Friday, July 23, 2004

Bar-goers get together to watch TV

Maggie Downs

It was just another night at Shanghai Mama's.

The noodles were steaming from bottomless bowls. Patrons were trying their luck with the wooden chopsticks. The decor was all dim lights and Asian art. And the music went a little something like this:

"Doo-doo, doo-doo, doo-doo dooooo ..."

Jeopardy! was on.

The crowd, servers included, was huddled around the back of the bar, all staring at a small TV.

True, the show featured Ken Jennings, the reigning Jeopardy! king and geek object of my affection.

But this was yet another example of what I've been seeing all around. More people are going out - to watch TV.

Not sports, mind you. There will always be a Hap's Irish Pub for soccer and a Buffalo Wild Wings for football.

Now people are going out to see the same good-ol' sitcoms and reality shows they could find at home.

At Carol's on Main, where the motto is "Be Sociable!" the place has always drawn a crowd on American Idol nights.

"People would groan at the same time or cheer for the same people," said bartender Andrew Sheffield. "There was all this booing and hissing."

The reason many people watch their favorite programs at bars is because it's like socializing lite.

TV automatically gives a crowd of strangers something easy to discuss. It's not like sauntering up to a bar and trying to make small talk about foreign policy or religion. It's more like falling into an in-depth discussion with everyone in your perimeter about how LaToya was robbed of the Idol crown.

It also creates an instant community, as the people at Hamburger Mary's have discovered. The bar regularly features episodes of Queer as Folk, The L Word, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, Straight Plan for the Gay Man, The Simple Life, Will & Grace and Blow Out.

Some are shown with full sound, some simply with subtitles.

"It depends on what the crowd wants," said bartender Tyler Huff.

It's the same phenomenon as going out to the movies. It's a chance to get out of the house and experience something collectively.

"It's captivating. It's entertaining," Huff said. "And if people are out by themselves, it gives them something to do."

A practical aspect is that people can see what they don't pay for.

"All the Bravo or Showtime shows, we get a big crowd for those," Huff said.

There are drawbacks to shared viewing, however, as Sheffield discovered when he was working at a sports bar that boasted a TV in every booth.

"It always baffled me that people wouldn't even look at each other the whole meal," he said.

That could be part of the reason places are presenting more multimedia rather than straightforward TV programming. At Hamburger Mary's, a DJ plays during commercial breaks or sometimes over the shows themselves.

Since reopening in June, Carol's has established a theme for each night. On Sundays, they showcase clips from musicals. On Thursdays, they feature comedy and stand-up clips that are interspersed with music.

"It gives you the visual imagery without watching television," Sheffield said.

Still, there are those who continue to relish their TV.

"I might not have the most interesting life," said Tim Kaiser, 26, of Crescent Springs. "But Will & Grace do."

I have friends in L.A. who watch Nip/Tuck at a hip cafe. Another friend in Washington, D.C., goes on reality TV binges at her neighborhood tavern. The experience gives them camaraderie in places that aren't overtly friendly.

It's like when I attended Ohio University. For one night only, everyone in the dorm set aside their differences to come together and watch the Melrose Place catfights.

So maybe what Cincinnati actually needs is more television.

Because it seems as long as Ken Jennings keeps winning Jeopardy!, our city can find some kind of brotherhood.


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