Tuesday, January 20, 2015

CORE RESPONSE #1 You Can Flow Your Own Way: Understanding Media in a Netflix Age By Allison Ross


You Can Flow Your Own Way: Understanding Media in a Netflix Age

By Allison Ross

As I was reading Marshall McLuhan, Jane Feuer and Raymond Williams and perusing my Netflix cue, I wondered how does how we experience media now (especially streaming media, as others have posed) differ from how we experienced media when these authors were writing?  How does the fact that, for as long as I choose to watch, I can cue up what shows I watch, when I watch, and the order in which I watch change conceptions of flow and “liveness” / live on tape? 

I would like to use our readings for this week to briefly take up this question and examine one possible framework to provide a preliminary answer.  McLuhan describes T.V. as a cool medium, characterizing a study where children viewed television from a reactive subject position, “their eyes follow, not the actions, but the reactions” (McLuhan Understanding Media 309).  McLuhan states that television requires active engagement, “you have to be with it,” and states it has an ability to engage a viewer in the way “hotter” media such as radio might not (McLuhan The Medium is the Massage 125) however the information on the screen is received.  “Liveness,” described by Feuer, is characterized by an immediacy inherent in viewing something happening “now,” which Feuer contrasts with the inherent contradiction of “live on tape” (Feuer 14).  Such formulations suggest a changing definition of the “live” with evolving technologies.  Finally, Williams’ discussion of “flow” suggests a radical variation in the nature of sequences presented to us onscreen, depending on what channel we are watching (Williams 77).  I would add that this flow also differs radically depending on what platform is being used for this viewing.  The definition of flow, perhaps, is in flux.

My question, then, is what are the implications of producing our own show flow?  Does being able to program a Netflix cue, customize a Roku, or even set a DVR, make cooler the already cool medium of television?  Change our role as a viewing public?  In 1945, Vannevar Bush used the term “hypertext” to write about a form of interconnected information flow (a database) which may be understood as a series of reference points, linked and connected by the viewer / user.  I’m curious how a database-centric formulation of information “flow,” to use Williams’ term, might produce or facilitate hypertextual viewing practices, and more active viewers who facilitate their viewing experience.  Using McLuhan’s contexts, we may become more active when we take greater control, using new technologies to generate our own “flows,” creating links and connections to an otherwise received medium.  But is this necessarily a more active practice than sitting in front of a TV set?  How participatory is this new form of flow?  Or is it a repackaging of an old idea, a notion of “live on tape” which still seeks to retain an old conception of “liveness” and of more passive television viewing practices?

Works Cited

Bush, Vannevar. “As We May Think.” The Atlantic. 1 July 1945. Accessed Online at http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1945/07/as-we-may-think/303881/.

Feuer, Jane. The Concept of Live Television: Ontology as Ideology. In Regarding Television; Critical Approaches – An Anthology. Edited by E. Ann Kaplan. 12-21.

McLuhan, Marshall. The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects. Berkeley: Gingko Press, 1967.

---. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1997.

Williams, Raymond. Television: Technology and Cultural Form. Edited by Ederyn Williams. New York: Routledge, 2003.


  1. Hey Allison,

    Really great post! Both your post and Lauren's below discuss the idea of engaging with TV as it fits with our individual schedules, whether through binge watching or recording on a DVR, and both your posts have me thinking about what this means for networks as they try to organize and promote their programming in order to maintain viewership. The ability to record shows on DVR has, of course, allowed viewers to skip through advertisements, and one way in which networks have sought to combat this commercial skipping is by increasing product placement within a program's narrative. There was a Modern Family episode that revolved entirely around the purchase of a new iPad, for example. But streaming services like Netflix seem like they would be harder to compete with. There is a greater sense of convenience in being able to watch a TV show whenever we have time for it, and a kind of (slightly masochistic) satisfaction in being able to binge watch every episode at once, instead of watching a single episode at a set time each week. Outside of networks refusing to license a series to streaming services until well after the season has ended, in what ways can networks bring in "real-time" viewers? What compels us to tune into a show as it airs? For me, the only TV programs I tend to watch as they are broadcast are news programs, and even then I am not fully engaged. Usually, I'll just have the news on as I do chores around the house or eat breakfast, etc.

    -Eszter Zimanyi

  2. I wonder how much of our understanding of personalized, digital flow through Netflix, Roku, DVR etc. is connected to the post-network era, or the transition from broadcasting to a mass audience to narrowcasting to more niche audiences. Netflix's categories can be more vague like "TV Dramas" but also "Cerebral Movies with Strong Female Leads" kind of thing. I think we discussed this when we were both watching Orange is the New Black that Netflix suggested some prison related film and TV as a result. Also, of course, it's interesting to think about how that disruption in commercial network TV is no longer aligned with the broadcast schedule/schedules of TV audiences, another customized personalized transition from live TV. I once wrote about heightened product placement in American TV due to fear of fast forwarding through commercials on DVRs-- and how this hurt the quality of network TV when you have a Ford commercial within a New Girl episode, or audiences were dubious about the iPad episode of Modern Family (which was not a planned product placement although the show has done it before, especially in an episode this season built around buying the oldest daughter a new car for her 21st birthday.) As for watching TV series as they air, I think the fear of spoilers contributes to it, as well as engaging with friends or fellow fans online or through second screen engagement. Scandal for me is always the best example of this, as it was and may still be the most popularly tweeted show - and coincided with Nielsen Twitter ratings.

    Stefania Marghitu

  3. PS: I also like your Fleetwood Mac reference in the title, A!