When Big Media Aren’t the Biggest

New York City has always been a shimmering mirage of television, cinema, radio and newsprint. It only ever existed in ribbons of Seinfeld, Friends, The Simpsons, 30 Rock, Elf, and news coverage like that of September 11, 2001.

Though this is an account of my personal mediascape, millions of others would have a similar view. Those who have lived in or visited New York have other perspectives, gained through their own senses, yet probably still supplemented by their media habits. Last week, I joined the latter group as I arrived in New York for the first time, part of a long-awaited trip with my wife.

The Friends building at Bedford and Grove. Photo by Meghan Barrell.

The trip — aside from being a personal celebration — gave me a chance to test out some thinking about how what we see in media converges with what we experience first hand. I hold that media are sensory prostheses: artificial tools for extending ourselves out into the world and gathering information. This takes after Marshall McLuhan’s suggestion that media are ‘extensions of ourselves’, and Clay Shirky’s argument that they are ‘how you know about anything more than ten yards away’.

By combining the knowledge gained through media sources with first hand experience, locations become rounded out into fully fledged places (being “the dense coil of memory, artifact, and experience that exists in a particular space”).

Our whole trip was a five week jaunt through a good part of the United States, but I’ve singled out New York because it figures so large in my mediascape. The Simpsons episode ‘The City of New York vs. Homer Simpson’ is one of my earliest and strongest impressions. It was here I first heard about CHUDS and first saw images of Times Square, the twin towers of the World Trade Centre and the Port Authority bus terminal. But, as Marge Simpson says: “the bus station is just one of the sights we came to see.”

Tom’s Restaurant, made famous in Seinfeld. Photo by Meghan Barrell.

While in New York, we deliberately sought out other sights of television and the movies, including the Friends building, Tom’s Restaurant from Seinfeld, Rockefeller Plaza (30 Rock, The Tonight Show, The Today Show, and others), a building from Ghostbusters. Both Seinfeld and Friends, of course, were actually filmed on sound stages in Los Angeles, but that only makes those few New York shots even more iconic.

The City largely lived up to the televisual and cinematic expectations, and showed me how mediated experiences can clearly contribute to a sense of knowing and experiencing a place.

Coincidentally upon arriving home, we found Simpsons reruns that included ‘The City of New York vs. Homer Simpson’. While media experience fills out experience of place, rewatching this episode also showed me the reverse: that experience of place fills out media experience. This was shown where we picked up on references in the show that had never previously made sense: Marge’s walk from the Port Authority to Penn Station was one we’d done too. The incessant beeping Homer endured while trying to remove a wheel clamp from his car was spot on, and much of the scenery of New York was expertly replicated. It’s a hell of a town.

The City of New York vs. Homer Simpson