Archive for June, 2009
News flash: a captive-audience media company just announced a deal to provide content to a network of TVs in a chain of fast food restaurants. The content mix? Sports, music, and entertainment.
Thank goodness. You have to admit that there’s a terrible shortage of sports, music, and entertainment on TVs outside the home today. I know that every bar I go into to get a beer has sports, music, and entertainment on the TVs, but I can’t always get to a bar when I want. And even though a lot of the restaurants I go into now have TVs and also play sports, music, and entertainment, sometimes I just don’t feel like spending $25 for lunch. So where does that leave me? A fast food restaurant. Now when I go there I can be sure to have sports, music, and entertainment programming to watch.
When I take my clothes to the coin laundry, the TVs there also have sports, music, and entertainment playing, but I only do my laundry once a week, so I can miss a lot on the days when I’m not there. Of course, the TVs on the bus I take to work always play sports, music, and entertainment, too, so I guess I don’t have to totally miss out on what’s happening in the world of sports, music, and entertainment.
Luckily the elevators in my office have these little TVs, and wouldn’t you know it, but they keep me covered on the sports, music, and entertainment front as well. These TVs don’t have audio (darn!), but luckily the words are pretty short and there aren’t too many of them. In any case, it doesn’t really matter what they’re saying because I’m just looking at the pictures of people doing something with a ball or jumping up and down on a stage, sometimes holding a microphone close to their mouth and looking kind of emotional, like they’re feeling a lot of feelings or something.
I have to say that the breakroom in our office has a nice flat screen TV and it’s a great place to catch up on what’s happening in the world of sports, music, and entertainment. There had been a couple of developments with the actors and actresses of a popular TV show and it was killing me to find out whether they had come to a resolution. I think two of them were dating in real life and one of them had an affair or wanted to start a charity or something and the other one was seen at a Broadway premier or something with someone else, so you can see how much you can miss if you don’t stay connected to these developments.
It’s true I can usually get pretty caught up once I’m home from work. I mean, I’m typically able to squeeze in a good three hours of TV during and after dinner. On the weekends I usually have the TV on pretty much the whole day, so I tend to get really caught up on all the latest. But even so, it’s comforting to know that the TVs in the fast food place will be showing sports, music, and entertainment. I would hate to think I might miss something.
In case it escaped your attention, June 12 was the big digital TV switchover day. Congress had spent more time debating, throwing money at, and wringing its hands over this big day than it has over some arguably much higher priority issues, like, um, the collapse of print journalism. Congress, it seems, is just as addicted to TV as the rest of us and, like a true enabler, wanted to be sure we could all keep getting our fix when TV broadcasters made the final switch away from analog TV on the big June 12 day. For that reason it had found millions of dollars in the federal budget, despite the deficit, and despite the fact that things like, um, education are so sorely under-funded, to make sure all of us can keep watching TV after June 12.
So the big day came and went and apparently 2.2 percent of TV-watching households, which adds up to millions of people, never made the switch and, what’s more, never complained when their TVs went dark on June 13. And that 2.2 percent wasn’t just regular households but households who participate in Nielsen surveys, so we know these are true TV watching households and their ranks don’t include any odd-ball TV-free households.
According to a news write-up in Media Post, the National Association of Broadcasters had braced itself for a deluge of panicked calls from households to find out why their TVs no longer work but instead of a deluge they received only a trickle, and the calls weren’t even about the blackout,. Rather, they were from people who had already made the switch and were just trying to find out how to make their converter box work correctly.
It would be nice to believe that the millions of people who let their TV go dark had decided they were watching too much TV anyway and taking a break from it wouldn’t be a bad thing, but that’s probably too optimistic. The more likely explanation is that people had bought a digital set as a second TV and had just allowed their non-digital TV go dark, or that they’re just watching TV in other ways, including over the Internet.
Even so, it’s nice to see Media Post cover the issue with this headline: “Millions of TV viewers go dark, few complain.”
With such a headline we can at least pretend that peopled aren’t as addicted to TV as we thought. But we know the reality is closer to this June 18 headline in the Onion: “Report: 90 percent of waking hours spent staring at glowing rectangles.”
