While sitting in her St. Paul dentist’s office waiting to get a crown, Paula Engelking witnessed a contentious scene.

Another patient asked the receptionist to switch the TV to Channel 41.

“I said, ‘What station is that?’ and the guy said, ‘Fox News.’ Another woman sitting there goes, ‘No. No!’ very emphatic,” said Engelking of St Louis Park. “Then someone else spoke up against it. It was a flare-up moment — a revolt right there in the waiting room.”

Even in the age of cellphones, most reception rooms continue to offer an assortment of magazines and a TV to alleviate the boredom of a captive audience. But which channel that TV is playing has become yet another battleground in our increasingly divisive world.

With the touch of a remote, medical clinics, bars, restaurants, fitness centers, hotels, car dealerships and auto repair shops can find themselves pulled into a partisan tug-of-war. News programs, in particular, have become flash points.

“There’s a lot of finger-pointing and name-calling about news that some see as biased,” said Pamela Rutledge, a psychologist and director of the Media Psychology Research Center. “Playing politics is a time bomb waiting to go off.”

Forgoing televisions altogether is an option few companies have embraced — especially since streaming programming now allows them to air custom content that dovetails with their products or promotes their services.

Steve’s Tire and Auto in south Minneapolis runs a loop of downloaded video content for customers killing time while their cars are being serviced. It features humorous bits from popular sitcoms interspersed with informational videos on car maintenance.

The shop also has a basic cable package, whose use it tightly controls.

“If a customer asks for a show, we turn it on for them, but we don’t have Fox News or MSNBC,” said Chris Nelson, service coordinator. “We have every kind of person in our neighborhood, so we want to ride the fence. We’re here to fix cars, not delve into that stuff.”

In the waiting room at Minnesota Oncology’s Minneapolis office, the television is set to the Food Network. Patients settled in recliners in the part of the clinic where chemotherapy is dispensed can select whatever channel they want to watch on the nearest screen. Even then, the office allows patients a choice.

“When patients come in and see someone watching a channel they don’t like, they’ll say, ‘I’m going to sit in another section’ and they avoid it that way,” said medical assistant Kim Spangler.

At Murdoch Orthodontics in Golden Valley, the office staff keeps an eye on broadcast programs and changes channels throughout the day, favoring teen-friendly content that’s neutral and noncontroversial, game shows and local programs such as “Twin Cities Live” and “The Jason Show.”

Environmental impact

Whether businesses are aware of it or not, “television content is part of the environment they create and can influence the experience for the customer, client or patient, positive or negative,” Rutledge said.

Health care providers, in particular, need to consider that environment, said medical practice consultant Judy Capko.

They can risk annoying, alienating or even losing patients because of the programs they air in common spaces, said Capko, author of “The Patient-Centered Payoff: Driving Practice Growth Through Image, Culture, and Patient Experience.”

“Doctors think the patient experience is about the interaction with them, but it starts when the patient walks in the door,” she said. “If that’s a good experience, they will relate better to the doctor when they meet. Doctors can be superb in their specialty, but they have to remember they are in a service industry, too.”

In addition, waiting rooms in clinics or hospitals can be emotionally charged spaces. People who are ill or anxious about their appointments may be more susceptible to feeling irritated or annoyed by programming they find objectionable, Capko said.

A TV airing divisive shows can hurt more than just a provider’s business: It also could affect patients’ health.

“There’s research that shows that it’s in a patient’s best interest to be relaxed, calm and in a positive mood when they’re face-to-face with the health professional,” Rutledge said. “It decreases pain and makes them more resilient. Conversely, if they’re anxious, it hurts more.”

That’s why cable channels such as Animal Planet, National Geographic and, especially, HGTV have become the go-tos for most waiting rooms.

“The ratings services don’t track what’s playing in doctors’ offices and hotel lobbies, but I see more home improvement programming,” she said. “Those shows are about applying creativity, empowering people. They’re predictable and follow a formula, but there are no negative emotions.”


Kevyn Burger is a Minneapolis-based freelance broadcaster and writer.