Media by Choice, a research site for critics of captive-audience media, is on hiatus but all of its resources remain available. Captive-audience media is the use of audio-video media in such a way that people are forced to watch or listen to content without their consent. It’s often used in an advertising context, such as TV ads on buses or in elevators, but the issue of captive-audience media isn’t about commercial content per se. It’s about the broader issue of autonomy and sovereignty. Unlike print media, in which people choose whether or not to consume content, audio-video media is “push” media in which content is pushed out to peole without regard to their choices. Because of that, it’s the position of Media by Choice that such media shoud be provided in a way that gives people a choice in consuming it.
Unfortunately, the trend is going in the opposite direction, with media providers pushing out TV and other audio-video media in an increasing number of ways that take that choice away from consumers. TVs in Laundromat dryers is a good example. It’s touted by ad companies as a way to reach consumers while they’re doing their laundry. That’s something that many people no doubt like, because it provides a distraction to the tedium of doing one’s laundry, but not everyone does. And it’s the position of Media by Choice that such TV advertising shouldn’t be forced onto people just by virtue of their being in proximity to the screens. In the same way that print media enables people to choose whether or not they consume the media, audio-video media should be provided in a way that respects people’s rights to choose what content they consume and when.
Like many people, I believe Channel One has an indefensible business model. And for what it’s worth, I’ve criticized them for force-feeding commercial content to our children while they’re in our publicly funded schools. Shame on them and shame on the schools that work with them. But I have to give the company credit for what I believe is their utter mastery of the Google search box.
A few years ago when I was working on Noise Wars, my book about captive-audience media, I would type in search commands like Channel One foes in Google and a treasure trove of URLs linking to criticism of the company would appear. Far more came up than I could ever hope to absorb.
That certainly still happens today, but what’s new is that these URLs linking to critical pieces are outranked (or outflanked) by URLs to pieces like this:
“Obama takes direct aim at anti-government rhetoric – Channel One News”
“Kyrgyz opposition says it will rule for 6 months – Channel One News”
“Bookworm Adventures – Astounding Planet – Arcade at Channel One News”
Or if you type in Channel One is illegal (which it’s not, but this is just for illustration purposes), instead of getting URLs linking to pieces in which people call for legislation banning commercial TV in classrooms, which is what you used to get, as I recall, you get pieces like this:
“Counterfeiting – Channel One News”
“Lawsuits expected over Ariz. illegal immigrant law – Channel One News”
“Blagojevich Wiretaps Possibly Illegal – Channel One News”
And if you search somethig really inflammatory, which I don’t like to do, but for illustration purposes, if you search hate Channel One, you get results like these:
“Music on Channel One News – Hear It Now on Channel One News”
“NY teen on trial in hate crime stabbing death – Channel One News”
Of course, if you put the search terms in quotes (which I wasn’t doing) you’ll get far more URLs linking to pieces critical of the company. But my point is that it wasn’t that long ago when you could do searches without quotes and all of the pieces critical of the company would come up first, second, third, etc. But no more.
As it is, I know very little about the alchemy of SEO, but I know enough about it to suppose the company has some smart people thinking a lot about how to push down the criticism of it and pull up its artfully tagged pieces to reinforce its message that Channel One is a real news network for kids in school.
Since I’m not a student sitting in one of the classrooms with their force-fed TV content, I can’t say anything about the quality of the coverage, but I suspect the company really has made an effort to live up to its press releases. I suspect it has improved its coverage considerably knowing the eyes of its critics are on it.
With its SEO alchemy (if that’s what it is; it certainly might not be) I’m thinking it wants to show anyone doing research on it that when they try to prove how bad they are, they’re going to get instead evidence of how serious their coverage is. I mean, look at these links:
“Oil may be wreaking havoc deep beneath the Gulf – Channel One News”
“Bad habits can age you by 12 years, study suggests – Channel One News”
This is serious stuff. You can’t deny it.
But of course these types of news pieces are question begging. Kids today are awash in news outside the classroom. In many households and probably most, the TVs are on pretty much most of the time people are home, and kids are exposed to more news than they surely want to see. Thanks to not just the TVs but the radio, the Internet, the cell phones, the iPhones and now the iPads, and of course even those things with print on them—newspapers, as I recall, and magazines—not to mention the TVs in restaurants, at airports, in elevators, and on buses—what possible void or gap is the Channel One news trying to fill?
Indeed, it wouldn’t be too off the mark to say kids today are almost never out of contact with news except for the time they spend in the classroom. That’s an exaggeration, of course, but I think the point is clear. We live in the information age. No one is ever very far from the latest news. It’s literally at our fingertips whenever we want it.
