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  • Posts Tagged Audience captivity

    Channel One: Masters of SEO?

    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.

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    12,105 acts of protest against captive-audience media

    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.

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    Plug for Target: a store that understands the quiet

    Several people have mentioned Target to me since Algora Publishing came out with my book on captive-audience media called Noise Wars. Just this weeked Theodore Rueter, the president of Noise Free America, complimented the book in a review on Amazon for its stand against compulsory media—and, yes, he also mentions Target’s policy, implemeted about 15 years ago, to can the canned music.

    So, here’s my official plug for Target’s policy to eschew overhead music and just let shoppers enjoy their own thoughts while they’re looking for school supplies or a bargain on paper towels.

    It takes a self-confident company not to try to manipulate its customers’ emotions by piping in focus-group-approved music. In my book, any company that respects its customers enough to let them shop without trying to give them a sensory experience is all right with me.

    Worse than the music is the point-of-sale TVs or other video monitors throughout so many stores today. These are less about trying to manipulate your mood and more about bludgeoning you with information you haven’t asked for and have no way of tuning out. It’s an egregious form of disrespect. So, I’m happy to give Target this free publicity as a thank you for treating its customers as adults with minds of their own.

    Here’s Rueter’s Amazon review, posted this weekend:

    Noise Wars: Compulsory Media and Our Loss of Autonomyis an outstanding book. It is exhastively researched, very well-written, informative, interesting, and entertaining. It is extremely useful for the fight against “compulsory media” and other forms of noise pollution.

    Robert Freedman examines the explosive growth of “compulsory media,” which is now everywhere: buses, airports, gas station pumps, taxis, elevators, sports stadiums, schools, downtowns, restaurants, subways, restrooms, doctor’s offices, gyms, stores, and malls.

    Freedman points out that there is now “street-furniture TV,” in which “media companies install TV screens in ‘street furniture’ like bus stops, kiosks, benches, and the other structures that make up the familiar landscape. ‘People can actually watch movie trailers at bus stops,’ says Jean-Luc-Decaux of J.C. Decaux North America, a French marketing group with US operations based in Chicago” (p.27).

    I dislike compulsory media intensely. This past summer, I left a Milwaukee Brewers baseball game during the first inning because of the constant pounding from the public speaker system and the organ–even between pitches! (They also blasted rock and roll in the men’s room.) I recently walked out of a chiropractor’s office because of the annoying ‘background music’–even in a treatment room. When I asked the chiropractor to at least turn it down in the treatment room, he refused. I try to go to the supermarket on Sunday mornings, because that’s when stores tend to play quieter, classical music. One of the reasons I hate flying is because of the constant, irritating announcements (“Attention passengers. Do not accept packages from strangers. Do not accept packages from strangers”), as well as the ubiquitous presence of television monitors broadcasting CNN.

    As Rob Freemdan points out, increasingly, there is no place to hide. In terms of shopping, the only refuge is Target, which eliminated “background music” more than 15 years ago. I go out of my way to shop at Target.

    I highly recommend Noise Wars: Compulsory Media and Our Loss of Autonomy to anyone interested in social trends, media studies, social psychology, or social activism. It is a terrific read.

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    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.

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    “The coupon brought me here; the noise sent me away”

    Responsible media groups like White Dot know how to use the power of the purse to drive change. The group educates consumers on letting business owners know that forcing their customers to watch TV or listen to piped-in audio is losing them business.

    For that reason I was glad the newsletter Please PIPEDOWN included a reference to White Dot in its October issue, and even made its own suggestion on how to deal with captive-audience media—including restaurants with blaring TVs and piped-in audio:

    Bring in a restaurant’s coupons to show the manager “you have an interest in dining. Then if the background music proves to be too much in the foreground, you could take the coupon to the manager and tell that person you won’t be using it after all: ‘The coupon brought me here but the music is driving me away.’”

    What became clear to me in researching Noise Wars: Compulsory Media and Our Loss of Autonomy is that many people avoid businesses with captive-audience media but the owners and managers don’t know that. Rather, the business people operate under the assumption that if people like TV, then they like TV when they’re eating in a restaurant, buying shoes, riding in a cab, or exercising in a gym.

    Without a doubt many people do in fact like watching TV in a cab or while buying shoes but plenty don’t and some portion of those people avoid places that force that media on them.

    As Please Pipedown makes clear, avoiding a business with captive-audience media isn’t enough; you have to let the owner or manager know they’re not getting your business because of it. Money talks, and so does the withholding of it.

