Friday, April 16, 2010

Nowhere To Hide

Eric Felton has a piece in today's WSJ on how difficult it's becoming to avoid video screens in public:

If you have traipsed through a hotel lobby lately; tramped on a health-club treadmill; guzzled a beer at a bar; or nervously anticipated your turn in the dentist's chair, you likely found your eyes wandering to a video screen. The business of "captive TV," as it is called, is booming. According to Nielsen, the television audience-measurement people, we collectively viewed a quarter-billion video advertisements in the last four months of 2009. Whatever the exact number, we don't need Nielsen to tell us that it is getting harder and harder to find a public space free from the tireless and tiresome electronic beckonings of "location-based video."

The business has grown by boasting several advantages for advertisers. A crowd of people with nowhere to go and nothing to do will look at the screens--plus the ads--grateful for anything to "help pass the time," as one of the services says in its promotional material. Doctors' offices, airports and the DMV get to turn the inconvenience of their clients into a revenue stream. The place-based systems also promise to deliver narrowly defined audiences that can be given tailored pitches. How better to market to drinkers than with ads in bars? Then there are the screens in bathrooms, which provide ads that one media company crows are, "perfectly gender segmented." Perhaps most attractive to marketers in the age of digital video recorders: The passive public viewers don't have access to a remote control. There's no fast-forwarding through the advertisements.

Unless you have tremendous discipline and willpower, there's no ignoring them either. The many companies specializing in television for public places brag that their "content is optimized to be visual." TV screens are insistent to begin with, but the ones placed in public spaces are trebly so, pulsing and flashing and glaring and flickering and otherwise creating the inescapable casino aesthetic that has invaded every corner of the public square.

I have to admit that these screens tend to draw my attention like a moth to a flame (so much for discipline and willpower). Especially if I'm in a bar or restaurant and there's a sporting event (almost any kind of sporting event) on the ubiquitous televisions. I know that's it's rude to allow your gaze to be distracted in such a manner when you're in the company of others, but I usually find myself succumbing to the temptation at some point. Hmmm...that tractor pull over there looks interesting...

But even worse than the multiple screens that never seem to be turned off--even when nothing is on--at restaurants and bars are the airport televisions. You truly are a captive audience when you're at the gate waiting for your plane to depart and the manner in which these audio/visual screens assault your senses violate several sections of the Geneva Accords. They're almost universally loud. So loud that there's really no place in the seating areas at most airports that you can escape the blare. I often like to read (and occasionally write) when playing such a waiting game, but the booming noise makes that all but impossible unless you elect to throw on the 'phones and listen to your own music. Even worse, these televisions are almost always tuned to CNN. I've lost count of how many times I've seen Wolf Blitzer's mug peering down as I tried to figure out where best to sit or heard Jack Cafferty's annoying ranting as I'm trying to collect my thoughts. I'd rather be bombarded with a steady stream of commercials--even infomercials--than be force-fed CNN's stale gruel.

UPDATE: My better half e-mails to add:

Granted we choose to do a lot of this as well, we are programming ourselves and the next generation to NEED tv. MP3 players can't be just music anymore, you have to download tv shows, movies, as well. Let's try to make it MORE convenient to watch the mindnumbing show you missed because you had to talk to real live people that were over at your house, you can watch it anytime you please....And let's not forget that automobiles needs screens as well. And phones....

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