Leave it to the Onion to return us to reality.
ATVs, boom cars, and captive-audience media have a lot in common
A piece several weeks ago in the Washington Post talks about a big rise in the number and intensity of dust storms in the western part of the United States. What’s the cause? Some scientists chalk it up in part to the growing popularity of recreational off-road vehicle use. These ATVs (all-terrain vehicles) make a lot of noise and kick up a lot of dust, but the real problem they cause is the long-term damage to the land. By tearing up the land, they disturb soil, disrupt growing seasons, and hasten erosion.
ATV use isn’t the only cause under investigation, but it’s a big suspect because recreational ATV use jumped 19 percent between 2004 and 2008, and that rise parallels the rise in serious dust storms.
The dust storms are just the latest apparent side-effect of increased ATV use. Ever since ATVs became a popular form of outdoor recreation, the number and scale of conflicts between ATV riders and other users of public land have escalated. According to a few pieces published in the Washington Post and New York Times in the last year or so, these conflicts can be nasty, with ATV riders intimidating hikers and others who are trying to use the trails for their own peaceful enjoyment. Sometimes the conflicts turn violent. In virtually every case it’s the ATV rider who acts with violence against the others, and the argument is always the same: these are public lands, and I’m doing what I’m entitled to do on them, so you can just bug off.
But the two types of users–the ATV rider and the hiker–are not equal. The ATV rider is a user of the land–he kicks up dust, rips up the ground, and belches out ear-piercing noise–while the hiker, at least ideally, is a steward of the land. The hiker’s use does nothing to impede the ATV rider’s ability to enjoy the land, but the ATV rider’s use very much impedes the hiker’s ability to enjoy the land. Not only does the noise and dust of ATV riding ruin the quality of the outdoor experience for the hiker, but by ripping up the land the ATV rider degrades the environment for everyone, including our future generations.
The conflict between ATV riders and hikers is a lot like the conflict between boom car owners and pedestrians. If you’re not familiar with boom cars in name you’re probably familiar with them in practice. These are the cars with souped-up stereos that pump out earth-shaking music, particularly in the low bass registers. Newspapers are full of stories of conflicts turning violent when pedestrians confront boom car owners.
Like ATV riders, boom car owners are using the space we share with one another for their own private end, commandeering it, in fact. They make it hard for others to enjoy their time outside. They impose their noise on others. Theirs is a one-sided used of our resources.
Captive-audience media is cut from the same cloth as ATVs and boom cars, except that it comes with a commercial or institutional imprimatur. Although captive-audience media doesn’t make earth-rattling noise like an ATV or a boom car, it imposes itself on our shared space and forces anyone within that space to consume its content. Not everyone is equally successful at tuning out unwanted TV or other intrusive media.
Clearly, resource depleting ATVs are very different from a TV on a commuter bus or at a bus stop. But we shouldn’t let their different natures obscure what’s identical between them: they both impose themselves on their environment in a one-sided way that sucks the oxygen out of alternative types of uses for that environment.
The Knight Foundation has been working hard at a crucial task—to make sure we remain informed as citizens of a democracy in an age when access to daily newspaper and local TV journalism is no longer a given. The need for such a project is clear. The future of local daily news reporting is very much in doubt as news organizations disappear, consolidate with others, and cut staff.
It’s been a concern of this blog that the vacuum left by news organization will be filled by captive-audience media platforms (audio-video content in places where we are forced to watch, even if we don’t want to), and that these platforms will use our common space such as buses and street corners to provide insipid commercial content masquerading as news.
For this reason we weren’t at all heartened when the Knight Foundation this week announced that one of the recipients of its grant funds relies on a captive-audience platform to engage citizens. As much as we want to support the Knight Foundation in its work, we’re troubled by any platform that commandeers common space for the broadcasting of audio-video content, no matter how clever it’s done or how well-intentioned its purpose. It’s our view that permitting the use of audio-video media in out common space for one type of use opens the door for every other type of use, which in turn opens the door for an intolerable level of media noise in an environment—common space—that should be free of any kind of “push” content—that is, content that is pushed out to people without regard to whether they want it or not.
