Market researchers have decided the 24 minutes typically spent by diners at a mall food court are too ripe with commercial possibilities to be wasted in conversation or solitude.
They’ve decided those minutes are a prime time to watch TV.
Television is busting out of the home to all sorts of public spaces. At a growing number of malls across the country, food courts are being surrounded by TV sets bombarding shoppers with ads and fluff.
“Place-based” networks have been set up specifically for the captive viewer on college campuses, doctors’ offices, checkout lines and airports. Regular TV beams from burger joints and auto repair shops.
“It’s like we are babies - we need something to hold our attention,” says shopper Vernon Wooten, 47, sitting through a second video rendition of “How Much Is That Doggie in the Window?” from the Cafe USA channel at the Springfield Mall.
Everything is being tried to engage the instore consumer except peace and quiet.
“Nobody tries silence,” says Henry Labalme, organizer of the national TV Turnoff Week beginning April 24. “Silence doesn’t make any money.”
The Food Court Entertainment Network’s Cafe USA is based on research indicating more than 40 percent of shoppers stop at food courts, typically spend 24 minutes there and shop for another hour.
The fledgling channel is in 20 malls, with 15 more being added and 200 more projected. It shows a continuous half-hour national program of entertainment, trivia, skits, “Sesame Street” bits and ads, usually from 20 or more sets per food court.
The presumption is that Americans, who watch an estimated four hours of TV a day, are primed for more.
“Folks watch television,” says Jim Perkins, the network president. “Importantly, most folks eat when they watch television. The whole notion of television in a food court is not alien.”
But Rutgers University psychologist Robert Kubey wonders: “Are we becoming less able to just be by ourselves, to entertain ourselves, to be alone with our own thoughts and emotions?”
Signs are mixed about whether people like such forms of public TV.
The Checkout Channel, which was devoted to shoppers in line, has checked out. A costly effort to place screens on shopping carts, hawking specials, also did not catch on.
Even so, when the one big-screen TV goes on the blink at the Willow Lawn mall in Richmond, Va., people “get very upset,” said R.J. Mandakas, the mall’s marketing manager.
And sets keep popping up.
The CNN Airport Network has spread to more than 25 airports. At sea, cruise ship passengers can watch the waves outside from cabin TVs.
In shopping malls, so far Cafe USA is free to users: The true test will come if costs and more of the ad revenues are switched to malls as planned.
“We were very open to it from the beginning,” said Theresa Backus, marketing manager at the Springfield Mall. “Unfortunately, television has become a big part of everybody’s lives.”
Coupons on the back of receipts, “shelf talkers” that chatter about the merchandise and blood-pressure checkers that inflate to grip the shopper’s arm and then play a commercial are among the ways sellers are trying to hook consumers in the store.
Perkins says Cafe USA is especially popular with mothers who want a break from shepherding kids. It’s a “shut up and watch the Muppets” thing, he said.
Older people who exercise in malls in the morning, then meet for coffee and talk, are resistant. But Perkins said the hard fact is that people over 55 “represent less of an economic value” to malls.
Kubey, author of “Television and the Quality of Life,” is struck by the odd juxtapositions caused by broadcasts in public places.
He took his family to a restaurant where the TV was showing gynecological surgery. People at his gym exercised to a radio station’s report on child abuse.
“Increasingly the media products that we only looked at in movie theaters or home are now infiltrating other spaces,” Kubey said. “We are truly inundated.”
Labalme’s group, TV-Free America, gives advice on how to escape the media din. Shopping is no longer a safe option.
xxxx SERIOUS SCREEN TIME Findings on TV viewing habits and malls: Americans typically watch 1,600 hours of TV a year - or more than four hours a day - and spend 344 hours reading. Forty percent of mall shoppers stop at the food court, typically spend 24 minutes there and shop for one more hour. More than half of Americans regularly watch TV while eating dinner at home. There are 816 TVs for every 1,000 Americans. Nearest foreign rivals: Japan and Canada, each with 618 sets per 1,000.