    Kudos to Ruth Schiedermayer for her Please PIPEDOWN piece on letting owners and managers know when their force-fed media drives customers away.

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    Victory for media choice: BusRadio closing down

    In a body blow to captive-audience media and a victory for those who oppose having out-of-home digital media content forced on them, BusRadio has pulled the plug on its compulsory commercial radio programming on school buses and is expected to make an official announcement next week.

    BusRadio makes its money by providing targeted advertising to a captive audience of children on public school buses and has been the subject of intense push-back from parents and others who’ve taken their concern to Congress, the FCC, and to state and local governments.

    “BusRadio severely underestimated parents’ determination to keep advertisers off of school buses,” the Center for Commercial-Free Childhood says in a statement. “And now, thanks to all of our efforts, parents no longer have to worry about their children being bombarded by student-targeted advertising on school buses.”

    Commercial Alert has also been involved in efforts against the company.

    Still on parents’ radar screen is Channel One, which provides free audio-video equipment to cash-strapped schools in return for providing 12 minutes of daily in-classroom TV programming. The programming includes two minutes of targeted advertising.

    Parents have long charged Channel One with exploiting mandatory school attendance laws for commercial gain. The company almost went under a few years ago after critics launched a campaign asking companies not to advertise on its programs, but it survived and today has a new owner.

    The BusRadio victory shows that the steady drive by out-of-home media companies to fill our common areas with intrusive audio-video content that we haven’t asked for isn’t proceeding without constraint. BusRadio and Channel One are clearly the most egregious and indefensible examples of captive-audence excess, because they involve our chidren. But as captive-audience media expands throughout our common areas and eat away at our ability to lead lives without having unsought content always in front of us, media companies can expect more push-back.

    Not everybody wants the distraction of audio and video in front of them wherever they go; having TV screens on elevators and on gas pumps and in restrooms and on buses, trains, and subways, in taxis, and in office and hotel lobbies, and in medical offices, among other places, is creating its own antithesis. As it should. No one owns our viewscapes and soundscapes. No one should be forced to to consume distracting and invasive audio-video content they haven’t asked for.

    —Robert Freedman, author, Noise Wars: Compulsory Media and Our Loss of Autonomy

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    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.

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    Flanagan on Noise Wars: where’s the beef?

    And out-of-home TV consultant asks tough questions of book critical of his industry

    For media professionals, there are probably few industries more exciting to be in right now than out-of-home TV. The technology is advancing, the advertisers are climbing on board, the networks are expanding. Anyone who’s on the top of their game in this industry is no doubt surveying this realm and finding it good—which makes it quixotic for anyone to step in front of this locomotive and ask the industry to become introspective for a moment, which is what I try to do with my book Noise Wars.

    Out-of-home TV is based on a conceit that people who board a train or a bus or who go to a store to buy shoes welcomes a blaring TV, and that if they don’t, they can just ignore it. But many people don’t welcome it, they resent it, and they can’t ignore it. And what’s more, people today who don’t find out-of-home TV intrusive will find it intrusive tomorrow because at some point the industry will cross a line and start testing even the tolerance level of people who otherwise wouldn’t give it much thought.

    With a message like that, it’s to be expected that anyone involved in the industry would dismiss the book as the tirade of a Luddite, yet industry consultant Paul Flanagan, who writes about the book on his blog Experiate, doesn’t do that. Although he’s an out-of-home TV professional who has helped develop projects for some impressive and admirable companies and organizations, he takes the concerns raised in the book seriously and tries to see things from the side of the critic.

    “Mr. Freedman starts a compelling discussion on the use of media in society,” he says. “Clearly there is a problem here. . . . The book brings to light that our industry is not desired by everyone; there are many people and organizations that do not like media in society. This is important. We need to understand that for every action there is a reaction.”

    Flanagan also acknowledges the black eye the industry is getting from out-of-home media companies that target children on school buses and in the classrooms, captive-audience settings that are simply indefensible.

    But then he hits back hard against the limited empirical research in the book to support some of the claims made. How many people are not joining gyms because the TVs are intrusive? The book raises that question but doesn’t support it beyond a blog comment. When looking at boom cars (a topic addressed as a form of captive-audience media), the book fails to link research that’s mentioned to the affects of boom cars.

    More importantly, the book relies too much on the blogosphere and not enough on quantifiable research on the impact of media on society. “[T]he execution may have been better suited to a research paper or critique,” he says.

