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No Place to Hide : ‘Place-Based’ Viewing--TV as an Invasive Force

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

While they wait for such popular roller coasters as Viper and Ninja, visitors at Six Flags Magic Mountain in Valencia are being entertained this summer by closed-circuit TV shows running cartoons, movie clips, basketball highlights and ads for acne cream.

When their city was selected as host of the 1996 Summer Olympic Games, scores of Atlantans learned about the decision while watching a live-TV broadcast as they stood in supermarket checkout lines.

In 4,700 schools across the country last year, teen-age students were warned on their very own TV show about how many rock stars and their fans suffer early hearing loss from repeated exposure to loud music.

“There are very few havens from TV remaining in our culture any more,” says Josh Meyrowitz, an expert on perhaps the fastest-growing trend in television: “place-based” viewing.

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“Television is becoming the central metaphor for our times,” says Meyrowitz, a professor of communication at the University of New Hampshire and author of “No Sense of Place,” a critical analysis of TV’s ubiquity.

Television has become a very nearly omnipresent force in our lives. Classrooms, stadiums, amusement parks, supermarkets, airplane cabins, bus depots, waiting rooms, shopping malls and department stores all have their own custom video services nowadays, and more are on tap.

This is, of course, in addition to television as commercial entertainment. According to Nielsen Media Research, the average TV household in the United States now owns two sets, which are watched just over 30 hours every week by the typical American adult. Based on the estimates of several major advertising agencies, the average viewer is exposed to about 1,000 commercials in a typical week.

Accompanying the growth in program specialization is an equally dramatic increase in TV’s pervasiveness. From nursery schools to nursing homes, the glowing picture tube now demands cradle-to-grave attention.

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“We’re very interested in place-based media,” says Scott Weiss, cable mogul Ted Turner’s head of special projects. “We’ve received proposals for private TV networks serving gas stations, beauty salons, health clubs, movie theaters, electronic stores, banks, you name it.” He points out that CNN and other Turner programming already is distributed to cruise ships, prisons, hospitals, airlines and even Canadian bus companies with TV-equipped coaches.

“People are being amused to death,” says Rutgers researcher Robert Kubey, one of many academics troubled by the trend. “I think (TV’s omnipresence) has already had a profoundly negative impact on American society by contributing to increased drug abuse, lack of meaningful political discourse and a general decline in our competitiveness, ingenuity and ability to entertain ourselves.”

Kubey accuses video marketers of invading the last remaining shreds of unstructured time during which “people develop and use their imaginative capabilities.” Last fall, for example, Turner Broadcasting System began testing the Checkout Channel, an in-store mix of news, entertainment and advertising for the millions of shoppers who stand in line at grocery stores each week. Turner hopes to combine some operations of the Checkout Channel, scheduled for a national roll-out this October, with the Airport Channel, a news-oriented TV service for passengers waiting in airport terminals.

“The mass media have really disappeared,” says Wayne LoCurto, chief executive officer of Act Media, a leading provider of in-store promotions and one of Turner’s strategic partners in the Checkout Channel. “I think manufacturers are coming around to the fact that TV is very fractionalized now.”

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And when it comes to programming TV sets outside the home, nobody does it more adroitly than LoCurto’s former employer: Knoxville-based Whittle Communications. Whittle is best known as the originator of Channel One, a controversial 12-minute classroom newscast transmitted free of charge to more than 4 million students in 45 states in exchange for two minutes of daily advertising.

In a 1988 speech to Tennessee educators, company founder Chris Whittle coined the term enlightened commercialism to describe his Hydra-headed marriage of television programming, advertising and captive audiences. Books, he says, are “technology straight from the Middle Ages” and therefore virtually irrelevant as information vehicles in today’s video-dependent society.

Whittle has gone on to predict that the collective viewing audience in such quasi-public places as high schools and doctors’ waiting rooms will soon rival the largest cable networks. More important, according to Whittle, advertisers will abandon conventional media in droves for a chance to reach consumers where they work, play, shop, study and run essential errands.

Last November, Whittle Communications added to its place-based portfolio something called “Special Reports TV,” customized waiting-room programming for 20,000 of the nation’s pediatricians, gynecologists, obstetricians and family practitioners.

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Whittle Vice Chairman Alan Greenberg claims that “Special Reports TV” is reaching 48 million adults and “two-thirds of all the moms in America.”

A third place-based Whittle venture, “La Familia de Hoy,” targets Latinas through ad-supported programming on the Spanish-language Univision TV network and magazines that are given away in beauty parlors and waiting rooms serving the Latino community.

Whittle, Turner and a growing number of other video visionaries have capitalized on the fact that while the broadcast networks remain the nation’s most powerful communicators in terms of mass audience, more and more advertisers would rather spend their money on narrowly targeted TV services that reach identifiable groups of people in the environments where they are most likely to be receptive to specific kinds of commercial messages.

The fact that out-of-home TV has become commonplace without public debate or outcry is disconcerting to some academic observers, who have long warned about the social and psychological consequences of our keeping home TV sets in use for an average of seven hours each day, as has been the case in the United States since the 1970s.

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“TV has intruded on places where we were once able to gather and make contact with other people,” says Kubey, the Rutgers University professor and co-author of “Television and the Quality of Life,” a book about TV usage patterns. “Both the relaxation and escape that TV so readily provides also leads many viewers to become dependent on the medium.”

Kubey and other researchers have identified something called the “passive spillover effect” among marathon viewers, in which individuals become noticeably more unassertive and less alert even after turning the set off. The theory is that those who view a lot of TV are in what amounts to an addictive state much of the time, unable to think or concentrate clearly.

“With prolonged viewing,” Kubey says, “some people may become less able--or less inclined--to engage in a complex analysis of what they watch. This raises the possibility that viewers may be less guarded against, and more susceptible to, certain kinds of persuasive messages the longer they view (television).”

While the effects of place-based TV have received little academic scrutiny, Kubey speculates that TV’s pervasiveness has made us less able to entertain ourselves and less inclined to critically examine public issues.

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“Increasingly,” he says, “wherever we go we’re targeted as consumers who need to be sold something, not as citizens who need to be informed about what’s happening to our environment or what our government is doing.”

Whittle’s Gerry Hogan doesn’t think such criticisms are valid. “What we’re dealing with is really non-productive time,” he says. Place-based TV “won’t take anything away from what already is a very limited amount of intercommunication in the situations where it’s used.”

And statistical evidence suggests that video junkies are already yielding to temptation. They seem to opt for more--not less--TV whenever they’re given a chance.

What Whittle and other advocates of place-based TV are doing is part of a larger social trend, concludes Meyrowitz of the University of New Hampshire. “We are seeing the MTV-ing of our culture in which everything comes to us in bits of visual imagery.

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“It’s hard to be in a place where the TV is on and not pay some attention to it, and I think advertisers are very aware of that. The question is whether people will in the long term resist or welcome that intrusion, and the answer is simply not clear yet.”


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