Not long ago I arrived at an Amtrak station near my home in Southern California and was struck by its pleasant atmosphere: high ceilings, a spare design, a clean and airy waiting room with light streaming in the windows. But as I settled in to wait for my train, I saw it: an enormous television looming on the back wall. Pundits blathered above a ticker of the latest headlines. And a sad trombone sound went off in my head.
The unwelcome TV was not, of course, an anomaly. It was but one manifestation of what I’ve come to think of as TV pollution. In restaurants, airports, office lobbies, they wait for us: televisions, big or small, one or many, playing CNN or The Bachelorette, luring our eyes and in some cases droning into our ears. Indeed, TVs are so omnipresent that—I’m told—many people hardly notice them. I am not so lucky. I find them equal parts seductive and annoying, and based on extensive anecdotal evidence, I know I’m not alone.
We often hear that we are in a golden age of television. Curled up on the couch, we can select from a bounty of first-rate programming; not only that, we now have control over when we watch shows and more power to avoid ads. Outside our homes, however, we encounter the opposite: We’re assailed by commercials and by shows not of our choosing, which tend to be not exactly Mad Men-caliber. Our only choice—at best—is to walk out the door. In places like the airport, the only refuge may be the bathroom.
There’s a dearth of research on longitudinal trends, but TV pollution seems to me to have grown more pervasive in recent years. In 2009, Nielsen reported that “out-of-home” exposure provided a 2.6 percent ratings “lift” for shows; another Nielsen study, from 2014, found a 7 percent to 9 percent lift. I asked a few people who think about TV for a living, and they agreed that public TVs have multiplied. “I know because my own annoyance at them has increased,” said Joy Fuqua, a professor of media studies at Queens College. “And I love television.”
Granted, this nuisance doesn’t rank among today’s more serious woes. But it’s not a frivolous First World problem, either—it’s a question of the way our society treats public space. And like the secondhand smoke to which it’s been compared, TV pollution may have insidious effects we don’t appreciate.
Television is full of stuff—violence, alarming news, Botox overdoses—we may not always be in the mood to see. We may be still less eager for our kids to see it. Over the years abundant research has examined the effects of television viewing, and the studies tend to arrive at results we could have guessed without the benefit of Ph.D.s and labs. Watching lots of violence on TV, it turns out, is associated with aggressive behavior. Kids who see lots of ads for junk food? More likely to eat junk food. One recent survey on Americans’ fears found that “high frequency of television viewing” was one of the most consistent predictors of fear. Television is not benign; like with sun and smoke, we should have some say over our exposure to it.
Encounters with TVs in shared spaces, especially ones showing news shows, usually make me feel agitated and anxious. But what troubles me even more is the assumption underlying them: that we need to be amused or informed by media at every moment. My dinner companions and I may not be the most scintillating conversationalists, but I hope we can keep each other entertained while we share a pizza.
Though it may seem very much a product of our time, television in public places has a long lineage. (The definition of public is squishy—a privately owned café is not the same as a city park—but I’m referring to what the industry calls “out-of-home.”) In fact, as New York University cinema studies professor Anna McCarthy writes in her 2001 book Ambient Television, public TV actually preceded the rise of the household set. In the mid-1940s, taverns began to acquire them. They would advertise this new attraction with neon or cardboard signs; inside, men were asked to remove their hats so as not to obstruct the view. Big boxing matches would draw scores of customers.
Even at the time, they provoked handwringing; people fretted they were ruining the lively tavern banter. But at least they made sense: They were clearly providing a desirable service. Their modern-day successors—sports bars, or bars that offer viewings of Game of Thrones or the State of the Union—are doing the same. In fact, today’s incarnations may actually be more social: as opposed to the postwar barflies who were coming expressly for the TV, today’s customers come primarily for the communal experience. TVs in these bars don’t count as TV pollution.
The problem is that TVs have spread well beyond such convivial settings. The TVs that rankle me—McCarthy’s use of ambient is apt—are the ones that nobody seeks out and nobody can avoid. They’re in places you go for other reasons—to eat lunch, to see the dentist, to do laundry. These don’t encourage social interaction; they elicit mute stares or annoyed sighs. They violate current notions of what makes a great public space: places that foster community and embody local character. TV is an equalizer, diluting any uniqueness with the same talking heads and football games and ads you’d see in any other place.
So why are the TVs so common? Until recently I naively assumed that they were all misguided attempts at an amenity. In some cases, I’ve learned, the motive is more rational, if also more sinister. Think the inevitable news at the airport is intended to helpfully stave off boredom while you wait? Not so much. You’re probably watching the CNN Airport Network, which launched in the early 1990s. Having a captive audience of about 250 million travelers per year reportedly brings CNN more than $10 million annually, and airports share in the ad revenue. The airport isn’t doing you a favor; you’re doing the airport one.
In other cases, proprietors simply believe their customers want TVs. Perhaps their very ubiquity has made them seem like a necessity. But as they’ve proliferated, they’ve also become more redundant. Because most of us now carry a personalized entertainment system in our pocket, we have less appetite than ever for a random reality show playing in the corner; we’re too busy tweeting or playing Peggle. Indeed, TV pollution has a strange relationship to our cultural moment. In one sense it fits seamlessly into an era defined by screens and overstimulation. On the other hand, in an age of hyperpersonalized media consumption, it seems oddly retrograde.
The most compelling defense I’ve heard of public TVs is that they’re one of the last common threads connecting an increasingly fragmented country. They’re the only way we have any clue what other Americans are watching these days. Soon we’ll probably all be wearing holographic glasses, and maybe I’ll be nostalgic for the days when I at least shared an experience—however enervating—with the people around me.
Still, there must be better ways to use public space. Among the friends, acquaintances, and strangers I’ve surveyed, the most common response to this supposed perk is vehement irritation. Entrepreneur and hacker Mitch Altman hates the phenomenon so much that he invented TV-B-Gone, a “universal remote control” capable of turning off most televisions.
It’s certainly possible that I’m overestimating the extent of TV aversion. Plenty of Americans keep the TV on at home, and I know some feel more receptive to its public incarnation than I do. But Altman has talked to many people about this topic over the years, and though he’s obviously not unbiased, he told me the annoyance cuts across subcultures and viewing habits. After all, when you’re at a restaurant, you have no remote-control privileges. Is it really self-evident that the inclination to watch TV should trump the prerogative to be free of it?
While in my own utopia I would abolish most TVs outside the home, I now offer a humbler plea. Business owners, don’t assume that your customers want a television or eight. Know that you may in fact be losing business. I have walked out of many sandwich joints after catching a glimpse of a TV. My friend’s barber showed violent movies, including one in which a throat was slit while the barber was shaving my friend’s neck. My friend switched barbers.
And my message to my fellow TV haters: Don’t be shy; don’t just grumble under your breath. Ask politely if it’s possible to turn the TV off or down. Mention courteously that you’d rather not keep up with the Kardashians right now.
I have taken this approach, and I admit it hasn’t always yielded the desired result. The manager at that Amtrak station finds me as exasperating as I find the TV. But if more of us say something, I hope he’ll realize that I’m not a curmudgeonly freak—or at least that I’m not the only curmudgeonly freak.
For those without the patience to win hearts and minds, well, there’s now a TV-B-Gone-inspired app, whose commands include mute, volume adjustment—and, of course, off.