    Flanagan’s criticism is fair. Although the blogosphere today is too important to ignore, and the book’s use of it is appropriate, in my view, the book could do a better job linking the research that’s out there to the concerns over invasive media. Until a better job is done bringing the two together, I would agree the book can only serve as a starting point for discussion rather than a definitive report on the problem.

    That said, the book tries to find a middle ground and discusses technological solutions to the problems that are raised. Among other things, the book talks about the role directional audio and screen filters in making environments comfortable for willing as well as unwilling audiences. I would have liked Flanagan to have talked about that, because here the book is doing more than expressing a problem; it’s expressing a solution as well.

    Flanagan deserves credit for not only approaching the book with an open mind but for poking holes in my arguments in a fair and constructive way. I welcome his input.

    His review, called “Noise Wars . . . or just noisy?” is posted on Amazon as well as on his blog.

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    Out-of-home TV: incivility institutionalized

    After Mayor Bloomberg announced his plan to ban smoking in parks and beaches, a New York Times reporter wondered around Central Park asking people what they would ban if they had the power. His report, called “Parkgoers suggest things New York could ban,” appeared yesterday.

    Not surprisingly, most people wanted to ban noisy activities, but not just any noisy activities; people wanted to ban media noise: people talking on their cell phones, playing their car stereos too loudly, playing musical instruments too loudly.

    We define media noise in this blog as noise that’s related to communication. Thus, drum playing is media noise, because music is communication, but highway traffic isn’t.

    In fact, about three-quarters of all responses to the reporter, as well as the dozens of comments that the story generated online, involved media noise. The next biggest category was litter. Not surprising, and indeed, media noise has been described by noise activists as audio litter—that is, someone casting off their personal noise the way someone casts off the wrapper of a candy bar and leaves it on the ground without regard to the surrounding environment.

    The reaction to the New York Times reporter is consistent with what we learned when we were researching our book, Noise Wars: Compulsory Media and Our Loss of Autonomy. There’s a feeling that we’re losing control over our ability to find refuge from the media noise of others—that even in our own homes we can’t get away from the boom cars, the backyard TVs of our neighbors, the loud cell phone conversations on the sidewalk.

    The Times piece made us think of the rise of digital signage, particularly out-of-home TV networks, because they’re premised on the same grand conceit of the person who disregards others and leaves his audio litter wherever he wants: that our shared environment is mine to pollute as I will and everyone else must either live with it or go somewhere else.

    To be sure, the out-of-home TV network isn’t just some selfish person who’s so self-absorbed that he can’t think why others wouldn’t want to listen to his music. There is a difference between the two. In the latter case, the self-absorbed indifference to others is institutionalized.

    Once every shoe store in the United States is plugged into an out-of-home TV network, we won’t be able to buy shoes without also having to watch TV. That will be great for the advertisers on the TV and the media company that owns the network, but for people who just want to buy shoes, it will be yet one more environment that will have to be endured.

    That grand conceit of the polluter might be tolerable in a world where there are other places to go. But in world where there’s a boom car around every corner, an out-of-home TV in every restaurant, and a cell phone conversation on every seat next to you in the subway, that conceit is a luxury that will eventually be a target of resentment.

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    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.

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    Research resource: 42 anti-TV books

    In an ongoing effort, we’re identifying anti-TV books and putting them together in one place. Now that were up to 42 titles, the time seems right to put them in a blog post.

    Many of these you’re likely familiar with, or at least know about. Jerry Mander’s Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television, for example, seems to be one that everyone knows about. But there are some lesser-known gems here. We especially like No Sense of Place by Joshua Myrowitz. This book talks about how TV and other digital media changes our perception of space. What’s especially notable is its prescience. The book was written in 1985, when TV still typically meant only one or two TVs in the home. Yet, its relevance in today’s world of ubiquitous out-of-home digital TV is even greater. In our view it’s one of the must-reads if you’re interested in the social impact of TV.

    For each of the books we link to its page on Amazon. We like the way Amazon includes brief descriptions of its books and encourages reader comments. We also like the way the site, when it has permission from the publisher, makes the book contents available for sampling.

    We include our book, Noise Wars, here too. We list it first. We certainly want to showcase it, but it’s also the most recently published title, and our list is chronological.