In the case of this Knight Foundation project, life-sized audio-video projections of residents and community life of one Boston neighborhood are broadcast to residents of another Boston neighborhood, and vice-versa, with the goal of facilitating a better understanding between the residents of the two neighborhoods. That part of the project is the good part. The bad part is the location of the audio-video projections: on a public street corner in each of the two neighborhoods.
It’s the view if this blog that pushing out audio-video content in our common space, regardless of the content, is an inappropriate use of that space. The only appropriate way to provide content is by giving people the choice to consume it or not. People who don’t want to consume audio-video content on a street corner are given only a negative choice—to go elsewhere. That forces them to take action that often comes at a high opportunity cost to them.
The news business faces an uncertain future but pushing out audio-video content to people who haven’t asked for that content is no solution; to us that looks like a vanity project that only legitimizes the commercial exploitation of our common space that we’re already witnessing.
Sorry, Knight Foundation, but on this one we think you missed the mark.
The world has always been a noisy place but today the noise is a byproduct of our leisure, not our industry: the teenager driving his “boom car,” the biker making the scene with his “loud pipes,” even the neighbor who watches the game on his large-screen TV in his backyard.
It’s not a stretch to say noise is a consumer trend that’s hot and getting hotter. Coming to a store near you are the “Hornblaster,” a 150-decibel car horn that can make a grown man leap in fear, the “Rumbler,” a low-frequency siren that can shake the ground up to 300 feet away, and the “Boombox on a pack,” a portable stereo with digital amplifier and coaxial speakers.
If it seems like the Wild West all over again, at least when it comes to noise, it’s because no one’s minding the store. State and local governments are trying the best they can to regulate noise but their authority is limited and their budgets strained. More to the point, trying to regulate noise nuisances like boom cars at the street level is like trying to curb second-hand smoke by wagging your finger every time you see someone light up. It’s a lot of work for little gain.
The only truly effective way to regulate a nuisance is from the top down: leave the smoker alone and go after the companies that try to get people addicted to smoking.
With second-hand smoke, that’s exactly what we did and while we still have a lot of smokers, our cultural mindset about it has shifted. Smoking has become such a phyrric activity that even if you wanted to go around wagging your finger at smokers, you’d have to spend part of your day looking for them in designated smoking areas.
When it comes to Hornblasters, Rumblers, and Boomboxes on a pack, the same top-down approach is needed to change our cultural mindset about such nuisances. People have to stop thinking they’re cool. But we start at a disadvantage because we have no federal platform for regulating noise.
We had such a platform at one time. The federal government in the early 1970s recognized noise as an environmental hazard and created the Office of Noise Abatement and Control (ONAC) within the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, but it only lasted about a decade before Congress de-funded the agency’s programs as part of the massive budget cutting effort undertaken when Ronald Reagan became president. It didn’t hurt that the businesses that faced regulation under ONAC we’re only too happy to see the office disappear.
ONAC is still with us in latent form, because Congress only cut its funding; it didn’t rescind its enabling authority. So, the only thing that’s needed to get the federal government back into the business of regulating noise is money.
It’s for this reason that Noise Free America is pushing the Obama administration to restore funding authority for ONAC. The nonprofit organization makes a compelling case in a proposal it developed called “The American Noise Pollution Epidemic: The Pressing Need to Reestablish the Office of Noise Control and Abatement.”
The proposal is detailed and compelling. The group deserves credit for identifying an action that not only is well within our reach but that would have a forceful impact. Of course, the business interests that were only too happy to see ONAC go away would just as much like to see it stay away, so any effort to get the office re-established will face resistance.
But as we saw with the issue of second-hand smoke, where there’s a will there’s a way. Even the powerful tobacco lobby couldn’t stop what clearly needed to be done. We’ll see similar success here, although it will take work and time, because this is something that needs to be done. People who are quiet today about noise nuisances like boom cars won’t be quiet tomorrow; they’ll see that such nuisances are no longer isolated instances but part of systemic changes that can’t be allowed to take deep root.
