Redefining Television

In his most recent Flow TV column, Australian scholar Graeme Turner has some interesting reflections on the ways in which media scholars define television. On the one hand, Turner points out the ongoing tendency for TV scholars to devote chapters and essays to answering the question of what counts as “television,” once we move away from that “box in the living room.” What I like most about Turner’s argument is that he emphasizes continuities between older (the box) and newer (various computerized forms, including mobile devices), rather than differences, an approach I’ve tended to emphasize in my own research.

Turner isolates two general principles that are relatively common to definitions of television: “liveness” and  “sharedness.” For Turner, as for most TV scholars, liveness refers not only to the capacity to show live events (although that capacity is important), but also to the aspects of televisual flow that have been transformed for decades by our ability to time-shift, originally through VCRs and DVRs, but more recently through menu-driven consumption through iTunes, Hulu, and other online sources. Of course, liveness persists as a mode of consumption: sporting events and breaking news stories compel live viewing, and devoted fans typically (though not always) consume favorite programs as they are being broadcast. Live-tweeting of major TV events encourages this practice, even if only a small percentage of viewers are watching in this way. Even so, the computer and mobile platforms are increasingly inviting “live” forms of viewing, a shift illustrated by YouTube’s recent foray into providing more live content.

Our notion of “sharedness” may be changing, but I think Turner is right to suggest that it persists, even in a modified form. Although the ability for TV to address a national community may be diminished due to audience fragmentation, the sense of a shared media culture is still there, whether through the practice of sharing clips (via Facebook, embedded video on blogs) or other collective forms of watching. Facebook and Twitter may be the new water-cooler, the place where we express aesthetic and political solidarity by passing along favorite TV shows and clips. For Turner, social media is where “the imagined co-presence [of media consumers] becomes both visible and specific.”

There is a third category that I think is worth considering, and it shapes both the television and movie industries, and that is the control of rights. I’ve been discussing the conflict over VOD quite a bit lately (including in a recent links post), especially as it pertains to the interests of movie theater owners and the studios that distribute films, but similar conflicts are shaping the TV content and delivery industries, as illustrated by the dispute between Time Warner Cable and Viacom over TWC’s iPad app. The changing modes of access–getting TV through a computer rather than the box in the living room–are shaped by these conflicts over rights, complicating how, when, and where we watch.

Still, I think Turner’s article is helpful in illustrating the ways in which digital delivery actually extends many of the historical definitions of television, rather than overturning them.

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