman at Conran's reports that sales of quality furniture in general have grown in recent years. "People want the absolute best furniture they can get," the spokeswoman says, "and of course they want it as cheaply as possible." But still, she reports that the store's most expensive, comfortable couch—the Burnham, which can cost as much as $1,111.78—is the most popular item in its upholstery line. "There's no question that people want more comfort in their couches," she says.
William Geist, who is both a confirmed Couch Potato and a chronicler of social trends for the New York Times, tells of standing in front of popular downtown nightclubs at ten at night pleading with doormen to let him and his wife into the exclusive domain. "But you have to let me in," the bushy-haired 42-year-old would beg. "We have a sitter!"