Sunday, February 12, 2017

Core Response - Television While You Ride

Anna McCarthy’s chapter, “Television While You Wait,” discusses the ever increasing placement and role of televisions in spaces that are designed for a person to wait in. Through the chapter, McCarthy looks at a number of waiting areas that have been marked by the presence of a television, including those located in doctors’ offices, airports and airplanes, restaurants, and even gyms to a certain extent. When considering the role of television in hospital waiting areas while specifically looking at the example of Accent Health Network, “a package of health-related programming” (203), McCarthy locates the existence of the television and its content as functioning in a distinct way. The network, while used under the guise of passing the patient’s time in a seemingly productive way (read: through tailored information and advertisements that lead to increased consumerism), actually works in an opposing way. Instead of lulling its viewers into a state of passive consignment, the content’s cyclical and repetitive patterns often call out to the viewers the amount of time he or she has spent waiting, which McCarthy claims reveals a “crisis in modernity” (210). She elaborates, “The long wait thus calls attention to the potential for disrupting flows of supply and demand and exposes the structural fault lines of economic exchange, welfare, and leisure” (210). That is, because the television in these waiting rooms often serves the function of reminding the patient/viewer of the time he has spent waiting--which is actually the opposite of its intended effect--the patient/viewer is then led to recall not only the power structures of waiting (who has to wait and watch versus those who don’t), but also that with the wait comes the understanding of a break in access to information, goods, and services.

Now, turning to a waiting area that McCarthy did not touch on (which was probably due to the fact of the 2001 release of Ambient Television: Visual Culture and Public Space, the book this chapter was in, was before the rise of television in these spaces): the corporate elevator. Having lived and worked in New York for a number of years, the ubiquity of the television-laden elevator in midtown Manhattan (and above) in corporate-owned buildings was something that always intrigued me. What sets this space apart from the rooms that McCarthy writes about is the relatively short waiting time one spends in an elevator. Even going up to the top of the Empire State Building, you only spend at most a couple minutes in the elevator (while wait times can be over an hour in non-elevator spaces); and still that’s one of the tallest buildings in New York, so it’s safe to assume that wait times only decrease in other elevators.

So in an elevator space as opposed to the hospital waiting spaces, the person in the watching television is the one who is privileged. After all, these spaces are meant for the upper middle class (read: white) population who work in a corporatized environment. Here, like with the hospital waiting rooms that McCarthy writes about, the inclusion of the television is meant to make the watcher feel productive--not one second wasted on waiting on an elevator ride. While the content on these televisions change (from my recent visit at the Google New York offices, I noticed that all of the elevators had Google-based content), from my experiences most elevator televisions display information-based content, whether that be in the form of brief news quips from CNN or Bloomberg, trivia questions, or trending topics of the day. Whether or not the television in the elevator causes the same “crisis in modernity” that the hospital television so often does has to do with the reception of the viewer. Does the elevator television watcher experience television in the same way that the hospital viewer does? While this is much too short a blog post to do the research needed for such a complex question, my feeling is that the two types of viewership must be different, and that a large part of that has to do with the privileging of the viewers of the different type of waiting room televisions.


  1. Interesting that you brought up TV in elevators, Alia. When I was reading McCarthy, I thought of a different "waiting area" that TV frequently occupies: the taxi cab. At least, I found that televisions were pretty commonplace in the taxis I'd occasionally take when I lived in Chicago (before Uber and Lyft were things). Though I wonder if we could call a taxi a waiting area. On the one hand, you are waiting to arrive at a destination and are basically inert, but on the other, your body is "traveling" (being transported?). This grey area certainly makes me think of the Morse reading, and how we can be both passive and distracted while nevertheless being in some sort of motion...

    Anyway, I find the TVs in cabs to have a similar effect as the hospital waiting room programming McCarthy talks about, because they loop through the same five-minute smash of talk show clips, commercials, weather reports, and news coverage. For me at least, this always heightens my awareness of "waiting," and it helps demarcate the amount of time I've spent in the cab (i.e., this is the third time I've seen this particular clip.) And I also see some parallels in terms of privilege--one can assume that many people taking cabs over public transportation have some degree of privilege over those who can only afford the subway or bus. I suppose, then, these segments appeal to demographics with higher buying power, who are more likely to opt for a private transportation option. I think there are ways to tie Morse and McCarthy more cleanly / tightly here, but I haven't quite sorted it out yet!

  2. Your response is great example of how productive it is to look at different variations of public TV (programs, watching experiences, etc.) in waiting areas, in order to follow up on, think further, or criticise McCarthy’s approach and specific research focus.

    To be honest I found the first part of her essay far more intriguing than the latter part where she zooms in on the Accent Health Network’s presence in the context of a New York hospital. The reason being that the first half offered glimpses into a rich, complex, and diverse set of approaches and research questions related to the temporal dimensions of TV, and the experience of waiting, from the (interdisciplinary) perspectives of psychology, sociology, cultural anthropology, and media studies; while, the second half, in my reading, switches to a fairly one-sided (as in programmatic) analysis with few arguments or conclusions made beyond those usual ones, quite calculable in advance, on the "promotion of consumption" (207) and the "normative alignment with... self-discipline” (203), for which the actual empirical research and extended description of it do not seem too necessarily or adding much to (I’m being a bit cynical here, yet that is how I see it these days). While for the most, McCarthy presupposes TV’s and its public placement as a satellite of consumerist capitalism, and, accordingly, approaches it as evil and reactionary, I appreciate her occasional considerations that aren’t always already foreclosed and directly entailed by her (legit) political perspective. For instance, her bringing up the idea that the sort of waiting less fortunate people are forced to endure on a regular basis might actually be made more comfortable, less stressful and exhaustive, by what is identifiable as "distraction”, thus, as a possible instance, public TV might, in some cases and in certain forms, be operating in waiting areas as something else than, as not merely an evil tool of capitalist ideology.