    Noise Wars: Compulsory Media and Our Loss of Autonomy (Algora Publishing: 2009), Robert Freedman

    The Age of American Unreason (Vintage)(Vintage: 2009), Susan Jacoby

    Living Without the Screen (Lea’s Communication)(Routledge: 2008), Marina Krcmar

    The Assault on Reason(Penguin: 2008), Al Gore

    Media Unlimited, Revised Edition: How the Torrent of Images and Sounds Overwhelms Our Lives(Holt: 2007), Todd Gitlin

    Television(Dalkey Archive Press: 2007), Jean-Philippe Toussaint and Jordan Stump: FICTION

    Noise: How Our Media-saturated Culture Dominates Lives and Dismantles Families(Ascension Press: 2007), Teresa Tomeo

    Living Outside the Box: TV-Free Families Share Their Secrets(Eastern Washington University Press: 2007), Barbara Brock

    Remote Controlled: How TV Affects You and Your Family(Ebury Press: 2007), Aric Sigman

    The Big Turnoff: Confessions of a TV-Addicted Mom Trying to Raise a TV-Free Kid(Algonquon Books: 2007), Ellen Currey-Wilson

    Mediated: How the Media Shapes Our World and the Way We Live in It(Bloomsbury USA: 2006), Thomas de Zengotita

    Noise(Viking: 2006), Bart Kosko

    Everyware: The Dawning Age of Ubiquitous Computing(New Riders Publishing: 2006), Adam Greenfield

    iBrain: Surviving the Technological Alteration of the Modern Mind(Collins Living: 2008), Gary Small and Gigi Vorgan

    Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business(Penguin: 2005), Neil Postman

    The Business of Media: Corporate Media and the Public Interest(Pine Forge Press: 2005), David Croteau and William Hoynes

    The Medium is the Massage(Ginko Press: 2005) Marshall McLuhan and Quentin Fiore

    Television after TV: Essays on a Medium in Transition (Console-ing Passions)(Duke Univ. Press: 2004), Lynn Spigel and Jan Olsson

    Feed(Candlewick: 2004), M.T. Anderson: FICTION

    Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media(Pantheon: 2002), Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky

    The Plug-In Drug: Television, Computers, and Family Life(Penguin: 2002), Marie Winn

    T.V.: The Great Escape! : Life-Changing Stories from Those Who Dared to Take Control(Crossway Books: 2001), Bob DeMoss

    Bowling Alone : The Collapse and Revival of American Community(Simon & Schuster, 2001), Robert Putnam

    Ambient Television: Visual Culture and Public Space (Console-ing Passions)(Duke University Press: 2001), Anna McCarthy

    Coercion: Why We Listen to What They Say(Riverhead Trade: 2000), Douglas Rushkoff

    Endangered Minds: Why Children Don’t Think And What We Can Do About It(Simon & Schuster: 1999), Jane Healy

    Culture Jam: How to Reverse America’s Suicidal Consumer Binge–And Why We Must(William Morrow: 1999), Kalle Lasn

    Get a Life!(Bloomsbury Publishing: 1998), David Burke and Jean Lotus

    Seducing America: How Television Charms the Modern Voter(Sage Publications: 1998), Roderick Hart

    The Commercialization of American Culture: New Advertising, Control and Democracy(Sage Publications: 1995), Matt McAllister

    …And There Was Television(Routledge: 1994), Ellis Cashmore

    Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man(The MIT Press: 1994), Marshall McLuhan, with an introduction by Lewis Lapham

    The Disappearance of Childhood(Vintage: 1994), Neil Postman

    The Unreality Industry: The Deliberate Manufacturing of Falsehood and What It Is Doing to Our Lives(Oxford Univ. Press: 1993), Ian Mitroff and Warren Bennis

    Conscientious Objections: Stirring Up Trouble About Language, Technology and Education (Vintage: 1992), Neil Postman

    The Age of Missing Information(Plume: 1993), Bill McKibben

    Television and the Quality of Life: How Viewing Shapes Everyday Experience (Communication Series)
    (Lawrence Eribaum: 1990), Robert William Kubey and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

    Fahrenheit 451(Ballantine Books: 1987), Ray Bradbury: FICTION

    No Sense of Place: The Impact of Electronic Media on Social Behavior(Oxford Univ. Press: 1985), Joshua Meyrowitz

    What to Do After You Turn Off the TV(Ballantine Books: 1985), Frances Moore Lappe

    Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television(Harper Perennial: 1978), Jerry Mander

    The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man(Univ. of Toronto Press: 1962), Marshall McLuhan

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    The alternate reality of captive-audience media

    When you read material provided by media companies that specialize in captive audiences it’s impressive the lengths they go to to reassure us that we like being made captive to their media.

