Ambient Television

Visual Culture and Public Space

Ambient Television

Console-ing Passions: Television and Cultural Power

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Book Pages: 328 Illustrations: 32 b&w photographs, 15 figures Published: March 2001

Author: Anna McCarthy

American Studies, Cultural Studies, Media Studies > TV

Although we tend to think of television primarily as a household fixture, TV monitors outside the home are widespread: in bars, laundromats, and stores; conveying flight arrival and departure times in airports; uniting crowds at sports events and allaying boredom in waiting rooms; and helping to pass the time in workplaces of all kinds. In Ambient Television Anna McCarthy explores the significance of this pervasive phenomenon, tracing the forms of conflict, commerce, and community that television generates outside the home.
Discussing the roles television has played in different institutions from 1945 to the present day, McCarthy draws on a wide array of sources. These include retail merchandising literature, TV industry trade journals, and journalistic discussions of public viewing, as well as the work of cultural geographers, architectural theorists, media scholars, and anthropologists. She also uses photography as a research tool, documenting the uses and meanings of television sets in the built environment, and focuses on such locations as the tavern and the department store to show how television is used to support very different ideas about gender, class, and consumption. Turning to contemporary examples, McCarthy discusses practices such as Turner Private Networks’ efforts to transform waiting room populations into advertising audiences and the use of point-of-sale video that influences brand visibility and consumer behavior. Finally, she inquires into the activist potential of out-of-home television through a discussion of the video practices of two contemporary artists in everyday public settings.
Scholars and students of cultural, visual, urban, American, film, and television studies will be interested in this thought-provoking, interdisciplinary book.


Ambient Television is a journey through the development and growth of television, of department stores, of advertising and the growth of consumerism from postwar America to the present. McCarthy presents a fascinating reading and account of the phenomenon.” — Elizabeth Delaney , Australasian Journal of American Studies

“[A] thoughtful, in-depth study. . . . This superbly researched work will be an excellent addition to academic and media libraries and of enormous value for university communications curricula.” — Library Journal

“[A] timely exploration into the ‘pervasive phenomenon’ of the presence of television outside of the home . . . . [O]riginal and fascinating . . . . [W]ell researched and filled with perceptive observations and examples.” — Kate Douglas , M/C Reviews

“[I]ntriguing illustrations of where and how sets are situated . . . . [U]seful and significant . . . .” — Felicia Hughes-Freeland , Current Anthropology

“In lucid . . . prose and with a keen eye for historical detail and telling examples, McCarthy describes how televisions in 1950s taverns . . . evolved into more upscale sports bars in the late 1980s. . . . [Her] argument is fluent and convincing. Attuned to quirky and revealing juxtapositions . . . she astutely explains television’s function as a disseminator of information in places like doctors’ waiting rooms. . . . McCarthy’s eye-opening, scholarly work breathes new life into the debate over TV’s ubiquitous influence.” — Publishers Weekly

“Written in a lively style, this volume is strongly recommended . . . .” — M. J. Miller , Choice

"[A] groundbreaking work. . . . [A] terrific achievement. . . . [A] cultural study of the very best sort: specific and grounded in its analyses of actual sites, critically sophisticated and theoretically original in its attention to the power politics of the everyday, and provocative in its encouragement that readers thin through how its arguments apply to a multitude of other contexts, in other places, across time." — Victoria E. Johnson , Film Quarterly

"McCarthy's book is an insightful and important treatment of the extensive and yet almost subliminal environmental presence that television has today achieved. . . . [R]eaders interested in television and cultural studies will find Ambient Television to be a rich and detailed exploration of a context with which television is not typically associated-public spaces outside the home-and of the ways that people and institutions negotiate the meaning of television and its functions therein." — Stephen Prince , Quarterly Review of Film and Video

Ambient Television offers a long overdue consideration of television spectatorship through a study of television's strategic positioning in a variety of public environments outside the home. Anna McCarthy's superb historical research has unearthed much fascinating material which will be of interest to artists and media critics. Anyone wishing to understand more fully our ever expanding media culture will benefit from McCarthy's astute analysis and historical insights into television's complex place in the public sphere.” — John Hanhardt, Guggenheim Museum

“An entirely original book, Ambient Television is brilliantly conceived, researched, and argued. Scholars in material culture, media history, and television studies are likely to recognize this virtuoso treatment of TV outside the home as an instant classic.” — Andrew Ross

“An unusually rich, ambitious, and engaging work. McCarthy has produced a significant piece of scholarship that will have wide impact upon the way television is taken up in the academy and elsewhere.” — William Boddy, Baruch College


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Anna McCarthy is Assistant Professor of Cinema Studies at the Tisch School of the Arts, New York University.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Introduction: The Public Lives of TV 1

Part I. Histories and Institutions

Rhetorics of TV Spectatorships Outside the Home 27

1. TV, Class, and Social Control in the 1940s Neighborhood Tavern 29

2. Gendered Fantasies of TV Shopping in the Postwar Department Store 63

3. Out-of-Home Networks in the 1990s 89

Part II. Places and Practices

Reading TV Installations in Daily Life 115

4. Shaping Public and Private Space with TV Screens 117

5. Television and Consumption at the Point of Purchase 155

6. Television While You Wait 195

7. Terminal Thoughts on Art, Activism, and Video for Public Places 225

Notes 253

Works Cited 287

Index 305

Sales/Territorial Rights: World

Rights and licensing
Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-2692-2 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-2683-0
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