Trying to turn it off

matt Mullen

 
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There are many gestures inherent to life in this city that become muscle memory: the slow-fast wrist-flick of the Metrocard swipe, the extended arm motion to hail a cab for rainy days or when the subway is fucked. There is also, upon climbing into a cab, the instinctive reach forward, and quick, cat-like bat at the off button on the Taxi TV screen. No one wants to listen to or watch Taxi TV ever, it seems like. Myself included. Before writing this piece, I knew, logically, that there was programming that played on these TV screens, but I couldn’t for the life of me recall what any of it looked like. All that came to mind were vague images of a talk show in which people were interviewed on a stoop. Given that traditional taxi cabs are in a period of crisis thanks to ride-sharing apps such as Lyft and Uber, I wanted remind myself what Taxi TV was, see how it was faring (ha), and study it like any other form of television. I wondered if perhaps the programming had ramped up in quality to incentivize viewership, or if on the contrary the content too had entered into its own twilight of sorts, declining and sad.

I began taking cabs, which I hadn’t done in a very long time. The first one I hailed was from Chelsea to SoHo. The TV screen was black and wouldn’t turn on despite my repeated taps. I asked the driver what was wrong. He said it just stopped working one day. So that was a waste of $14. In the meantime, I did some research on the history of Taxi TV on my phone. I learned televisions in taxis became mandatory in 2006, and were fully implemented by 2008. Programming—usually a mix of clips from news and late night shows, as well as original programs focused on local arts and culture—is developed and overseen by the city’s municipal television station, NYC Media. Despite their promise, the TVs have been a flop among riders and drivers alike practically since their inception. In a 2011 survey conducted by the city, more than 31 percent of customers said they found the TVs the second most annoying thing about riding in a taxi. Drivers frequently complained that the monitors were loud and overheated the backs of their seats. The televisions, according to the report, are basically used as a glorified way for customers to pay with credit cards, and as ad-revenue generating machines for Creative Mobile Technologies and VeriFone Media, the two software companies behind the technology.

The next cab I hailed, a few days later, was from SoHo to Times Square. When I got in, the television was playing an ad on mute for the Blue Man Group. I turned up the volume. The driver turned his music up. I hollered through the partition: Did he ever listen to the TV? Did he like it? “I can remember when there was no TV,” he said. “Then, when I first got a car with a TV, it would play all day, the same thing, over and over again. Now no one listens to it, and I can forget all about it.” After the ad for Blue Man Group was a weather report from WNBC. This is pleasant enough, I thought. Then there was an ad for Kinky Boots on Broadway, then the same ad for Blue Man Group, then another news clip from WNBC, this one about the Olympics in Pyeongchang. Then there was an ad for Boost Mobile, then one for a hospital, then one for a car. The ad-versus-programming ratio seemed all wrong—no wonder no one wants to watch this. Despite the whole point of me being in the cab, I touched mute. I resolved to keep an eye on the screen, but I didn’t.

I wondered if tourists watched Taxi TV, but not wanting to go back to Times Square twice in the same month—even if it was the most logical place to inquire—I decided to just ask the next cab driver I had. A week later, I hailed a cab from Midtown East to 1st and 14th. The TV was playing full volume when I got in! What’s more, it appeared to be a food show! An attractive woman was sipping a beverage behind the counter in a cafe. “Well, there you have it, some of the best hot chocolate in New York City,” she said. Then it cut to WNBC, with the weather report. Snow was coming, up to four inches. Then an ad for a hospital. I leaned through the partition and asked the driver if the TV bothered him: “I hate it, it’s too many ads, all the same ads,” he said. “I like the car to be quiet.” Who usually watches it, I asked him. Tourists? “Yeah, tourists,” he said. “But they’ve always been my business, so I can’t hate them too much.” It was a short ride—we were already downtown and our conversation came to an end before I could learn more about this conflict.

In talking to friends and coworkers about Taxi TV, it felt like there was a sense of collective amnesia. No one could really recall anything radical or exciting they had ever watched on it. Many people couldn’t remember the last time they took a taxi. My friend Mark, however, confirmed something I’d been wondering about: the stoop talk show is a real thing! It’s called Talk Stoop, hosted by Cat Greenleaf. It debuted in 2009, specifically for Taxi TV, then got picked up by the USA Network in 2013, where it continues to air during the day. “I think I saw her interview Tyra Banks once,” Mark said dreamily. “But that could have been something else.” My friend Danny’s theory for why no one cares about Taxi TV is that as city dwellers we must learn to edit out sensory experiences that are unimportant. “There is so much stimuli in New York already. If we tuned into all of it, we’d go crazy,” he said.

Though it has barely been around for ten years, it turns out Taxi TV is already on its way out. In 2015, New York's Taxi and Limousine Commission voted to begin a pilot program to “retire” the screens, citing low engagement and complaints. Across the city, cabs are slowly being replaced with tablets, which will still have a credit card reader to collect fare and will feature interactive apps, allowing the rider to play music or check the weather. It was recently reported the same thing is even happening on some airplanes, where the much more beloved seatback screens are getting removed. Why? We all have our own devices and headphones now, endlessly customizable little worlds unto ourselves. I can’t say I’ll miss Taxi TV, because as my short reporting exercise revealed, there isn’t much to miss. (We’re in end-times certainly.) But surely there’s something to be said for the ways in which we’re so tethered to our personal devices that the powers that be are removing the screens we share. And surely, someone somewhere has seen something on Taxi TV that moved them in some way, or changed the way they thought about the world.

My most recent cab-riding experience wasn’t in a real cab, but a Lyft Line, from Williamsburg to Bushwick one Saturday night. My fellow passenger struck up a conversation with the driver. The next passenger we picked up started talking, too. Soon they were all having a loud and lively discussion about Rihanna. It was late, I was so tired, and I wanted nothing more than to reach over and mute them.