The Inescapable Boob Tube

I do not myself watch television, but I respect the choice of those who do. There are many good things on TV; I just find other things in life interest me more. Lately however, I find it increasingly hard not to be exposed to TV everywhere I go.

As large flat screen TVs have become cheaper, more restaurants have them. Some set so many up that one cannot sit anywhere without a television in view. On Sunday night I saw families out for dinner at a place that has gone all out on TVs: At some tables each member of the family had their eyes glued to a different screen. Even if you don’t like TV much and want to engage with your dining companions, the flashing light and sound are hard to ignore.

The hotel I stayed in yesterday had TV in elevator, just so guests don’t have to go TV-less in the long ride up to the TV in their hotel room. The cab I took to the hotel had it in the back seat. My local gas station now has it on the pumps. And as I sit here at an airport waiting for my flight home, people are watching TV on their iPads, cell phones etc. — a few old-fashioned people are actually watching TV on a TV.

As I said, I know there are good things on TV, but are people really watching it in so many places and at so many times because of the content? Or does much of the population just want to zone out like zombies, living in a permanent night and day of the living, screen-staring dead?

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

24 thoughts on “The Inescapable Boob Tube”

    1. LOL

      By the by, my experience is that it is easy to distract someone from a tv but next to impossible to remove their gaze from a smartphone or blackberry.

  1. My employer rents office space in a building where there are TVs set to CNN in all the bathrooms.

  2. Many of these TVs are showing special closed-circuit programming which are mostly ads. That’s why they’re there.

  3. See “Max Headroom” from the ’80s, where street people are provided with TVs but still stand around trash fires burning in discarded 55-gallon drums.

  4. It’s inescapable. I hate it.

    The operating assumption in many places seems to be that visual stimulation is universally desired.

    Recently I was on a long flight and had one of those seat-back screens in front of me. I was tired. I wanted to sleep. I did not want to see whatever was on the screen, but I couldn’t figure out how to turn the damn thing off. No button. The attendant assured me that if I hit a particular spot on the remote, and then didn’t touch it, the screen would stay off. Except the remote was in the arm of my very narrow seat, and it was impossible not to touch it unless I wanted to remain utterly motionless through an eight-hour flight.

    The point here is not to describe my suffering, though I did suffer, but rather to point out that it never occurred to the airline that a passenger might want to be able to turn the screen off with a simple button.

  5. I’m waiting for TV in TV, on my iPhone. Which I can then watch on TV, thanks to the Apple TV.

    More seriously, yes, it is nuts. There is going to be a pilot project here to put LCDs on “connected” trash cans. Because clearly, there is insufficient distraction in San Francisco. (There is some fig leaf about emergency messaging, but this is obviously about increasing advertising surface area.) I think it gives people in crowded environs a reason no to have to interact with each other. The visual clutter makes me nuts – as you note, even if you’re trying, it is difficult not to watch. I don’t have a TV, but watch maybe a few hours a month on Netflix, mostly for indirect social reasons, so that I know at least a little about what people are referring to. But that is almost always insomnia-based, or when I’m otherwise already brain-dead for the day.

    What a bleak, horrible future we live in.*

    *For those who understandably missed it, that’s a Simpsons quote.

  6. Atlanta even has TV on the expressway. As you drive through downtown near GA Tech, there are giant HD “billboards in motion” that are so bright you can see their reflections off the pavement. I have to shade my eyes at night.

    I never watch TV at home although I will occasionally watch movies on my laptop. When I do watch, it’s “TV night” at my brother’s and we make it a somewhat social/interactive affair.

    Mark my words, someone’s going to cash in on this and offer media-free corridors for a fee.

    1. I wonder where the revenue for the billboard goes. I think a lot of tax-starved municipalities are resorting to advertising to balance budgets.

  7. I went to jury duty today. It was horrible for so many reasons, but the worst was that for nearly three and a half hours the entire venire was subjected to what has to be the most stupefyingly awful programs imaginable. Even turning away and trying to read was marred by the volume, the relentless up-volume dieting ads, food ads, etc. I fear for the poor bastards tried in this courthouse, by jurors whose brain cells have been bludgeoned for hours before they are asked to make acute judgments and assessments abot strangers.

  8. I just wish they’d hurry up and install flat screens in public restrooms so I can watch CNN while taking a crap.

  9. It’s moving wallpaper. Usually without sound. I’m betting that in addition to giving people the pretense that they’re doing something useful with their time it has a calming effect. It reduces conversation, so it lowers noise levels. Remember, it’s not the people watching who are demanding this.

    In addition, with the ever-dropping cost of flat screens I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s cheaper than Muzak.

  10. What you get in cabs and elevators is not regular TV programs but stuff that’s produced for these venues. It’s intended mostly as advertising. Most people in these spaces are not having conversations with one another, so it’s surprising it took advertisers this long to figure out that a TV monitor might compete favorably for passengers’ attention. The driver’s hack license or the floor numbers lose their interest pretty quickly.

  11. I think it must be said, regarding smartphones, etc., that this may merely be an alternative viewing option for magazines, books, internet articles and crosswords, etc. that people have always spent time with in paper form. I try to remind myself of this when in the staff lounge I cringe at people absorbed in their phones, when the reality is that before it would merely have been a magazine. I see nothing wrong in that, and no cultural change.

  12. At this point, the novelty of TV’s everywhere is gone and it’s just background noise, like elevator music. I don’t even notice they’re on when I’m in airports anymore. As for TV’s on the back of airline seats, I forget to turn them on most of the time. Last time, I didn’t realize there was a screen there until after we landed. Airplanes are for reading.

    1. As for TV’s on the back of airline seats, I forget to turn them on most of the time.

      Tell me where the switch is. They’re on when I get in my seat. Do you have to wrestle with the damn remote buried in the seat arm?

  13. Both my dentist and my periodontist have TVs mounted on the ceiling in front of the chair, usually it seems, turned onto The View (ironic because the periodontist’s rooms all have picture windows facing a lovely wooded glen). The hygenists seem to enjoy it, I don’t and sometimes ask to have it turned off, all the while wondering if I’ve irritated the person sticking sharp things in my mouth.

    A TV was also turned on to a talk show when I came to after my colonoscopy. Unpleasantness heaped on unpleasantness.

    The only health-care practioners’ TVs I like and appreciate are those in the examining rooms in our Children’s Hospital. My kid picks a video from the cabinet and is distracted and entertained while his doctor and I discuss him.

    1. A TV was also turned on to a talk show when I came to after my colonoscopy. Unpleasantness heaped on unpleasantness.

      Yes. I once sat fro 45 minutes in a hospital, waiting for an unpleasant procedure, and had to listen to “Good Morning America,” with endless Kardashian-related interviews, among other junk. I wanted to scream.

  14. To the question:

    does much of the population just want to zone out like zombies, living in a permanent night and day of the living, screen-staring dead?


    This has been another edition of Simple Answers to Seemingly Complex Questions.


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