Do you want CNN or ESPN with that burger?

Eating out is something that lots of Americans do, and watching TV is something else that lots of Americans do. But increasingly these days, if you choose to eat in a restaurant, you are more or less obliged to watch TV too. And in my opinion, that is an obligation which deserves more public discussion and consideration than it has received up to now.
In the last few years, a number of factors have combined to lead to the proliferation of TVs in dining establishments of increasingly mainstream and even upscale reputation. I think the first place I noticed them in was a McDonald's in a small Texas town we were driving through, six or eight years ago.
This was when flat-screen TVs were fairly new. The mounting of such a TV on the wall is a simple operation, which is probably one technical reason they are spreading in public places so fast. (Try screwing an old-fashioned forty-pound non-flat-screen TV to the wall with only three bolts and see how long it stays up.) Few people go to McDonald's with the express purpose of having deep, meaningful conversations. At the time, I didn't much mind losing whatever solitude might otherwise have been available, and being subjected to MTV while I consumed my hamburger as fast as I could before going to the next thing, which is often the way people eat at fast-food places anyway.
But the next significant video intrusion into my dining-out experience was at the Luby's we go to every Friday night. For those readers who are not Texans, I should explain that Luby's is a cafeteria chain that caters to older Southerners for whom cafeteria dining is a positive pleasure, and not a grim necessity you have to bear up under because you're stuck in a corporate office, or a hospital, or a prison, where there isn't anything better. I'm not personally old enough to favor Luby's over a restaurant where they actually bring the food to your table, but my wife's father lives with us, and it's his favorite place in the world to eat out, so that's where we typically go.
About a year or two ago, I was dismayed to arrive in their large dining area only to find that a large clock on the wall had been replaced by a good-sized flat-screen TV. Not only that, but there were similar TVs on all four walls, so that no matter where you sat, there was one in your field of vision. Two were kept tuned to one of the ESPN channels, and two more to CNN. The sound wasn't loud enough to overpower average conversation, but it didn't need to be: closed captioning took care of that.
I don't know if you've tried ignoring a TV in your field of view, but it's not easy. Advertisers know that the brightly colored moving images on the screen attract the eye by appealing to the part of the brain we have in common with lizards and other lower animals. It takes constant concentration in order to avoid falling almost unconsciously into the mode of gazing unthinkingly at the screen, even if your wife or your father-in-law is talking to you. And that can lead to other problems.
The journalist and Christian apologist G.K. Chesterton had something to say about a similar trend, though he was writing in the 1920s. Apparently, there was a post-World-War-I fad in England of hiring a band to play at the larger restaurants. In a column entitled "On Pleasure-seeking" he said "The fashion of having very loud music during meals in restaurants and hotels seems to me a perfect example of this chaotic attempt to have everything at once and do everything at once." The phrase "multitasking" had not been invented yet, but that is exactly what Chesterton is talking about.
Restaurant owners don't spend money without a reason, and there must be some felt or perceived need on the part of their customers, that the restaurateurs are satisfying by putting up TVs everywhere. One food blog I read on the topic commented that it's mainly the younger people who are driving this trend, but most of the younger people I see in Luby's are there by compulsion, not choice, taking their mothers out on Mother's Day or some such thing. Maybe the TVs showed up because of a command from the Luby's headquarters in Houston inspired by fear that if Luby's doesn't follow the trend, they'll be left behind and eventually shunned like a restaurant would be today if it refused to install electric lights.
Or maybe it's just a much later stage in the casualization of public culture that has been going on ever since the 1960s. I have a confession to make. I may be part of the generation that caused the problem.
The first TV my family ever owned was a big, heavy RCA unit that was deeper than it was wide or tall. It sat in the living room where my dad planted it when he brought it home, and it stayed put until the day its picture tube died, which back then was like having the transmission go out on your car — time for a new one.
The new TV, which was much slimmer, came with a gold-plated steel cart on wheels and its own rabbit ears, which meant it wasn't tied to the place where the antenna wires came through the wall from the roof. And one of the first things my father did with it was to roll it into the kitchen so we could watch TV at mealtimes, possibly even suppertime. That was in 1962.
Half a century later, everybody dresses like they've just gotten out of bed, and they go out to eat and watch TV while they eat, just like they do at home. As ethical matters go, this is definitely small beer, but if this trend continues, it will do its part to further erode the dying art of conversation in congenial settings. Karl D. Stephan is a professor of electrical engineering at Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas. This article has been republished, with permission, from his blog, Engineering Ethics


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