TV at checkout: Is this the wave of bright future?

Dan Rodricks

September 23, 1992|By Dan Rodricks

Pardon me if you've already heard about this or actually seen it. I tend to miss things -- especially when we're talking about your basic cutting-edge-type of technological advances.

I've just come from my first experience with the Checkout Channel. My neighborhood supermarket recently underwent extensive renovations. It looks better, with spanking new decor. And that includes TV sets at each checkout line -- attached to a tall bent pipe, and aimed at customers waiting in line.

The monitors, a sign says, are courtesy of the Cable News Network. It's the CNN Checkout Channel that is fed directly into the monitors, the idea being to entertain customers who become bored waiting in line. (And, at the supermarket in question, long lines are constant; it's the one thing about the store that has not improved.)

In case you haven't already been made aware of it, the Checkout Channel is with us now, loud and obnoxious and in your face. The news is quick-clip MTV-style news, followed by commercials, with some insignificant factoids thrown in along the way, followed by more commercials. The programming is repeated, it seems to me, every 10 minutes. (I know this because I stood through three cycles of the programming Monday morning while the cashier struggled with a computer and a customer's Independence card.)

Is this progress? Is progress the point? Are we better off than we were four years ago? Are we better off because of Checkout Channel?

For me, it's just more noise in a world that is exploding with noise already. (You should hear the Checkout Channel blaring away while supermarket Muzak blares away in the background.) I guess this is what they call a "marketing device" aimed at a captive audience. It makes perfect sense.

You are trapped in the checkout line. (At my neighborhood supermarket, you're always trapped.) So they've got you. You must either face up to Checkout Channel or thumb through the Weekly World News. (One of this week's headlines: "Marilyn Monroe Was Soviet Spy," and the story is accompanied by a photograph of the Ultimate Blond with Nikita Khrushchev.) So there's a reason why commercials appear on the screen every three minutes.

As if we don't get enough commercials in our daily lives.

As I stood there the other day, allowing myself -- I didn't have a choice -- to be bombarded by Checkout Channel, I began thinking of the fabulous futuristic, surrealistic film of a few years ago, "Brazil."

In that film, wildly off the wall and absolutely mind-altering, television sets were everywhere, in Orwellian fashion. The entire society depicted in the film appeared to have been drugged by television. It wasn't just entertainment; it was mother's milk for an infantile populace. And the ruling class exploited the population's addiction fully. To use a phrase from Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, life in "Brazil" was what "Saturday night would have been like had the Nazis won."

Television is everywhere. And, as a result, people live completely isolated lives, oppressed by technology, numbed by the ultra-presence of information.

Is that the future? If so, the future is quickly drawing nigh, isn't it?

Kids get television at home in major doses, and now they get it in some schools through Channel One. I heard somewhere along the line that a major fast-food chain is planning to install TV sets at tables in its restaurants nationwide. People watch TV in cars. I once saw a man fishing on a beach, with a small TV set in his tackle box.

I guess I don't mind all of this, as long as we still have free choice. That is, the choice to not have a TV in my face when I don't want it there. The Checkout Channel represents the first time in my experience when that choice did not exist. Is this the road to "Brazil"?

A few years ago, some supermarkets started offering a checkout line free of a candy display, in deference to parents who did not want to have their kids demanding sweets as they waited in line. Candy is bad for the teeth. TV is candy for the brain. What we need at my neighborhood supermarket, besides more cashiers, is TV-free checkout.

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