Channel One says it’s trying to foster debate. Well, the kids already have the news. It’s the teachers that are there to foster debate. Teachers are the reason schools exist. Teachers say they already don’t have enough time to teach the kids, so again I ask: what gap is the company filling with its compulsory media?
The answer is, it isn’t filling any gap. No matter how deep its veneer of respectability, it’s still a veneer. Channel One exists to make money by commercial means. Its role in fostering debate in class is conducted in the service of its commercial aims. At the end of the day, it wants to connect advertisers to kids. And it can make its veneer as real looking as anything produced by CNN, but it is and always will be a veneer.
So, if you’re looking for the critics of Channel One, they’re still out there. Put quotes around your search terms and see what comes up. Or better yet, contact Commercial Alert or the Center for a Commercial Free Childhood.
Almost two-thirds of some demographic groups say TV in taxi cabs is neither informative nor entertaining, just annoying
It seems like every time you turn around, a captive-audience media company is touting a poll showing how much people love being made captive to audio-video content they haven't asked for and from which they can't escape. The polls invariably are conducted for a commission by audience-counting companies on behalf of the media company, a fact that isn't always mentioned in the press releases. It's disengenuous. But, more importantly, it makes clear that captive-audience media companies know that audience acceptance is their achilles' heel. Since they've invited themselves into people lives unasked, they have to prove to everyone that they're really welcomed guests. Certainly would-be advertisers don't want to know that the media is hated by the audience. That wouldn't sell much soda.
Media companies are right to be insecure about whether people accept their captive-audience platforms. If I dropped into someone's house univited, I would be insecure about it, too.
Earlier this week the Marist Institute of Public Opinion, a truly independent voice, released a poll showing 45 percent of New Yorkers on average nixing taxi TV as an annoyance and up to 57 percent of certain breakout groups nixing it. Among the correlations are education and income: the higher the education and income, the higher the percentage that find it annoying.
In no demographic, and in no case whatsoever, do more than half the respondents say they're OK with it.
If that's not a clear-cut indication that people don't like captive-audience media, I don't know what is, especially with the results coming from Marist, whose polls are highly regarded.
The Marist reults are in line with what we found when we were researching our book on captive-audience media called Noise Wars. The media companies would churn out press releases saying people loved being made captive to audio-video content they haven’t asked for, but when you turn to the voices of the people who are in the backseat of the cabs, or in the elevators, or in the buses, or on the trains that have the blaring media, the picture you get is very different.
The media companies are paying for surveys that put lipstick on a pig. As far as this blog is concerned, it’s time they rethink their business plan to produce audio-video content in public places only for people who ask for it. With screen filters and directional audio, the technology is there for them to do it. If they keep annoying people, they shouldn’t be surprised when captive-audience media becomes another class of regulated activity.
12 months, 12,000 views
We at Media by Choice have been unable to post in a while but we wanted to take a minute to recognize a milestone for our effort to raise awareness of what’s wrong with captive-audience media (TV and other audio and video media in places where we can’t escape it).
We launched the Media by Choice blog almost a year ago (April 19, 2009) and today, 88 posts later, we’ve attracted 12,105 views, or about 1,000 views a month, or 136 views per post on average.
We like to think of each view as an act of protest against captive-audience media. Of course, we know it’s not really like that. But one thing is clear: word is getting out. We now have other blogs linking to ours and, what’s more, people are finding the site through their searches. That tells us we’re attracting the readers we set out to attract.
And our book, Noise Wars: Compulsory Media and Our Loss of Autonomy has attracted nine reviews on Amazon. We think we’re on the right track.
Our posts on boom car noise continue to be the most heavily viewed. The most popular post of all time, with 2,665 views, is On noise, a judge who gets it, about a judge who threw the book at some men who retaliated against their neighbor for complaining about pumping their bass-heavy stereo all night. That post even generated back-and-forth commentary on Reddit, which we take as validation that the post struck a nerve.
Of more recent posts, a short piece we did on a Virginia Tech researcher who back-tracked and admitted that “TV on a stick” (billboards with TV) needs to be regulated before it becomes ubiquitous, attracted a lot of viewers. And it’s a personal favorite, too, because it captures the essence of how captive-audience media interests operate. First, they say we love their force-fed content and then they roll out research to support that. As we’ve said from the very beginning, getting surveys to support your point of view isn’t rocket science. Anyone can construct a survey instrument and set parameters on your universe of respondents to achieve the outcome you want.
