Television, “Flow” and “Liveness”

Last Saturday evening, I attempted, yet again, to participate in a Saturday Night Live live thread offered by, one of the few outlets for casual, adult fans of television shows to participate in. All I had to do was create a profile, and then I could join the group in discussing everything from Seth Rogen’s hosting abilities to ads airing on the commercial breaks. I was foiled again, however. It turns out that Jezebel requires “auditioning” to be a commenter on their site, which means that until I build up an impressive cache of witticisms, nothing I say will appear on the site. Unfortunately, this means the clever comment I attempted to post regarding Seth Rogen’s new “mall cop” film will not appear on the site until this week’s SNL liveblog is ancient history. Nervous as I was to enter this seemingly close-knit group of Jezebel and SNL devotees, it was even more ostracizing to learn that I was being screened as a potentially antagonistic, boring, or simple-minded commenter with nothing better to do than clog up their threads with my petty ramblings. I have yet to be approved, as there’s something pitiful about posting comments you know won’t show up soon, or possibly ever. This interesting turn of events, however, does relate to my post from two weeks ago on Gawker Media. Jezebel, as one of the Gawker sites, has a snarky-yet-sweet reputation to uphold. Much like Gawker’s “follow my example” Oscars liveblog, Jezebel‘s commenting policy puts restrictions on participants in order to uphold a certain image and credibility. If they open up the live thread to just anyone, they fear they’ll become a site like Perez Hilton, whose commenters are known for their crude, expletive-laden and banal posts.

Despite this liveblogging roadblock, I was still able to follow along with the live thread while watching Saturday Night Live (despite the Beavis and Butthead reruns tempting me from MTV2). Trying to keep up with the comments on the live thread (which were on the whole witty and entertaining), and thinking up my own comments (which I couldn’t help but do though they wouldn’t be published) took a lot of my attention, an aspect of liveblogging I acknowledged a few weeks ago when I tried my hand at it. This led to me to reflect on Raymond Williams’ famous concept of “flow,” and how its definition is being altered in the digital age. In Television, Williams defines flow as a then-new way of thinking about television. Viewing, when controlled by an audience with multiple options, becomes not programming but flow, or the television sequences a viewer takes in in a single sitting. He writes, “It is evident that what is now called ‘an evening’s viewing’ is in some ways planned, by providers and then by viewers, as a whole; that it is in any event planned in discernible sequences which in this sense override particular programme units” (Williams 93). What happens, then, if flow starts to encompass more than what is on TV? With liveblogging, viewers are combining these online dialogue “sequences” with their regular television viewing, and because it’s directly related to the program, it seems to be part of flow. Even networks are picking up on this and scheduling “live chats” with various contestants, actors, creators, etc. for directly after the programs on which they’re featured. We might also consider American Idol’s voting process a part of its flow, meaning that “an evening’s viewing” constitutes not only a television, but a cell phone.

np-00304-c1Henry Jenkins and others have written on the concept of “overflow,” a term derived from Williams that covers the process of one medium’s content (like a television show) spilling over into other media (like a video game or fan forum). However, I would argue that liveblogging and something like American Idol‘s voting process are unique, and both fit into Williams’ definition of flow, as they are not just connected by content, but by simultaneous experience.

In his essay “Television’s Next Generation,” William Uricchio states that the concept of flow has changed because “the agency of the television programmer has been displaced by the RCD-equipped viewer, who in turn has been displaced by metadata programmers and adaptive agent designers” (Uricchio 178). He also foresees that “the liveness and pseduo-liveness that Williams described as a characteristic of the medium will be dropped for the virtuality and omnipresence offered by filters and adaptive agents in combination with digital video recorders” (Uricchio 179). It’s true that DVRs, TIVO and online streaming of television have changed the way we think of flow, how sequences and disruptions are structured, and who has a stake in planned flow (now more people than ever). However, Uricchio’s argument about the liveness of television overlooks the very practices I’ve been discussing. Due to the aggressiveness of the online “spoiling” community, pseudo-liveness has become almost as important to popular television today as pseudo-realness. Reality shows, especially American Idol, thrive on liveness. It’s what makes them relevant and important to their audiences. The incorporation of other media into television flow is a product of this “liveness.” Viewers need to vote directly after an Idol broadcast by texting with their phones. Saturday Night Live viewers rate good and bad sketches on Jezebel‘s live thread while they’re watching them.

Sure, because of DVRs, VCRs, online streaming, syndication, etc., viewers no longer have to turn on the television at a certain time to see a certain show. However, the fast-paced Internet television fan community (as well as the structure of reality shows like Idol) make it desirable for viewers to be there the first time around. The pseudo-liveness that might have begun as simply a “characteristic of the medium” has actually become an important selling point for television, perhaps the key to its relevance. Like radio, it offers spontaneity and a refreshingly limited number of options. As I noted in my last post on liveblogging the real, we want to feel present in our own culture; to be there to respond, document, and remember. Convergence culture supports this desire, which in turn supports television’s place in our lives.

Works Cited

Uricchio, William. “Television’s Next Generation.” Television After TV: Essays on a Medium in Transition. Eds. Lynn Spigel and Jan Olsson. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004.

Williams, Raymond. Television: Technology and Cultural Form. New York: Routledge, 1974.



Filed under television

2 responses to “Television, “Flow” and “Liveness”

  1. Nice one! If I could write like this I would be well happpy. The more I see articles of such quality as this (which is rare), the more I think there could be a future for the Net. Keep it up, as it were.

  2. Pingback: Heyday of the VJ: why real music television should come back « The Cathode Ray Mission

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