TV agitation ends checkout vegetation

August 22, 1992|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,Staff Writer

It's the most searing question to hit supermarket checkout lines since cashiers began asking, "Paper or plastic?"

Do you like the new overhead television monitors that offer a specially produced package of news tidbits and slick advertising at the checkout counters -- or don't you?

Shoppers at the Super Fresh on Dulaney Valley Road in Towson -- one of several area stores that began installing the sets two weeks ago -- are decidedly split on the issue.

Richard Dinges, for one, is deeply offended.

"It's Orwellian, it's insidious, it's ridiculous," said Mr. Dinges, 36, an actor and musician. "I'm here to buy food, I'm not here to watch television. What is this?"

But Donald Mitchell is downright overjoyed.

"I think they're fantastic," said the 21-year-old contractor. "They keep your mind occupied while you stand in line. It's entertainment in the supermarket."

Supermarket staffers are more united in their opinions about the package dubbed Checkout Channel, a creation of Turner Broadcasting System, the parent company of Cable News Network.

"It's annoying," said cashier Danielle Council. "It plays the same thing every few minutes for eight hours. Plus the customers complain a lot. One said, 'The store's confusing enough. Now you have television?' "

"It drives you nuts," agreed stockman Ken Poist. "To enjoy that, you have to have the mind of a goldfish."

Checkout Channel, sent via satellite to participating stores, consists of a 10-minute package of snippets of CNN reports on subjects ranging from sports to stocks, updated periodically and interspersed with commercials every 45 seconds or so for products including soda, shampoo and salad dressing. It repeats itself around the clock.

On Thursday night, for example, it had a segment on the movie "Single White Female" and a report about a lawsuit by actress Whoopi Goldberg against an auto repair shop that damaged her Porsche. That was followed by a deodorant ad. It then had a block on news from the Republican National Convention, including a report on President Bush's acceptance speech at the convention later that night, an item about a luncheon honoring Barbara Bush and a brief on a Houston Chronicle poll showing Mr. Bush gaining on Bill Clinton. That was followed by an ad for shampoo.

If President Bush was once surprised at seeing electronic scanners at checkout lines, imagine his amazement if he were to see his own visage being projected as he placed frozen vegetables on the conveyor belt.

The first update from the convention came as a two-sentence report on Vice President Quayle's acceptance speech shortly after 10 p.m.

There were also visual messages, such as the graphic labeled "Fresh Facts," which informed shoppers that "Americans eat an average of 18 pounds of pasta each year."

Supermarket chains receive a minimal fee from Turner Broadcasting for allowing the Checkout Channel in its stores, said Adrianne Proeller, Turner's manager of corporate communications. Turner then sells air time on the channel, launched nationally last January, to advertisers, she said.

Local officials at Super Fresh, a division of A&P and the only chain in Maryland carrying the channel, are aware that the service is not being universally applauded. They say complaints were particularly heavy during the first week of operation when the volume on the monitors were too loud.

"Some like it. Some say, 'Oh, no, not another TV,' " said Mike King, advertising director for Super Fresh's regional office, who expects the channel will be in all of the chain's nearly 40 Maryland stores by next month.

Those who like it say it provides a welcome alternative to standing in line thumbing through tabloids like Weekly World News, which this week blares: "STONE AGE FAMILY FOUND ALIVE!"

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