In the Virginia Tech case, the researcher all but admitted that this is what happened. First, she was paid to develop research showing TV billboards are no more distracting than any other type of roadside media. She did that, but her research was rejected by the Transportation Research Board, a congressionally chartered research agency. Then she told the New York Times that she personally believes that TV billboards do cause more distraction and pose a safety hazard than conventional billboards. To us, this simply shows what we’ve contended all along, that when it comes to the research the captive-audience media touts, the emperor has no clothes. Put another way, digital out-of-home (DOOH) media are forcing highly distracting content down our throats, exploiting our involuntary attention, and holding up research they they design and commission to give them a fig leaf of validity to hide behind. Speaking for ourselves, we don’t buy it.
There’s simply no place for captive-audience media in our world. We live in a noisy, busy place and we need to be able to pick and choose when to consume audio-video media. It’s too distracting to have it forced on us. Although many people think this is a non-issue and that we ought to devote our time to ending hunger around the world, the fact is, as audio-video media continue to fill our public spaces, more people won’t find this a non-issue any longer; they will see it for what it is, the vehicle for a few people to commandeer our eyes and ears for their purposes, taking advantage of us when we can’t escape it.
Like so many media companies, the New York Times is fighting a battle to maintain its place in the journalism order as people read less and, when they do read, increasingly do it online, where so much content is free.
But the venerable newspaper is putting itself on the wrong side of history by partnering with a digital out-of-home (DOOH) TV company whose business model is based on force-feeding content to people who haven’t asked for it and in some cases can’t get away from it.
The Times announced last week that it had signed a deal with RMG Networks, a company that operates tens of thousands of screens in public places where people either can’t or have to pay a high opportunity cost to get away from the unwanted content.
The newspaper says its content will be aired exclusively on 850 screens and more screens are in the works. Mixed in with its content will be advertisements. In commenting on the deal, Linda Kaplan Thaler, an advertising agency executive, says advertisers like these screens because people often have little choice but to consume the content because people become “captive for a while.”
In saying that its content will air on the 850 screens, the New York Times is being disingenuous. What it really means is its content will be force-fed to people who are in proximity to the screens and who can’t just walk away if they don’t want the unwanted intrusion.
Although we at Media by Choice understand the economic pressure even admirable media companies are under, force-feeding their content to people is a short-term tactic that adds to the visual and audio noise from which people today are trying to escape. We think the New York Times is smirching its good name by stooping to something as crass as digital out-of-home media.
The captive-audience media industry in 2007 paid researchers at the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute to look at digital billboards—what some people call television on a stick—and found, unsurprisingly, that the billboards don’t pose a distracted-driver problem beyond that of any other type of billboard.
Critics of the billboards say the research was flawed and point to its rejection for publication by the Transportation Research Board, the congressionally chartered agency.
While the debate over the quality of the research will surely go on, what’s clear is that even the lead researcher on the project says regulation is needed for billboards that use flashing lights and quick movement to attract people’s attention.
“If we don’t . . . get on top of this right now while the capabilities are expanding, every roadway will be filled with flashing lights and video,” says the researcher, Suzanne Lee.
Lee is quoted in the March 3 New York Times in a major feature on the controversy over digital billboards, what we on this blog call captive-audience media.
We at Media by Choice have to pause and savor the irony: the Digital out-of-home (DOOH) media industry paid Lee to conduct her research and she did what she was paid to do: find that digital billboards are no more distracting than regular billboards. But now the researcher is telling journalists that, despite what her industry-paid research says, she believes the billboards do in fact up the distraction level.
From our point of view, there’s no mystery to this. Digital billboards exploit what scientists call our involuntary attention. Like TVs in places where we have no choice but to watch them—like in elevators or on buses—digital billboards use our involuntary attention not to protect us against big cats slinking through tall grass on the Serengeti but to hit us with audio-video content that no one has asked for yet isn’t allowed to escape.
Given the massive investment in money and other resources by media and other companies into captive-audience media, the growth of high-distraction platforms like digital billboards is like a big ship that simply can’t turn back. But as the researcher Suzanne Lee says, the time to look at and understand the impact this media has on us is now—while we’re still on the front end of this growth curb. What we mustn’t do is wait until so many tens of billions of dollars have been invested that no one is willing to say that this juggernaut of inescapable media has no clothes.
Do we have a constitutional right to privacy? Since 1965 the U.S Supreme Court has built a trail of case law saying a right to privacy is enshrined in the concept of “liberty” in the Fifth Amendment (“nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law”).
