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For an understanding of television one must consider the concept of ‘flow’ as highly relative and important. In order to examine the integral importance of ‘flow’ to television, it is firstly important to be aware of the problematic nature of the term and process. The metaphor itself provides a concise description of this process, as being a perpetual stream of imagery and sound from broadcasting institutions into the homes of the viewer. ‘Flow’ is a quality which broadcasting items gain due to their order within a channel schedule and hence each other.
It is used to describe the continuous and planned succession of timed segments into the receivers, therefore the audience. The ‘Flow’ of television consists of programme units, commercial adverts, and trailers and is brought about in reaction to competition by increasing the amount of time the channel is tuned in by the viewer. As well as reacting to competition by doing this the process of flow is used to hold the attention of the viewer in many different ways: by including ‘interruptions’ directly before or after a moment of great intensity in a timed programme unit; directing viewer to sister channels; and relating material from different segments, in order to heighten our understanding of events.
By planning its intervals and timing of commercials for example, the viewer’s attention is held; at least this is what is intended by flow. Subsequently as this process engages interest of the viewer – by promising exciting things to happen once the programme returns after the break, for example – we are able to engage with the programme unit more thoroughly, thus our understanding of television is heightened. With many characteristics of this process in mind I hope to make clear and outline the importance of ‘flow’ for an understanding of television.
First of all, it is significant to point out that the notion of ‘flow’, as well as working as an advantage to broadcasters, almost allows the viewer to make sense of the channel schedule for a given night. A programme schedule for a given night is not usually known to the viewer until they switch on the television and begin to engage with a sequence of programme units; therefore it is important to make the ordering of programme material easy to follow, in order for the television experience to be an enjoyable one.
Without the ordering of programme material with the use of flow, the viewer would be presented with a schedule of material, unrelated and possibly chaotic. By saying this, I am pointing out that programmes, commercials and trailers are ordered specifically with the use of ‘flow’ so that they can allow the viewer to absorb material and somehow relate it, to make the most of the television experience.
Raymond Williams clearly points out that the process of flow, in a way, brings together and relates items of television, even if they are of different nature: “…for though the items may be various the television experience has in some important ways unified them (Williams 1974: p. 95). ‘Flow’ is used here to relate, not only programmes with each other, but also adverts and trailers; this allows the audience to gain understanding of their relation to each other. The planned channel schedule by providing material of similar, possibly niche material, is urging the viewer to engage with it more thoroughly; thus beneficial to the broadcaster, but also to the viewer in helping them understand television.
By saying this, we are able to recognize how the process of ‘flow’ can aid the viewer in making sense of programme units individually, as well as in relation to other programme units. For example, if the news on a given evening contains main headline about cars and the pollution they bring, then this may well be followed by a programme with car background; for example Top Gear. In turn, this may well be followed by adverts containing motor material, and so on.
By constantly relating items such as these and providing a ‘planned’ schedule, particular topics are embedded into the minds of the viewer, and they are provided with access to multiple directions of information. The viewer’s knowledge and possibly understanding of a particular channel schedule can thus be intensified. As well as allowing the viewer to relate these items; by doing this, important messages can be spread, (such as pollution in relation to global warming) which can effectively place emphasis on a topic of concern, therefore alert the viewer and heighten their understanding of it.
Television’s ‘flow’, by grouping together and processing items, allows particular messages to be presented clearly to the audience. An intense political issue in our society, for example, will almost certainly be presented to us in detail on television in many different formats and in many different narratives. The issue will possibly arise in a drama or soap opera around the same time that it is being speculated in the news with the use of planned ‘flow’. The audience is encouraged to relate this information, in order to gain more knowledge on it, thus gain better understanding of it.
The emergence of the single play in the 1960s allowed for the first time, political and social issues to be presented radically and effectively; an example of this is Up the Junction. The main social issue arising in this play was abortion, which was being discussed in the news at the same time. With the help of planned ‘flow’ the single play, by placing it in the afternoon of the channel schedule and linking it with the news for example, was given a stage to which it could perform and alert the domestic viewer of its main themes and essential concerns.
By timing the position of Up the Junction in the channel schedule with the use of ‘flow’, the issue of abortion was presented forcefully and used to strike utmost reactions. By meticulously positioning the play in a channel schedule, the play and its social and political concerns were given full attention, therefore almost forcing the audience to engage with important issues. Jonathan Bignell talks of flow in ‘grouping’ certain programme items together: “… by looking not only at individual programmes but also at the ways they link together. These links might be in terms of the similarities of one programme with another…