Ambient television; or, TV at the gym

I recently joined a gym (I’ve come to realise that exercising vastly improves my mood and is one of the very few activities that causes me to relax).  Like most gyms, it has televisions mounted on the walls around the edge.  Unlike some of the fancier gyms I’ve attended though, there is no option of plugging your headphones in on the cardio equipment and listening to the audio on a screen of your choice.  Instead, all screens have the subtitles on.

In some ways, such a mode of viewing is, of course, hardly the recipe for informed criticism.  (‘I saw this programme last night.  I only caught a few minutes of it, I didn’t hear any of it, and I’m not sure what it was called…’)  But in other ways, it’s actually quite an interesting and good way of briefly sampling a selection of prime-time entertainment, and of reminding oneself of some of the more tenacious elements of television textuality.

In his seminal book Visible Fictions (first published 1982), John Ellis offered the ‘segment’ as the characteristic unit of organisation of television.  Television is created in the knowledge that it will often be viewed opportunistically, by people tuning in and out, channel-hopping, and so on.  In ‘Problems with Quality’ (published in Screen in 1990), Charlotte Brunsdon similarly observes that choices about what to watch when one is channel-hopping are informed by very rapid recognition of the kinds of programmes one is encountering as one presses the buttons on the remote control.

This is perfect for gym-goers!  The need to move around the different pieces of equipment leads to a kind of enforced channel-hopping.  As you lift some weights, you catch a bit of a docusoap about car accident victims being treated in hospital.  Then you move onto the rowing machine and watch a bit of The Apprentice.

During my most recent visit, two bits of programming caught my eye.  The first was not in fact a television programme at all, but a film broadcast on television (‘does that make it a television programme?’ is a question I’ll leave to the reader): the 1997 Jim Carrey film Liar, Liar.  I’ve never seen the film, but I know the basic concept: Carrey plays a lawyer who suddenly finds himself unable to lie.  What surprised me was how I couldn’t tear my eyes away from the courtroom scene as it reached its (in actual fact rather lame) climax.  The pull of this narrative, which I hadn’t seen the preceding hour or so of, and couldn’t hear any of, meant that I waited a little longer than usual between sets of reps, and kept my eyes on the screen even when lifting.  I also noticed that I wasn’t the only one doing this!

The second programme was Happy Families.  (I know this because I’ve just looked it up on  Thank goodness for the channel logo in the corner of the screen, otherwise much more detective work would have been required.)  There was a couple, a man and a woman, and the programme alternated between a fly-on-the-wall segment and retrospective talking heads.  The husband (I think they were married), due to unemployment, was staying home and looking after the kids.  The wife was out at work.  Both parties expressed resentment and frustration at this set-up.  The fly-on-the-wall bit showed the couple’s evening meal.  The husband served up a large plate of cottage pie (I think).  The wife pointed out the portion was too large, there should be veg with it and it would have done them for three nights.  The husband, rather diplomatically (I wish I could have heard the tone) suggested that next time he’d cook but she could cut.  Then there was a tense-formal exchange about where the broom was (the husband had left it upstairs, citing infant interruptions during the day as the reason for him not returning it to its proper place).  The wife picked up her plate of food and walked out, and then we hear a crash.  She tripped over the pushchair in the hallway, and now her food is all over the floor, and the pushchair.  She gets some kitchen roll and proceeds to wipe up the mess (the floor is laminate, not carpet, thank goodness, but the pushchair fabric looks pretty smeary).  The husband, in what looks like a peace offering, joins in with dustpan and brush and offer her his plate of food.

As I hope the above indicates, I was compelled by what this documentary captured: a recognisable, everyday exchange between a tired and fractious husband and wife, who probably don’t want to argue, but have niggling sources of discontent.  From what I saw, it felt humane rather the voyeuristic.  I would like to see more (and if I could write dialogue that read like that conversation, I would be a happy man).  (The programme follows more than one family.  I caught a bit of the next segment, and the father in that one reminded me of Vic Wilcox, the male protagonist in David Lodge’s Nice Work…)

Being able to stand back and survey the various televisual offerings pouring out of the gym’s various screens is a useful reminder of the realities of scheduling.  These programmes are being offered simultaneously, and are competing for the attention and the precious leisure time of the large number of people who have an hour or two to spare in between finishing their day’s work and going to bed (not everyone records or timeshifts).  We see many of the usual options on display: star entertainment (Carrey and his broad performance of a high concept in a Hollywood movie); disaster television (the hospital docusoap), liable to provoke empathy, anxiety or the counting of one’s blessings, in various proportions; schadenfreude television (The Apprentice – also a form of safe gossip and a pressure valve for most people who encounter managers or salespeople in their everyday life); and close-to-home television capable of prompting reflection upon the traps of behaviour that routine can lead one into.

When the Midlands Television Research Group conducted their ‘8-9 project’, they suggested that to organise an enquiry around a scheduling slot was an approach that honoured the specific textuality of television.  The individual programme is very important, but also always beckoning is television’s overall ‘flow’ (Raymond Williams), and the unmasterable television ‘supertext’ (Nick Browne).  Some of us may have thrown off the shackles of scheduling, but for a great many people with a little time on and a remote control in their hands, it remains common to ask: ‘What’s on tonight?’