The 1965 case that started this trail going was Griswold v. Connecticut, which said people’s right to privacy protects against government prohibition of their use of contraception in their home.
Thanks to a review of my book Noise Wars in the blog Legal Legacy, I learned that Justice William O. Douglas, who led the effort to enshrine privacy in the Constitution in Griswold, tried to do that earlier, in a captive-audience media case I mentioned in my book.
The case was Public Utilities Commission v. Pollak and involved the piping-in of commercial radio on a commuter train in Washington, D.C., in the early 1950s. People objected to being made a captive audience to media that they couldn’t ignore or tune out, but the court ruled that riders had given their tacit approval of the media by boarding the train.
In his dissent, Douglas said many people had no choice but to take the train. But, more fundamentally, the force-feeding of content that people can’t ignore constitutes a violation of their liberty, which includes their right to privacy.
Douglas’ dissent is essential reading for anyone concerned about the proliferation of captive-audience media, but the fact remains that he failed in his attempt to enshrine the idea of privacy as a subset of our right to liberty in the case.
But he did succeed about a decade later, in Griswold, and as the reviewers at Legal Legacy say, it’s an interesting question to look at how the post-Griswold right to privacy interacts with the idea of audience captivity.
The Supreme Court has already said that government has the right, without violating people’s right to free speech, to regulate the force-feeding of intrusive content. That right was established a few years prior to the commuter train case when the Supreme Court in Kovacs v. Cooper said it was OK for a city to impose a ban on audio trucks (trucks that drive around blaring audio content from a speaker).
Thanks to Legal Legacy for such a thought-provoking review of Noise Wars. What I take away from their review is that law is never a settled matter. Just look at the sweeping ruling last week from the Suprme Court treating corporations as citizens with free speech rights similar to individuals. Decisions don’t get any more radical than that, and it shows the ever-changing dynamic of law.
Everyone has a story about the annoying person with the cell phone. You’re trying to have a nice dinner or watch a movie at the theater and there’s this inconsiderate person ruining the experience for others by talking on his cell phone, as if the laws of civility don’t apply to him.
In the same manner, everyone has a story about how much they dislike commercials at the movies. Of all the types of audience captivity that people dislike, commercials at the movies is one that is nearly universally shared.
So I’m not surprised to learn about the Captive Motion Picture Audience of America.
CMPAA sounds like a group but its really an effort, or objective, to make executives at movie theaters understand that pre-movie ads alienate their customers.
Of course, executives at movie theaters have no intention of eliminating their ads, just as executives involved in other types of captive-audience platforms—TVs on gas pumps, in elevators, on trains and buses, even in restrooms—have no intention of eliminating theirs.
It’s worth asking why these media executives don’t recognize that a significant portion of consumers resent and take offense at having their involuntary-attention button pushed by being made captive to audio-video media they haven’t asked for.
But be that as it may, CMPAA has had mixed success in its effort to get theater owners to do the right thing.
It can take some satisfaction in a move, led by Loews in 2005, to start publicizing more information about the starting times of its movies. It’s safe to say that Loews’ decision wasn’t because the company suddenly questioned its tactic of force-feeding commercials to consumers in a venue that they had paid to be in; it’s more likely a class-action lawsuit against it and a flurry of bills in state legislatures had changed its thinking.
Both the lawsuit and the bills weren’t about stopping pre-movie ads but empowering consumers to decide whether or not they wanted to sit through them. To remove this albatross from around its neck, Loews started disclosing the actual start time of its movies rather than, as had been its practice, the start time of the ads.
Once the company made that move, the class-action lawsuit on behalf of movie-goers who took offense at being made captive to ads became moot and was dismissed. Same thing with the state legislative efforts.
CMPAA would still like to see pre-movie ads gone, though, and it maintains a petition for people to sign calling for their outright elimination. The petition singles out Regal Entertainment Group, which CMPAA says has a near-monopoly on first-run movies throughout the United States. 3,500 people had signed it as of this writing.
Here’s what some of them say:
“I’ve stopped going to movies because of the commercials.”
“Greed gone insane!”
“We are fed up with paying for movies only to be held ‘captive’ watching advertising. We have decided to stop going to movies until this scam is stopped.”
“Everyone hates your ads, so please stop.”
“I will stop giving them my business if they don’t stop.”
Can anything be more clear? What’s unfortunate is this kind of outrage is only set to grow as executives continue to push intrusive TV and other audio-video media into places outside the home where people can’t escape it. No matter what the content, the resentment will only build. Do we have to let this train wreck happen?
