How to Watch Television

By Ethan Thompson; Jason Mittell | Go to book overview

30
Onion News Network

Flow

ETHAN THOMPSON

Abstract: The “flow” of television segments has long been understood as fundamen-
tal to how viewers experience the medium and how programmers direct audience
attention from one show to the next. In this look at the Onion News Network, Ethan
Thompson examines how television’s flow has shifted emphasis to brand identity
and catering to audience taste, now that convenience technologies such as the DVR
have greatly compromised linear models of flow.

On October 4, 2011, a giant asteroid hurtled through space on a path certain to end life as we know it. NASA launched a mission to destroy the asteroid, but the shuttle blew up shortly after takeoff due to the crew’s complete lack of aeronautical experience—they were, after all, a single mom, a dancer, an unemployed steel mill worker, and three other “dreamers with heart.” Anchor Brooke Alvarez presided over Onion News Network’s (IFC, 2011) coverage of “Doomsday 2011” with élan, telling the audience she hoped the segments distracted them from their impending deaths, and imploring them to spend a few of their last minutes alive watching messages from the sponsors. As ONN’s thirty-minute block of news programming ended, so did the planet. On-screen graphics reported the asteroid had entered the earth’s exosphere, the set shook, and reception grew disrupted before going to static. Then credits rolled and logos for “The Onion Productions” and “IFC Originals” appeared. Maybe it wasn’t the end of the world after all.

No public panic followed. Granted, those watching ONN were a narrow slice of the TV audience. Narrower still was the slice that watched but didn’t already know ONN was news parody, or couldn’t recognize its parodic cues. In contrast, when CBS broadcast “War of the Worlds” on its coast-to-coast network of radio affiliates seventy-three years earlier, panic ensued. The front page of the New York Times reported “a wave of mass hysteria seized thousands of radio listeners throughout the nation” in response to the dramatic performance that included

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