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RETURN ON TECHNOLOGY: Chew-and-view eateries do not make a happy meal

July 23, 2007

Who asked for televisions to be installed in every restaurant in central Indiana? I've been to a lot of them, standing in lines, overhearing conversations with wait staff, chatting with the bartender, and never once, not a single time in my whole life, did any customer ever say anything like, "You know, what this joint really needs is a TV!"

I can understand places where you'd expect to find TVs, and indeed where you go to watch TV on special occasions, like the recent Super Bowl. Sports bars, for example. What's a sports bar without a wide-screen crossfire of sports?

Lately, though, I've seen them sprout on the walls of restaurants that could do without them. There's a little Italian place on the west side that would be charming if not for its silvery babble box. I've seen them in Subway sandwich shops. There's a little family-run place near the historic east-side community where I live, and alongside maybe eight or 10 tables, there's a big-screen TV showing music videos.

I have to confess that I have no love for television. I've been told there are underprivileged households with no real furniture except a television. I've never seen that, but I have seen many homes where the TV is turned on first thing in the morning and drones away all day long and far into the night. I go for walks early in the morning, and through curtained windows I can see otherwise dark homes with flickering blue lights of TV sets even before sunrise.

Research has shown that we are compelled to look at scenes that change suddenly, and TV certainly does that. Directors see to it nowadays. Shots are shorter and shorter as time goes on, until today even movie trailers may have 50 or 100 scenes, each only a fraction of a second long. I know of young mothers who use television sets as toddler tranquilizers. Add a video game, and the child will take root.

My wife and I gave up television, deciding finally that it was more drug than entertainment. Cut the cable. Off the grid. We now save the cost of cable and we get a lot more done. My grown daughter half-teasingly tells my wife that she'll see to it that our house is once again equipped with cable. Fat chance. We have one television, and it's reserved for the occasional old movie on tape or DVD. And those we get from the library. You'd be amazed what's in the library system for free. Of course, I can't participate in the water-cooler talk about "Survivor" or "Grey's Anatomy," but on the other hand I relish the looks on people's faces when I tell them I have no TV hookup of any kind. Some of them have probably wondered if I've joined a cult.

Thank goodness the small restaurants and coffee shops nearest us have never yielded to the insidious temptation. Some have live music, which is nearly a lost art. Within walking distance, no matter the weather, real humans talk to one another. There are raised voices and debates. There's life and sociability. That's the way most such places have always been. Business meetings are intimate, even with laptops purring contentedly on wireless. In my book, there's no better place for relaxed but productive biztalk than a privately owned coffee shop, with the entrepreneur herself happily pulling espresso shots. Merchants have been meeting in such places for centuries.

I'm at a loss to understand the television invasion. Maybe the owners want to be able to keep an eye on workers and "General Hospital" at the same time. Or it's possible they think lunch or dinner patrons lust to catch up with CNN. Perhaps they just consider the boxes to be merciful grout filling the idle silence between actual sentences in a conversation. I can see why hospital waiting rooms now have them, some equipped with videocassette recorders and children's videos. A waiting room is no place to put parenting skills on public display. But restaurant TVs don't have kids' shows. They have everything else from news to NASCAR, obviously tilted toward adult patrons.

Are we essentially children, too, who have to be pacified with television? Unless you're alone, you can't concentrate on the TV, anyway. You have to swing your attention back and forth between food, guest and "The Simpsons." None can be enjoyed fully.

I haven't seen any studies showing that background babble from TVs increases food or beverage sales, but it may be true, for all I know. I'd actually like to think so, because I cringe at the thought that the noisy, irrelevant cultural mindlessness we tolerate at home is following us into eateries like a persistent stray cat and has nothing to do with profitability at all.



Altom is an independent local technology consultant. His column appears every other week. He can be reached at timaltom@sbcglobal.net.
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