The television set had arrived in the majority of American households by 1955. Inspired by the popular ideals of domesticity, “togetherness,” and a new culture of immense consumer spending, middle-class families rearranged their living rooms, dining rooms, kitchens, dens, and converted garages around the new medium. Like the piano and the fireplace before, television became the center of family gatherings, “the cultural symbol par excellence of family life” (Make Room for TV by Lynn Spigel, 1992).

But many forget that television began its career in the mid-forties, not in private homes but in public spaces such as taverns and department stores. Television started to dominate our homes after living a short public life. (Recall the scene when Forrest Gump and his mother watch Elvis Presley through the window of a furniture and appliance store.) And now, when thousands watch media events like the inauguration of Barack Obama and, soon, the royal wedding of Prince William on large public screens, it seems that television has returned to public spaces.

In “Rethinking Media Events: Large Screens, Public Space Broadcasting and Beyond” (New Media & Society, June 2010), Scott McQuire from the University of Melbourne, Australia, looks at new forms of collective viewing in urban spaces with a special focus on screens in city squares. His primary example is the BBC Big Screens project, a collaborative endeavor of the BBC, The London 2012 Organising Committee of the Olympic Games, and local councils to install screens with sound systems at central locations in eighteen cities in the United Kingdom. The first screen was installed in Manchester in 2003. The screens mostly display BBC content, but also web videos, site-specific or local programming, and interactive virtual games. The BBC entered into partnerships with local councils and art organizations to diversify content and, in McQuire’s words, “recast itself as a more ‘open’ institution in order to negotiate the more fluid institutional context of contemporary society.” In choosing what to show, the organizers tried to balance what they call the “event mode,” when the audience pays close attention to the event, and the “ambient mode,” when viewers are “transient and distracted.” While the event mode seemed obvious (next year the screens will display the Olympic and Paralympic games), the ambient mode needed a lot of experiments (can soap operas convince passersby to stay or would noncommercial local films do better?).

The project has delivered some surprises: 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.

McQuire raises challenging questions about big screens. Who will fund these screens in the long run? How can the displayed content be adequately regulated? And how to inspire more interaction between screens and viewers in contrast to passive consumption? In McQuire’s view, public screens not only display events but can help build community and should be used to foster play, sharing, and collaboration. Connected in international networks, these screens can even contribute to the formation of a “transnational public sphere.”

While McQuire’s research focuses on a few exceptional screens, there are many other screens in our everyday lives: on our ATMs and computers, at our grocery stores and gas stations. Recognizing the ubiquity of screens, the Leverhulme Media Research Centre at Goldsmiths, University of London, started to research them in the politically diverse but similarly screen-dense cities of Cairo, London, and Shanghai. Chris Berry and his colleagues took photographs and notes of screens in retail and recreational sites, public institutions, and transport hubs to show how people interact with hundreds of screens of all sizes and shapes in everyday settings (see www.gold.ac.uk/media-research-centre/project5).

Both large public screens and these “regular” screens have become part of our daily practices and rituals. Research like McQuire’s and Goldsmiths’s help us understand the ways screens can both separate and unite us.

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Michael Schudson and Julia Sonnevend write The Research Report for CJR.