    We learn from their press releases and Web sites that we like to have our lives improved upon by having infotainment and commercials to watch while we wait in line at a store or ride a bus or pump our gas. Captive-audience media companies have lots of surveys, too, that show us how much we love having audio-visual media pushed out at us. We certainly benefit from knowing that large percentages of us love to have a TV in front of us at all times to protect us from having to confront our world without the virtuous content of targeted and engaging programming.

    It’s because we so clearly love having our lives improved upon by having media pushed out to us unasked for that it’s hard to understand why so many people dislike—and even get angry at or feel insulted by—being made captive to TV. It’s almost like the two sides are living in parallel universes or that one side operates in an alternate reality.

    But there you have it. Despite the virtuousness of the content, there seems to be this large and vocal minority that just doesn’t get it and insists on taking issue with being made captive to intrusive and invasive media.

    When captive-audience TV started showing up in gas stations, there was the inconvenient fact that quite a number of people made comments like this one:

    “I will not go to stations that have [TVs on gas pumps]. So, as a result, I have not been to a Shell station in months. (I live in the Chicago area and they are the only stations with them so far.) I can only hope other people are doing the same thing. If not, this sort of irritating constant sales bombardment will start going on everywhere.”

    And when TVs started becoming more common in grocery store checkout lines, there were off-message comments like this one:

    “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.’ No, no, don’t try to tell me how Most People seem to like it. I’m not Most People, I hate it, and I’m leaving now, empty-handed.”

    And when captive-audience ads started showing up on our cell phones as text messages, suddenly we started seeing comments like this one:

    “I serve notice to all those who force me to see their ads by interfering with my ELECTIVE reading – NEVER would I purchase your product. At the same time, I will say the same thing to those who think it’s clever to blast my hearing with TV commercials that are 100 times louder than the programming. My solution is simple – I mute ALL commercials. Cha-ching. That’s the sound of the cash drawer slamming on your fingers.”

    The reality is, many people don’t like having content pushed out at them. Audio-visual media is by its nature intrusive media. Unlike print, in which we can choose to consume the content or not, audio-visual media is “push” media that takes away our ability to choose. Rather, we’re given only the option to try to ignore it. And each of us differs in how effectively we can ignore push media.

    To be sure, the U.S. Supreme Court has weighed in on the issue of captive-audience media and found in favor of the captors rather than the captives. But at the time the court looked at the issue, in 1952, push media was as rare as a Japanese car on a street in the United States. It was a non-issue, and the court looked at a single instance of audience captivity. Today, captive-audience media is becoming ubiquitous and stands to fill much of the space in which we conduct the business of our lives: stores, buses, trains, street corners, building lobbies, elevators, restaurants—you name it, it’s coming.

    What’s more, the Court had looked at a different type of captive-audience media a few years before the commuter-train case and ruled against the captors in favor of the captives. That case, Kovacs v. Cooper, confirmed a municipality’s right to outlaw the broadcast of captive audio content on a public street. So the legal right of media companies to force-feed intrusive media to people is not at all clear cut.

    Push media is replacing print and other “pull” media and is poised to become the dominant media of our future. For that reason it’s time to revisit the issue of audience captivity. Too many people simply don’t subscribe to the rosy picture that captive-audience media providers try to paint in their press releases and on their Web sites. The reality is, grave differences separate these two sides. We don’t live in parallel universes. We live in one universe, and these differences need to be reconciled.

    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.

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    Book shines spotlight on boom cars, other noise

    Quality of life suffers as noise encroaches on shared environments

    In the first systematic look at boom cars, outdoor TV, and other “captive-audience” media, a book released this month from Algora Publishing in New York City says a values conflict similar to the one over secondhand smoke is growing because of audio and video technologies that increasingly take away our ability to choose the media we consume.

    Written by Robert Freedman, a 25-year veteran communications professional, Noise Wars: Compulsory Media and Our Loss of Autonomy looks at noise through the filter of captive-audience media and finds that continued growth of media that doesn’t respect personal boundaries is sparking a values war similar to that over secondhand smoke.

    “Noise has been the Cinderella form of pollution and people haven’t been aware that it has an impact on their health,” an environmental official says in the book.

    “The ‘outdoor entertainment’ equipment pushed by the home electronics industry in the form of outdoor loudspeakers and televisions for the porch and patio makes us wonder, what next?” says Karen Orr of the League of Conservation Voters. “Mega bass boom systems for the riding lawnmower?”

