Is the Concept of “Flow” (in Television Studies) Still Relevant?

This weekend, as I was rereading chapters from The Netflix Effect, which I assigned for my online Evaluating Contemporary Television class this summer, I was reminded of a term that has been central to the systematic unpacking of the medium for years, but which might be less important than it once was in this new, “post-network” era of subscription-based video-on-demand (VOD) services like Netflix. That term, “flow,” was introduced decades ago by the British cultural studies scholar Raymond Williams.

Netflix Television Williams

One of the most influential thinkers of the twentieth century, Raymond Williams is perhaps best remembered today for his contributions to the then-nascent field of Cultural Studies, which was essentially launched with the publication of his 1958 book Culture and Society (published one year after another foundational text had been completed, Richard Hoggart’s The Uses of Literacy). As a professor at two universities for most of his career (Cambridge first and then Stanford, where he wrote Television: Technology and Cultural Form [1974]), Williams — a dedicated, lifelong socialist — sought to inspire his students to become critically conscious both inside and outside the classroom, and quickly earned a reputation for supporting dissent. Although Williams’s work on the television medium contains little of his Marxist ideology, it represents his commitment to shedding light on previously undervalued cultural content.

Netflix Raymond Williams

Today credited for introducing the concept of televisual flow, Williams argues that the medium of television offers audiences a unique cultural and technological experience, one that unites otherwise disparate or discrete phenomena by presenting them as a continuous stream of images and sounds. Watching television thus becomes an activity that involves submission to a series of linked messages, with commercial “breaks” entailing not only a subtle spectatorial shift in perception but also a dramatically altered understanding of reception in general.

I’ve long pondered the social implications of televisual flow, and whether this programming mode influences the way that we perceive the world in general and/or relate to others in our daily lives. However, now that I’m teaching an entire course on Netflix, which allows one to “binge” on original series several episodes at a time (free from the “burden” of having to watch commercials), I’m wondering whether this concept is still relevant. Has Williams’ idea of “flow” lost any of its persuasive force as a result of technological developments that have created different TV-viewer relationships in the years since its incorporation into the critical literature? I’m not sure I have an answer, but was recently struck by Casey McCormick’s argument, in her chapter “‘Forward Is the Battle Cry’: Binge-Viewing Netflix’s House of Cards” (included in The Netflix Effect), that the online streaming service creates “new kinds of flows, in which viewers gain autonomy over the content of the sequence—but not necessarily over the addictive pull of that content.” Quoting Raymond Williams, McCormick states, “If televisual flow ‘establishes a sense of the world’, then binging orders our world in ways that are different from previous media moments. In on-demand and binge cultures, streaming platforms provide interfaces that encourage the user to design her own flow.”

For years, whenever I taught Evaluating Contemporary Television, I would begin the semester with Williams’s concept as the ontological foundation of the medium, and would even ask my students to “document” televisual flow by way of spreadsheets. On those spreadsheets, students would take notes while watching one continuous (unbroken) hour of broadcast programming (any network or cable channel, as long as commercial advertisements were part of their viewing experience). When watching that sustained block of programming, they were to note elements of the shows as well as the commercials being viewed, identifying the beginning and ending time of the discrete units (such as program credits, separators, promotional spots, network and station IDs, and PSAs). The purpose of that assignment was to have them reflect on the nature of televisual flow as it relates to their own temporal experience as a viewer confronted with a series of miscellaneous, yet linked, textual forms whose sequencing is one of the defining features of contemporary broadcasting.

Here is an example of what one student submitted:

Netflix flow example 1Netflix flow example 2Netflix flow example 3

What this and other students indicated, during our classroom discussions of flow, was that the various “interruptions” that structure televisual textuality (the commercial advertisements that appear with regularity) sometimes come as “natural breaks” in the programming (and sometimes even thematically reflect the content of the shows that they surround), but are also disruptive, “breaking the spell” of the medium and triggering desires that might lead to non-TV-based types of activity (such as shopping or eating). They also noticed heretofore “invisible” (or overlooked) patterns in the way that specific techniques were being used (e.g. promotional spots, cliffhangers timed before commercial breaks, product placements, squeezed credits, video “bugs,” etc.) to reduce that potential disruptiveness. Again, I wonder how much, if at all, any of this is applicable to the experience of consuming Netflix shows.

Here is a list of terms that I asked my students to think about when writing details on their spreadsheets:

Netflix flow terms 1Netflix flow terms 2Netflix flow terms 3

I’m sure my student this semester, working exclusively on Netflix, are breathing a sigh of relief knowing that they do NOT have to undertake such an assignment, and that I won’t be testing them on terms like “integral ad” and “host-selling.” And yet, I worry that they are “missing out” on how television was consumed by viewers for decades, when people frequently complained about how difficult it was to “sit through” commercials (regardless of their creativity/originality). Somewhat surprisingly, several of my students in the past, when asked to think about the interrelationship between the content of television series and the ads that surround them, found the latter to be just as interesting/stimulating, ideologically if not always aesthetically, as the former.

In his chapter “Television, Interrupted: Pollution or Aesthetic,” which is included in the collection Television as Digital Mediamedia historian Jason Jacobs reminds us that non-textual factors play a role in carving up the space and time of television spectatorship, particularly when ‘the social world intrudes’ upon either the transmission or reception of a given program. This might take the form of an electrical outage caused by a lightning strike, although Jacobs’s more mundane examples include the ringing of a telephone and the taking of toilet breaks, which viewers do more frequently at home that they do as cinema patrons watching a film in a public venue where the aforementioned dialectic of rupture and flow is not as prominent a phenomenological feature. But he expands beyond the quotidian environment of traditional, domestically situated television consumption to consider such nontraditional delivery systems as in-flight entertainment on airplanes, where millions of passengers encounter the medium in a differently interrupted form (i.e., TV shows, some perhaps edited for content, that pause unexpectedly so that various PA announcements can be made). At first glance, watching a television program via the arm-chair/seat-back interface provided on many airplanes seems akin to accessing digital television via screen menus at home. But the constraints rather than affordances of that elevated yet boxed-in setting harken back to the relatively limited array of options available to audiences decades ago, prior to the introduction of DVRs and other paradoxically interruptive means of mitigating TV’s interruptions