The Tube: Television Flow Trips

It all began with a British tourist’s trip to Miami. The man noticed the movie he was watching one night was actively connected to two other movie trailers that played during commercial breaks. The man’s name was Raymond Williams, and the way he made sense of this would come to be recognized as one of the most important ideas in the academic study of television: “flow”.

As he explains in his 1974 book Television, flow is generally understood as the idea of putting television programs into a sequence, so one flows naturally into the next. This is so viewers are not tempted to navigate away from a particular channel. A concrete example of flow would be Must-See TV on NBC Thursdays, a grouping of disparate shows linked together through advertisements and other means.

Some people like to get lost in books, exploring the worlds of people different than themselves, or ones with dragons and large explosions. Others like to watch movies or go camping. My favorite thing to do is to get lost in my television. As much as those other experiences appeal to their enthusiasts, there is nothing more exciting to me than exploring the dark crevices of my television and finding out what bizarre, horrifying, tantalizing and/or bewildering programming hides within. Sometimes, I’ll end up watching “Ancient Aliens” and “The Soup”. Others, episodes from a cycle of “America’s Next Top Model” and reruns of “Hee Haw”. But more often than not, I have no idea what I’ll end up watching when I turn on my television.

I can turn my television on right now and choose from nearly 300 channels. The idea of watching only one channel’s programming for an entire night seems antiquated—especially in this age of the digital video recorder and Internet services like Netflix. However, the idea of watching television programs in a particular sequence—even if it is across different channels—is one that is important and unique to the medium. Unfortunately, this experience is being lost to many in this era of expanded television-viewing access.

With the expansion of digital conveniences such as Hulu and Netflix, that sensation of exploring the television’s disparate offering is gone. Before I continue, I want to make it perfectly clear that I have no fundamental problem with either of these services. I have used both of them and they do their jobs very well. The issue that I take with them is that they remove an important component of the television-viewing experience: spontaneity. There is something viscerally exciting about navigating this television stew: viewers could be transported to someplace as close as Kinnick Stadium or halfway around the world. We can enter worlds from our imagination or our history. With online services, that sense of randomness is gone.

Services like Netflix recommend movies and shows based on ones a viewer has previously seen and enjoyed. But there are some more unpredictable finds that can’t be figured out with an algorithm. I could have only discovered some of my favorite television shows by taking specific flow trips at specific but random times in my life. For me, that is television at its best. No matter how strange a show might seem at first, I am usually up for taking the trip.

I once got lost in the quirky world of Stars Hollow when I watched the entirety of “Gilmore Girls” when I was in college. While I enjoyed the experience, there was admittedly something disorienting about watching so much similar television in such a compressed period of time. Television is still designed to be watched one episode per week. For example, I love the show “Revenge,” but there are so many twists and turns that watching multiple episodes would grow exhausting over a short period of time. And there is something fun about waiting those seven days for the next episode. The waiting period seems to make the time spent watching every week more special.

I encourage those of you who watch TV on your laptops/video game consoles regularly to not do it for a night and experience the majesty of flow. Make friends with someone who watches an actual television—one with more than just IPTV and the local networks—and have a night of channel surfing. There will be programs you’ll want to watch. Go surfing again when those programs are over. Shoot a remote at the tube, see what you stumble across. I assure you it will be more exciting than knowing what is going to come up next.

A.C. Hawley has two particularly memorable experiences from flow. The first was watching open heart surgery on television. The second was watching a show called “When Cars Attack”.

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