In television programming, flow is how channels and networks try to hold their audience from program to program, or from one segment of a program to another. Thus, it is the "flow" of television material from one element to the next.
The term is also significant in television studies, the academic analysis of the medium. Media scholar Raymond Williams is responsible for first using the term in this sense. He emphasized that flow is "the defining characteristic of broadcasting, simultaneously as a technology and as a cultural form" (1975, p. 86, 93). "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 program units" (Fink 2005, p. 132).
Since the 1990s, the concept of flow has been threatened by new technologies and programming strategies that free the viewer from the old television model. VCRs, DVDs, DVRs (such as TiVo), Video-on-Demand, and online video sources all allow the viewer to construct their own flow. They are no longer limited to a choice of three or four networks, as they were in the 1950s-1960s.
Consequently, the concept of flow is under attack and may not survive beyond the broadcast era of television.
Television sound and flow
Raymond Williams claims that flow is determined by television's "stage of development," but Rick Altman, Professor of Cinemas and Comparative Literature (CCL) at the University of Iowa, argue that the culture of the medium produces and determines its flow. He notes that the soundtrack is unique to American culture and is one of the techniques that shapes the viewer's flow or his or her experience watching television. He notes that the soundtrack provides the viewer with sufficient plot, cues important events by sound (sound advance, e.g. clapping before it is seen on screen), and creates continuity. These sonic elements create an intermittent flow of television. The goal is not to get the viewers to watch carefully, but to keep them from turning the television off.
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- Rick Altman, "Television/Sound," in Studies in Entertainment: Critical Approaches to Mass Culture ed. Tania Modleski (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986), 39-54.
- Fink, Robert (2005). Repeating Ourselves: American Minimal Music as Cultural Practice. ISBN 0-520-24550-4.
- Williams, Raymond (1974). Television: Technology and Cultural Form. London: Fontana.
- Flow — an online journal of television and media studies
- "Television Studies Information" — museum of broadcast communications.
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