Sunday, February 7, 2016

Still Waiting: In Defense of Ambient Television (Core Post)

This week I was talking to a (non-grad-school) friend about some of the stuff we're reading in this course and mentioned "Television While You Wait." Her quick response was a chuckle and then a comment about how out-of-date that was now that so many people have phones with small TV/Internet screens on them. Her point was that we don't really watch ambient TV anymore the way we might have 10 or more years ago.

At first I was inclined to agree with her—when I've recently been in an airport or a doctor's office that has an ambient screen it's not really regulating or helping to pass the time, but just on in the background, desperately trying to get my attention as I look at my phone. These screens are still there, and I'm sure companies still pay a good amount of money to have them there, but they're less important. I began to think about it more and ultimately came around to a different conclusion.

First, most of these TVs have sound and most times this is loud enough to let you hear them from 15-30 feet away (ideal if you're across a room and want to hear them). In my experience I can look away from the monitor, but I can't totally avoid the sound they make. Certainly some people travel on planes with noise-cancelling headphones, but they're expensive and not pervasively used. I can certainly hear these programs and, at an airport with CNN, can know when the show changes over on the hour, which does still regulate my time, considering I'm waiting for a flight that will board at a certain time before or after the hour.

Next, I think the way people use phones in the airport/waiting room and get annoyed that there's a screen emitting image and sound has a lot to do with McCarthy's point that these screens are "a part of the syntagm of information dissemination" that "links the activity of passing time to the enduring institutional goals of education and information, that Foucault defines "as a central function of clinical space" (201). I think we get frustrated knowing what is being done to us and now we have the ability to do the opposite of the goals of the space. This rejection of power, however, is also an acknowledgement of it. I don't want to see a video about good care of my gums and now I don't have to watch (while in 2001 McCarthy might have had to).

Furthermore, I have been in airports and waiting rooms in the era of screen-phones and have experienced people watching the TV rather than looking at their device to get the news. When I was getting on a plane at the same time as the 2008 Vice Presidential Debate, it seemed like everyone in the terminal was watching the TV. Granted, not everyone had a smart phone by then, but the class of people who were taking a night flight largely had the ability to watch or read somewhere other than the television and didn't. As we've talked about in class, there are certain things that one feels obliged to watch live. It's also possible now to watch the screen and listen to music, getting a certain amount of information from the b-roll they show. This is a bit different from the purely institutional programming McCarthy talks about, but it's still people watching TV while waiting and not only looking at their phones.

Finally, I do think there's a dangerous assumption of class baked into my friend's comment about small phone screens and that the lower down the socioeconomic pole we go, the less likely it is for people to have the ability to watch things on phones or have noise-cancelling headphones to eliminate the noise. It's true that lots of people do sit in a waiting room and watch their phones, but I also think these people might be a bit richer than those who don't, those who have temporary/disposable/burner phones and might not have as much media on it to watch. It's possible that someone with a more physical labor job might enjoy the "'dead time' of waiting" (216) in a doctor's office as a rest from the tiring work the would otherwise be doing.


  1. Very insightful post Aaron, I too agree that screens within the public space are still being viewed, despite the introduction of our phone screens. Besides the fact that people are conscious of their phone data and battery life, intermittently people eventually tend to look when they are engrossed with their phones. Also, doctor's offices quite often provide users with wifi that when connected to, connects the ( patiently waiting patient ) ( haha I am terrible) to a health related website that mimics the structure of the television program.

    Anyway, I think the emptiness of a waiting room and how the television is positioned usually lures a person into looking. Watching on their phone is not always the option for patients in a waiting room because of the need to be attentive to listen out for ones name. I do wonder though how the idea of this television in waiting rooms compares to televisions in restaurants/bars. Even though they both can be viewed during waiting, the idea that a waiting room is cutoff from the outside world and plays an endless loop of programming for some reason becomes luring after waiting in a medical office for over an hour. It is that aggravation of waiting in the same space for so long that eventually causes a person to analyze their surroundings, and instead of looking at other angry people, you watch the television and become trapped in endless "Did You know" facts and high blood pressure pill advertisements.

  2. There's a lot here to chew on, but I think what's most interesting that you point out is the expectation that there should be this TV background, even if we don't choose to watch it. The few recent times I've been in auto mechanic waiting rooms I've certainly seen a TV in the background, and then distracted it with another screen (my phone). But I think the real test of this are the spaces we're told to turn off our phones and how those are now populated with screens. Most planes I've taken in the last year have the personal screens (you can control more if you pay). We're not losing screens as much as gaining screens, which is now a competitive market in itself (TV, iPhone, or iPad?), or we're finding a way to fuse them together and have a "second screen experience" (just think about all those damn polls they want you to participate in if you watch the debate on CNN). But we still need some role for communal TV—you don't expect to go to a sports bar and have an individual TV at your table—and I think that seems rather part of the experience of TV simply folding into every day experience.