Robert Kenner won’t eat strawberries. A few years ago the filmmaker was pretty much like the rest of us, cooking and enjoying food without worrying too much about it but in the course of learning about how food in the United States is grown and processed, his views changed and he became radicalized. The reason? The use of chemicals and bioengineering has become so inseparable from mass production processes that the food we have on our plates today bears little resemblance to the food we had on our plates yesterday, even though it looks the same.
As you would expect, Kenner is persona non grata in the food industry. When his film, Food, Inc., starts hitting the screen soon, we’ll get a chance to see what the food industry is like from a person who cares about the quality of food he eats. This will be a very different picture from the prettified view the food industry wants us to have. Indeed, if industrialized food processors had their way, we wouldn’t even think about where our food comes from and how it gets to our plate but would rather just eat it without question and leave the messy details to the experts.
If you switch out “industrial food processors” with “industrial media companies” you pretty much have the same picture with captive-audience media. Companies that specialize in force-feeding us audio and video content in our common spaces such as buses and trains, on street corners, in taxis and elevators, office lobbies, doctors’ offices and hospitals, public restrooms, and on down the line, would like us to accept the spread of such media unthinkingly, almost as if the introduction of such media is part of the natural order of things.
The business model of these media companies is dependent on making us believe that we enjoy having audio and video content pushed out to us, otherwise their income source—advertisers—would balk. No advertiser wants to risk its brand equity on an out-of-home media network if the audience is uniformly hostile to the intrusion.
That’s why we could fill a bookcase with the number of press releases from media companies touting this study or that study showing how much we love their force-fed content.
TV in the waiting rooms of doctors’ offices? We love it. The content is engaging and informative. TV in grocery stores? We love it. The content is relevant to our purchase decisions. TV on gas pumps? Excellent. We don’t want to forget to pick up that soda in the convenience store.
The only problem with this picture is that many people don’t accept it. It’s not the particular content they object to—its all mind numbingly the same, hardly even worth having an opinion on—it’s the intrusion of the audio and visual noise.
The fact is, TV is hard to ignore. It’s precisely because of this fact that media companies love TV outside the home. That person barking about the quality of the tomatoes on a TV screen at the produce section of a grocery? They know people are going to hear it.
This isn’t to question the accuracy of media companies’ surveys showing how much we like TV in checkout lines or on buses. Designing a survey that passes critical muster that gets you the results you want isn’t hard to do. When they say 90 percent of their respondents like being made captive to TV, we believe it.
But as captive-audience media continues its inexorable growth, and the places in our world that are free of the barking TV dwindle, the minority of people today who dislike being made captive will grow in size. It’s one thing to say TV in the doctor’s office is just fine, but when the TV is also on the street corner and on the bus stop, in the deli and on the gas pump, in the restroom and in the elevator, then more people will be like Robert Keller, the food activist. You can only will ignorance for so long; at some point the facts will assert themselves. When they do, people who today think TV in the grocery store is OK will realize it’s also everywhere else, and they were never given a chance to have a say in the matter. And unlike Keller, who won’t eat strawberries because they’re so coated in chemicals that the people who process them have to wear hazmat suits, we won’t be given the option of saying no.
Activists trying to curb social ills look to the wildly successful anti-smoking movement, both here and in Europe, as a model for their own efforts. And so you have activists who see the devil in bottled drinking water, with its billions of plastic bottles clogging landfills, showing up in rivers, and depleting scarce underground aquifers saying we’re all passive victims of businesses’ lust for profits. Even anti-perfume activists, who represent people who are allergic to perfume or otherwise don’t like to have fragrances forced onto them, claim the “passive victim” mantle as their own.
Here in this blog we have no qualms about throwing the cause of captive-audience media onto the passive-victim train. From our perspective, having video or audio media forced onto you in public space is exactly like having to breathe in another person’s cigarette smoke, and as an increasing number of studies make clear, being subject to unwanted media comes with it with its own ill health consequences.
All this is too much for Christopher Snowden, whose book Velvet Glove, Iron Fist: A History of Anti-Smoking (2009: Little Dice) points to tobacco’s fall from glamorous accessory to social pariah as a warning against all the other issue activists laying claim to the passive-victim mantle.
Snowdon provides a valuable service in showing the extent to which anti-smoking activists wielded their research on the ill effects of passive smoking like a club.
