Critical Ideas in Television Studies

By John Corner | Go to book overview
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'FLOW' is a word which occurs regularly in studies of television, with many uses referring back to Raymond Williams 1974 discussion in Television: Technology and Cultural Form. Of course, the idea of flow may seem quite an apt metaphor for the general process of television--a steady outpouring of images and sounds from channels and stations into homes and (with transformations en route) the minds of viewers, often with a high level of continuity across the various genres and formats. Like theatre and film, television is a temporal medium, using producer-controlled duration as part of its aesthetics. Unlike them, but like radio, its performances do not occur as sharply discrete events, contextualized by social action (e.g. going to the theatre or the cinema) but are located within the system of a channel schedule. The schedule organizes a series of programmes, all of which are on television on a given night. The titles and character of these programmes will not be known by a number of viewers until the items are announced on-air or their title sequences begin. In this context, an 'evening's viewing' may often provide a more agreeable way of watching television than the selection of one specific programme. Some uses of 'flow' simply pick up on the term in this common-sense way and do not wish to give it any more ambitious, conceptual meaning.

Williams begins from this level of meaning. However, the way in which he developed and employed the notion, and then the debate about this--a debate including criticism and attempted revision--has given flow almost a semi-technical meaning in many studies and has provided a point of reference for argument about a number of important formal and thematic features of the medium. Flow has become a notion of self-evident critique, carrying with it negative assumptions about television's temporality and power and the viewing relationships which it encourages. It will be the general judgement of this chapter that the term cannot really sustain the weight of theory which has often been placed upon it, and indeed that in some commentaries it might be viewed as a diversion from proper conceptual development. Flow has become something of a totem in television theory internationally. In a book of this kind, a trip through some of the disagreements which it has generated is useful. More than in other chapters, then, I shall be involved here in the pursuit of an intellectual history.

Williams on Flow

In Williams ( 1974) the idea makes its appearance in chapter 4, 'Programming: distribution and flow', where, in the introduction, it is noted that it is


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