Culture shock: Let’s change the channel on our public screens

We need to replace rolling Sky News in public places with magical, unexpected moments

We are surrounded by screens in public places, but to watch many of them you’d think we lived in another country.

Most public places have a screen somewhere, and it typically hums with the breathless beat of television news. But it's rarely an Irish news channel. Since June 2008 we have had a perfectly good Irish 24-hour news channel in the form of RTÉ News Now. It's available on Saorview, Virgin and Sky, is free-to-air and delightfully commercial-free.

Yet Sky News continues to be the channel of choice in many public spaces. In my local swimming pool, when I'm drying between my toes, there's Kay Burley looking down from on high, perhaps catching the sadness in my eyes. Queue for coffee in the morning and you'll invariably have Eamonn Holmes and the Sunrise team for company. Lately I've managed to avoid Adam Boulton altogether, although these days he's a nocturnal news animal, according to the schedules.

The British channel’s dominance is even harder to fathom given that we are just coming to the end of one of the great migrations in the media and political world. Once every five years (with luck) journalists gallop across the country like wildebeest on the Serengeti before gathering to feast on the carcass of the outgoing government. After the frenzy of a national vote the weak are picked off from the rear of the political pack, and the survivors stumble out from the carnage. There’s another week or so of merciless analysis before the older, bigger beasts return to defend their natural territories and the new bloods look to find a home of their own.


This general election might have been one of the dullest in memory, as every party sought to avoid a tussle or anything that had the look, feel or smell of an actual issue. But it was still easy meat to fill the pages and airwaves with. But between the dramatic tones and triumphal trills of the Sky News bulletins you’ll find little of Irish interest, even if they are savvy enough to fill the advertising slots with Irish-specific content.

What’s interesting is that public use is what television makers originally intended. When the medium was introduced in the US, in the 1940s, it was to public spaces, such as bars and department stores, not to private homes. (Film-makers with work set in that period rarely resist the opportunity to show a big event being beamed out of a collection of televisions in a shop window.)

The market soon caught up and demand for private television sets grew, and by the mid-1950s it had become standard in many US homes. But, in the modern day, screens have again crept into public places. Several years ago a Columbia Journalism Review article titled "The public screen" looked at this resurgence, referencing work by Scott McQuire of the University of Melbourne, which looked at screens in city squares.

McQuire examined the BBC Big Screens project, which put screens and sound systems in central locations in 18 cities in the UK. (There are currently 21.) They were intended to screen events during London's Olympic Games, but before that they would broadcast a variety of content, "including web videos, site-specific or local programming, and interactive virtual games". The content was split roughly along two lines: "event mode", when people would be watching specific events, and "ambient mode", when people were passing by and hardly paying attention.

Perhaps the most interesting elements were the unexpected ones: "People started to use the screens for unexpected collective rituals. Many gathered in front of the screens for the three-minute silence to commemorate the London bombings a week after they happened. And when a soldier from Liverpool was murdered in a particularly shocking way in Iraq, more people gathered in front of the Liverpool screen than around the cathedral where the memorial service was held. Some even placed flowers at the bottom of the screen."

Plenty of people do not want to see giant screens in our public places, of course, and view them as a nuisance and as a noise and visual pollutant. Edinburgh’s big screen was decommissioned in March last year; Hull’s and Liverpool’s are also no more. Derry’s big screen was relaunched in January last year, promising to promote the city’s cultural offerings.

Perhaps if smaller screens had a cultural option to change to, we could take advantage of having all these screens in our lives. We’ve had numerous charming projects on public-transport advertisements, from poems and passages of prose to snatches of physics theory; a televisual equivalent with a changing roster of cultural content could easily find a home in our infrastructure.

Some of the most affecting artistic moments are those that catch you unawares, whether it’s a half-heard piece of music, a line of prose or poetry, or a little visual glimmer. We have an army of screens that could be filled with such colourful moments. It would certainly make a pleasant change from the latest anodyne analysis from the Sky News team.