But as has now been laid bare, the tobacco industry was built on the institutionalization of deception. It pedaled its products on the basis of outright lies and submerged its own damaging research to present a pretty face to the world.
Now we come to the world of captive-audience media. Companies that specialize in holding people captive to audio and video media routinely release research showing how much people like being entertained when they’re out and about. A survey released just a few weeks ago on behalf of a media company that provides programming in certain waiting-room and retail settings found that 90 percent of respondents enjoyed the programming. We can point to numerous similar studies, conducted for other captive-audience media companies, showing similar findings.
We have every reason to believe these research surveys are accurate. Even if we were to design the surveys, and in doing so try to frame the questions to favor our position, we would fully expect most people to favor the media companies’ position. We could probably dial back the findings from 90 percent to 65-70 percent, but those who would prefer peace and quiet would still be way below the percentage of those who like the programming.
And the reason is simple: most people do in fact enjoy TV, and indeed many people might even be classified as addicted to it, or at least so out of the habit of reading that they depend on TV for their information.
But let’s be clear. These surveys are very much like asking patrons at a bar whether they like drinking. You’re always going to get a small percentage that are just occupying a stool because they’re meeting a friend, but most are at a bar because they either like to drink or otherwise have no objection to being there. What these surveys don’t show are the people who aren’t there precisely because they don’t want to be.
When the Washington Post ran a story on the introduction of TVs at a grocery store, every one of the almost 40 comments the story generated eviscerated the TVs, with some saying they have refused, or would refuse, to go to a grocery store with TV in it.
As one person said, “The minute I see my first TV at a checkout, I’ll tell the manager, “Watch me. I’m about to walk out of your store because I can’t stand TV. You won’t see me again until all the other stores in the area have the same damn thing and I must put up with it or starve.”
Clearly captive-audience media companies are offering programming that the majority says it wants or at least doesn’t object to, and the research they commission shows this. But there remains a minority of people who find the intrusiveness of captive-audience media objectionable. And where you have objection you have stress, and where you have stress you have health impacts. Thus you have the passive-smoking argument all over again. It’s the age-old tyranny of the majority. But the majority in this case isn’t quite as large as one might think.
The boom car menace is one of those issues that gets attention for a while then falls off the radar screen. A recent bump in local TV and print coverage suggests that ultra loud car stereos with the thump-thump bass that make the ground vibrate are back on the radar screen, but surely it won’t be for long.
Local TV coverage in Slidell, La., last week focuses on the ineffectiveness of penalties at curbing boom car noise violations. The episode talks about the owner of a boom car who refuses to turn down his stereo even though he’s already paid $1,500 in fines over the years.
A boomer interviewed by the local TV station calls the focus on enforcing noise ordinances misguided because police should be devoting their resources to fighting violence. “They should be putting forth efforts to make the city safer,” the person said.
There’s unintended irony here. Making ultra loud noise is in fact a form of violence. The U.S. Department of Justice studied boom cars a few years ago and in its report talked about the subculture of antisocial behavior that underwrites it. The loud stereos seem to have little to do with music and a lot to do with dominance.
Noise Free America, a nonprofit advocacy group, calls boom cars a “gateway” crime because it leads to a breakdown in law and order: wherever you have a boom car problem you have a general crime problem.
For many years one anti-boom car activist in Norman, Oklahoma, maintained a Web site on which he posted online comments directed against him by boomers and the comments are, to put it mildly, violence turned into words. His Web site is down now, but it’s hard to forget the comments.
The custom car stereo industry for the last several years has been aware of boomers’ image problem and has been encouraging stereo manufacturers and others with a hand in the boom car culture to tone things down otherwise cities will start upgrading their noise restrictions to include outright boom car bans.
The image restructuring is sorely needed. Years ago, it was all the rage for stereo manufacturers to advertise their products as instruments of violence. You can see some of these ads for yourself at a database maintained by Noise Free America. The ads reach hard-to-believe heights in tastelessness. They make fun of people getting heart attacks from the loud noise or the rattling of the frail and elderly.