Take our survey
Is TV in public places good or bad? Let us know your thoughts in this Media by Choice survey on the good and the bad of TV in public places such as elevators, taxi cabs, subways, trains, buses, airport gates, doctor’s offices, office and hotel lobbies, and so on. Click here to take survey.
Audience engagement is one of the subjects always under discussion among media people involved in digital out-of-home audio-video media, what we call captive-audience media in this blog because it involves intrusive content pushed out to people who haven’t asked for it.
Media executives typically tout studies they’ve commissioned showing how much their content engages people, and they deploy cool words like “trafficking,” “aggregation,” and “lifestage” in talking about out-of-home media.
I always get suspicious when companies use words like “media currency,” “thought leading,” and “psychographic” to talk about what they’re doing, because words like that are meant to obscure, not enlighten, kind of like the military using “vertical insertion” to talk about commandos parachuting behind enemy lives or “decommissioned aggressor quantum” to talk about dead enemy soldiers.
In their press releases and white papers, captive-audience media companies tout how much people notice and are engaged by their content. The “notice” part I can understand, because biologically we can’t help but notice moving pictures on a screen, especially when coupled with audio. Researchers say this media commands our “involuntary attention” in the same way that a leopard sneaking through the grass in the serengeti involuntarily attracts our attention when we’re out there hunting and gathering. Focusing on things that move and make noise around us has helped us survive as a species, and now it’s helping media companies launch platforms that attract advertisers.
The “engaged” part I’m not so sure about. Yes, I know there are impressive looking reports and stuff out there showing how much captive-audience TV networks like the one in Wal-Mart please us, but I’m just not sure “engaged” means the same thing to me as to a media executive who’s trying to convince advertisers that these plaforms are a good thing.
Here’s a quick quiz. Is the person below, who talks about buying flannel sheets at Wal-Mart, engaged?
“The Wal-Mart I went to has television screens hanging from the ceiling throughout the store. Every single one is playing commercials for items you can buy at Wal-Mart. They all have the sound turned on . . . . Even at the cash register, while still waiting on line, a flat screen TV pointed at the line played a different stream of commercials, conflicting with the nearby ceiling television. . . . I guess I get what I deserve for shopping there. These advertisements were in annoying places. (I did get a measure of revenge, however. While walking past the electronics department, I used my TV-B-Gone to turn off half a bank of televisions on display. It was unfortunate that my TV-B-Gone wouldn’t shut off any of the ceiling TVs.)”—Maria Langer
Maria has definitely noticed the TVs. But is she engaged?
How about this person?
“Those damn TVs are one of the biggest reasons I avoid going in [Wal-Mart]. The whole damn store is loud and makes me very irritable. . . . I’ll pay a couple extra cents for peace.” –ib
In my book, engagement occurs only when two parties mutually and willingly come together, as in an engagement for marriage.
Wal-Mart TV strikes me as invoving a different kind of engagement—the kind in which my girlfriend’s father is pointing a shotgun at me. I guess in this case I’ll enter into an engagement with her.
Wal-Mart’s free to do whatever it wants, of course. But there’s engagement and then there’s bludgeoning. When I turn on the TV at home and choose to watch a program, I’m engaged with the content; when I step into a Wal-Mart to buy flannel sheets and have my involuntary-attention button pushed, I’m bludgeoned by the content.
One industry analyst calls out-of-home media “imperative” media. In a report that mentions his remarks, “imperative” media is defined as media that garners and compels attention when presented at “points of intention.”
You could write an essay unpacking those terms, but the short of it is, in my opinion, the terms are gobbeldygook for media that pushes your involuntary-attention button. Industry supporters can talk in circles around the issue all they want, but all they’re really saying is, you’re going to consume this content whether you want to or not, and we’re going to couch it in business jargon to give the impression that somehow you’ve made a choice to consume it.
You go to Wal-Mart to buy flannel sheets, not watch TV commercials. The TV commercials are the price you pay to get the discount or the selection or the convenience or whatever else Wal-Mart offers, so your only choice is whether you’re willing to pay that price. If you choose not to pay that price, the opportunity cost falls on you to find some other place at which to buy your sheets.
I can’t speak for Maria, but I think there’s a good chance she’ll be willing to pay that opportunity cost to buy her flannel sheets somewhere else next time.
Note: Media by Choice has been online for 10 months now and has generated 11,270 views, or 1,127 views a month on average. The top two posts are On noise, a judge who gets it (2,661 views) and Boom cars: the constitutionality of nose thumbing (1,598 views). Thank you to all of our readers.