    “You used to reliably move to the suburbs and find peace and quiet,” says Les
    Blomberg of the Noise Pollution Clearinghouse in Montpelier, Vt, in an interview reproduced in the book. “But now “we’ve made our suburbs noisy. We can’t all buy 1,000 acres and hide in the middle of it.”

    The book quotes Ted Rueter, president of Noise Free America, on the efforts of his and other organizations against cars with ultra-loud stereos. “Boom car owners think they’ll beat us down into submission. Their culture is violent, vicious, and hate-filled.”

    The book is the first to look at noise—both visual and audio noise—through the filter of audience captivity: the intentional effort by commercial interests to impose noise on consumers in such a way that they can’t escape it. Among these efforts is the move to introduce TV to settings in which consumers are forced to watch it such as taxis, buses, elevators, gas stations, street corners, school classrooms, and every category of retail setting.

    “The minute I see TV at a checkout, I tell the manager, ‘Watch me. I’m about to walk out of your store because I can’t stand TV,” one person says in the book. “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.’ No, no, don’t try to tell me how most people seem to like it. I’m not most people, I hate it, and I’m leaving now, empty-handed.”

    “I will not go to stations that have TVs on gas pumps,” another person says. “As a result, I have not been to my neighborhood gas station in months. I can only hope other people are doing the same thing. If not, this sort of irritating constant sales bombardment will start going on everywhere.”

    “I serve notice to all those who force me to see their ads by interfering with my elective reading. Never would I purchase your product. Cha-ching. That’s the sound of the cash drawer slamming on your fingers.

    The book talks about the difference between audio and video “push” media and traditional “pull” media such as print. With “pull” media, the audience decides when and where to consume content; with “push” media, the content pushes out to people whether they want to consume it or not, creating a suffocating environment for those who are unwilling to be made a captive.

    The book looks at two landmark captive-audience Supreme Court cases, Public Utilities Commission v. Pollak (1952) and Kovacs v. Cooper (1949). In the first case, a divided Court confirmed a public transit agency’s right to pipe in commercial media to a captive audience of commuters. Although the case didn’t bar audience captivity, William O. Douglas issued a stinging dissent that raised unsettled questions about audience captivity, and Felix Frankfurter abstained, saying he found audience captivity so personally distasteful that he couldn’t trust himself to rule on the case objectively.

    In the second case, the court confirmed a municipality’s right to outlaw the broadcast of captive audio content on a public street, thus siding with critics of audience captivity.

    Noise Wars also looks at the growth of “annoyancetech,” a new category of devices that consumers are using to fight back against audience captivity. Devices such as TV-B-Gone are being used to disable TV in places where people can’t escape it.

    Here’s what readers are saying about the book:

    “This lively and well-researched work talks about how all this noise affects our civil liberties and our peace of mind. . . . Freedman appends William O. Douglas’s wise comments on the matter, “Compulsion which comes from circumstances can be as real as compulsion which comes from command,” and says fellow Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter was so angry about the issue that he didn’t feel he could render a fair opinion at all. . . . Freedman brings his own contemplative voice to the question, quoting philosophers as well as jurists. And adding a dollop of writer Ray Bradbury and composer John Cage for good measure.”—Roy Harris, Jr.

    “Written with a deep understanding of the role of media in our lives by a veteran award-winning print and Web editor, the book is valuable for several reasons. It confounds the skeptics by marshaling the evidence of noise pollution’s physiological and psychological effects (up to and including suicide and murderous acts). It explains First Amendment case law, and it doesn’t simply bash the ‘evil corporations’ but explains the economic pressures that are leading them into captive audience business ventures.” —Chris Wright

    “The book has excellent research behind it. As I read the book I stopped and thought about all the media that intrudes on my life, as well as the media I invite into my life…. And the unintended consequences that result from the bombardment of noise.” —Elisa Robyn

    “While most of us are focusing on the transition away from the days of push media (i.e., being forced to watch programs on a limited number of channels), another–more insidious delivery of media–is taking place right before our eyes. Freedman refers to it as “compulsory media,” music and audio advertisements that are piped in at the grocery store, the television that plays above the gas pump, or the commercial that runs when you enter a cab. Freedman does an effective job of calling attention to the problem and arming us to do something about it.”—Steve Roll

    “Our freedom is at risk as more and more outside media infringes on our personal space, on our shared public spaces. Our right to choose is transgressed, lost. We become a captive audience, against our will, to television advertising, boom cars, muzak, etc. And this is especially the point of the book: the scale of annoyance in the breach isn’t important; It’s the fact that there is a breach in our right to choose is what matters.”—Narshe Colliery

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