There have been several articles in the major daily media in recent years about the lack of empathy among people today. And, indeed, the empathy issue has been raised repeatedly in the context of the random violence at schools that we’ve seen. Well, the boom car ads are designed as a kind of celebration to a lack of empathy. Again, they are violence turned into words.
Of course, the car stereo industry has more than an image problem. Many recent studies are finding new links between cardiovascular health and other measures of well-being and the amount and kind of noise to which people are subjected. People literally are having heart attacks over noise. And the emotional stress of noise tears down people’s immune system, increasing their susceptibility to a host of problems.
Noise is one of those impossible-to-solve issues because one person’s noise is another person’s music. And one person’s nightmare is another person’s expression of freedom (although we would call it license, not freedom). For that reason, anyone who wades into any noise debate does so at the outset knowing of its futility. On the one hand people routinely say it’s the biggest quality of life issue in their apartment building or their neighborhood or their workplace, while on the other people routinely dismiss noise as the complaint of the namby-pamby set. We would guess that noise is among the most regulated yet least enforced civic rules on the books.
For that reason it might not be a bad idea for the U.S. Supreme Court to weigh in on the boom car issue. The court in the late 1940s considered a noise case that probably has a lot to say about today’s problem with boom cars. The case involved the broadcasting of commercial messages from a loud speaker attached to a truck. The driver drove around town broadcasting the audio content until the city council put a stop to it. The Supreme Court’s role was to rule whether the city ban constituted a violation of the constitutional right to free speech. The verdict: it wasn’t, because residents of the city had an equal right not to be bombarded with media from which they can’t escape—captive-audience media, in other words, which is the raison d’etre of this blog.
Everyone has a right to enjoy their music, no matter how much that music might offend others. But that right isn’t the same as a right to bludgeon others with it. When you bludgeon others with your media, it becomes a form of violence. And isn’t that what one of the boomers in the recent TV coverage want the police to focus on? It seems like the police are right to curb violence by curbing boom cars.
For the future of captive-audience media, think Las Vegas. You walk down the street and large-screen TVs try to grab your attention with dancing girls. Every casino pipes its music outside, onto the sidewalk. Inside, it’s all-TVs all the time, most of them playing loops advertising the casino’s shows and specials. Big ads, big TVs, big sounds. That’s every square inch of Las Vegas, and in the not too distant future it’s going to be every square inch of every major metropolitan area in the country.
We’re already moving in that direction. In the tiny Chinatown section of Washington, D.C., a button-downed town, three giant screens on a busy corner play ad loops all day every day. At one time they were pretty loud, too, but residents’ complaints were louder and now the volume is turned down. About a mile away even the staid National Geographic is in on the act; it hosts big flat-screens in the widows of its headquarters and pummels pedestrians with must-watch programming. It gets away with it because, although it’s promotional (it’s intended to attract people inside to get cultured and improve themselves) it’s wrapped in a veneer of educational programming so it’s okay.
TVs on gas pumps, in the lobbies of hotels and office buildings, on elevators, in the backseats of cabs, in trains, subways, and buses, on bus stops, in restaurants and bars, at the airport, in coin laundries, on every elliptical machine at the gym, above the bank tellers, even in public restrooms.
What’s notable about Las Vegas is your senses are assaulted from every direction and it becomes hard to wind down. That’s a good thing if your goal is to get people’s adrenaline flowing so you can get them to the craps table at 2 a.m. But for someone who doesn’t want to live as if every moment outside the house is like walking through a shopping mall, with music playing in the background and flat-screens in every direction, then the inescapability of audio and visual noise is like a tax on living. It’s calculated not in dollars but in degrees of distraction and extent of disregard for your autonomy but it’s nonetheless a price you pay to be out and about.
To be sure, Canton, Ohio, or even Washington, D.C., will never be another Las Vegas, but the sensory overload that’s at the center of the Las Vegas universe has already started its migration to other cities and it’s just a matter of time before we become so used to TV while we wait for our bus or pump our gas that in its absence we’ll think the world has stopped and everything that matters has been taken away from us. Should we be surprised when we start clamoring to bring in the TVs, lest we be forced to confront the emptiness inside of us?
Thanks to Larry Dobrow of Media Post for reminding us how las Vegas-like captive-audience media is.