My generation has an unprecedented ability to transform the media we consume. We even go so far as to make the media itself formless, or at least to make its form extremely subjective. This sense of control is easiest to define by contrast, reaching back several decades to Raymond Williams, one of the vanguards of serious media scholars focused on television.
Williams is well known academically for his concept of television’s sequence or flow: a truncated, linear arrangement of pieces strung together into a collective, a current of experience, curated, orchestrated fragments subtly playing on to one another. This broadcast flow is the same everywhere that station is received. Switching on the set means entering that channel of experience. Williams wrote, in On Television, “In all developed broadcasting systems the characteristic organization, and therefore the characteristic experience, is one of sequence or flow. The phenomenon, of planned flow, is then perhaps the defining characteristic of broadcasting, simultaneously as a technology and as a cultural form.”
Sequence/flow in a practical sense would look something like this (these are Williams’s own documentations, published alongside his model):
Channel 7, 12 March 1973
5:30 News Scene
6.00 National News
6:30 Movie: Annie Get Your Gun
8:00 Series: The Rookies (police)
9:00 Movie: Doc Eliot
A small snapshot, or closer look, unfolds the nuances of sequence, how one moment feeds into the next, even in unrelated advertising and disconnected news stories:
XXIX (Network news: one man at desk; oblique medium shot)
A former CIA agent has been released from China
(Film of group of men at border; ex-prisoner arrives at airfield; interview—he is glad to be back)
(Still of his invalid mother)
In Vietnam, many permanently disabled men have been released from “tiger-cages.”
(Film of disabled men in hospital; several emaciated and crippled; one crawling on the floor)
(Title: ABC Evening News)
XXXII Family camping in wood; children running under trees: the wife has brought margarine instead of butter; it is fresh and healthy
My first college reading of Williams’s model gave the impression, firstly, of a stagnant, posed experience. Of course, that’s a relative impression, as at the time the shows I watched were hosted on online course reserves (allow to buffer, and then stream on a jittery player) or on Netflix (play, pause, scroll haphazardly, screenshot, timestamp). I hadn’t seen a television or a program breaking for advertisements—or playing content I hadn’t specifically selected—for weeks. There’s Williams’s flow—seemingly, instantly dismantled.
Myriad conveniences make the phenomenon of user-controlled media more and more frequent than passive watching. That experience of orchestrated, sequential parts, viewed in the same flow by millions, has fallen away on a large scale. When I moved out of school and into an apartment, I was one of many households doing away with cable in favor of user-curated streaming options, Netflix or Amazon Prime usurping the channel guide. It’s tempting to think of Williams’s flow/sequence as an old shell: encasing what is fundamentally programming’s content. Now access to that content is more immediate and user-controlled than ever. Even television-screen content can be paused, rewound, recorded, and revisited, a flexible backflip of a medium redefined from the immutable Stay tuned, we’ll be right back. At the far end of the escape route is Netflix, the spitfire hotrod that has redefined how to watch TV.
With online viewing—Netflix, HBO Go, Starz, any number of ad-muddled network sites—the flow of watching television is guided by the attention and interest I pay at a given moment, or often, my inattention or impatience. In that way, the experience of television becomes much more like reading a novel. Dipping and wandering, skimming and peeking ahead, putting down for a while, picking up again. I watch Netflix seasons in one fell swoop, or let them lie, as my interest slackens. Peek back a hundred and fifty years in the history of the book: a serialized Dickens novel arrives in fragments—in episodes, you could say: television and movies could be said to be undergoing a similar, abrupt reorganization, one popular mode of enjoyment to another.
This process of reorganization dismantles what I first saw as a static flow. Rather the viewers are engaging, interacting, manipulating. The continuous experience of a movie—beginning to end, ceremonially intact—exists, concretely, only in a cinema. Outside of that sanctuary, I navigate the flow of television and movies via my own interest and curiosity, and the willingness to follow, explore, and pay attention.
The trouble comes when I let this casual self-curation—flipping through, scrolling and skimming—extend to news media. Reporting does not come in stories on the evening news in this anti-flow model. It comes as data: push notifications, tidbit updates at the head of online articles, Tweet summaries, bullet points glimpsed, clicked or not clicked, incomplete. In short, a looser, more variable, and more precarious sort of flow. Not that we haven’t always subscribed to various news sources that suit our equally various narratives. Fox for some, MSNBC for others: the usual punchlines. These stations commercialize a political point of view, their innumerable versions of fact alongside their various and contrasting protagonists.
But America’s campus protests of recent weeks have emphasized for me the pitfalls of not only self-selected sources but self-curated news, that is, not only self-selecting the story, but also selecting particular parts of the story even within a source, or five, or ten sources. Without the narrative of a journalistic flow—flickers of data replacing coherent contextualizing streams—our news arrives habitually devoid of context, a jigsaw puzzle dumped upside down with only the brightest and most obvious bits catching the eye.
Williams’s sequence/flow narrative of “A former CIA agent has been released from China” does not come complete in this new scenario, but as a clickbait headline. The details I know are determined by the details I choose to pursue. Of course, a major virtue of this format is that research matter abounds, theoretically. Investigation is as close as a Wi-Fi connection. However, the luxury of failing to pursue those details exists too. I always have the casual option of catching a headline, a picture, a user comments, a Twitter conspiracy, and letting them lie as they land. The narrative is hopelessly fragmented, and from that fragmentation I can pick and choose a new narrative to construct. Not consciously of course; I don’t read a newspaper’s article link in order to invent a more appealing version of the truth. But internet news sources have a Twitter-trained habit of foregrounding an event itself, repeatedly in various social media feed links, while contextualizing details smatter, scarcely, around the core event. In this familiar scenario, an individualized whole-picture understanding is a barer and a much more tilted rendition of fact, as the individual viewer pieces together our own stories, on our own, in front of individual screens.
Our view onto American campus protests is just such a jigsaw puzzle. Looking only at content about a Halloween-costume email, the offensive language is clear, but the trending headlines left belligerent commenters wondering how the situation over the email’s language became so dire that it erupted into protest. And even those viewers who pursued the Yale story in whatever form online—Twitter and Facebook, CNN and Fox—were met with fragmented updates in various articles and in hundreds of hashtagged posts. Suddenly, I miss the flow of an evening news story.
By comparison, a cohesive narrative (even with its attendant bias and mediations) of ongoing racial tensions both in Yale faculty appointments and in the country as a whole did not appear nearly as often as content for the “Yale shrieking girl” YouTube video. The trending topic becomes the whole event, rather than a straw—or, bale of hay—that broke the camel’s back.
Personally, I don’t regularly encounter my news updates as a story: it’s left far more frequently in my hands, a jumble of competing online news sources and an even larger jumble of social media ones, vying to provide yet more data. Skim and click, buffer, absorb, become impatient—it’s all so close to the experience of waiting for a novel to grab my attention and hold on, which in itself smacks a bit too richly of an entertainment factor. I’m not lacking for data on these evening-news-type stories; but the expectation of every viewer to be a journalist of sorts robs an internet age generation, not of facts and of-the-second updates, but of something much more fundamental: access to a story itself.
Photo by Ikhlasul Amal