In Todd M. Sodano’s chapter, “Television’s Paradigm (Time)Shift: Production and Consumption Practices in the Post-Network Era,” he discusses how the different methods and modes of media consumption have transformed the ways in which society watches and responds to television broadcasting. Sodano focuses on several various key methods or modes that have defined this shift in television, including flow, technology, binge/marathon viewing, gaps with and across seasons, paratexts, and water cooler conversations/spoilers.
Before Sodano discusses how flow has contributed to television’s time shift, he describes what flow is, what it means to television, and how it has previously existed on the small screen. I find it particularly fascinating that he remarks on how the “traditional linear broadcast flow [of] the network era” (77) has been “challenged and subverted” by more popular forms of media—cable, online streaming, DVDs, and others. To speak of a “challenged” linear flow must mean that at one point and time, broadcasting once existed linearly without interruption.
Sodano also refers to Raymond Williams definition of “flow,” which is described as “the uninterrupted nature of television within, between, and across programs” (28). He discusses how initially, the relationship between viewers (or readers) and a media or text was considered discrete. An audience would travel to a movie theater, watch a film, and then return home. There were no interruptions. This discrete mode of media consumption remained unchanged until advertising was introduced to the scene.
Within the chapter, I am especially interested in how “flow” can be further described with what Sodano calls “convenience technologies.” Although he focuses on describing the effects DVD and DVR technologies have had on the consumption of network programming, I think there is another argument regarding mobile devices, including tablets. Viewers are no longer restricted to television screen programming, which is where the majority of DVD and DVR technologies are utilized. Our smaller-screen technologies also give us the opportunity to stream video content wherever we might be. Some satellite service providers, such as Dish Network, now give consumers the option of live streaming television content straight to their phones. For example, if someone needs to leave their home for a prior engagement, the technology exists for them to transfer the remaining show onto their phones and continue watching as they travel to their next destination. The flow cycle never ends—it just adapts to the accessible technology to ensure that consumers are never left out of the loop.
Sodano also discusses binge and marathon watching, but his chapter was published the year before Netflix began producing and publishing original content, so his argument does not necessarily delve into the streaming phenomenon that has accompanied full-season premiere releases. In 2013, Netflix debuted season one of House of Cards, but rather than providing a weekly timeslot in which viewers could hop online and stream each episode, the company released the entire first season at once. With this method, the speed of consumption is determined entirely by the individual viewer. The circular pattern of flow still exists, but consumers are given choice as to when and where they watch the programming. With Alpha House (2013), Amazon tried to use the broadcasting method of release. The first three episodes were available to Prime users, and then each week, an additional episode was released. Former People magazine TV editor Jason Lynch argues that Amazon chose this method because unlike Netflix, they have other motives for getting people to use their website. He writes, “For Netflix, the subscribers are the income, and by that measure it easily has the upper hand” (Lynch, emphasis in original). Despite his claim, Amazon’s 2014 release of Transparent trailed Netflix, as the company decided to release the entire season at once.
The way in which these companies are producing content easily reckons back to Sodano’s discussion of how binge and marathon watching has transformed our relationship with television broadcasting; however, he also argues that these methods of consumption “remove viewers from… paratextual conversations that take place across episodes and the gaps between them” (32). His examples include the discussion surrounding the same-sex Modern Family kiss at its time of production, as well as Grady Hendrix’s claim that the box set is a form of “ritualistic abuse [that] we inflict on one another” (32). Viewers are considered removed from the text because, unlike broadcast television, content is being purchased, streamed, downloaded, and watched at rates that are incredibly varied and individualized based on each consumer’s viewing patterns. In recent years, I believe that there has been a push for a reconnection of sorts regarding this removal. Through social platforms like Twitter and Periscope, users are now able to connect with each other in live time, which was never previously an option for broadcast programming. Rather than discussing the big moments of television after the individual episode aired, viewers can now be in constant conversation within the first few seconds of the episode’s release. Despite the individual consumption rates of online media services, streaming responses function similarly to that of broadcast television. There are now applications that block spoilers by accessing user feeds and editing any posts or articles that might mention the user’s favorite shows. The convenience technologies have increased, but so have the methods in which we preserve our nostalgia for broadcast programming.
The one mode or method that could be considered lost, however, are the gaps that have been created between the airing of episodes. For users who continue to stream available content at a considerable pace, there is still time for interpretation—what to Sean O’Sullivan refers to in Sodona’s chapter as “speculating about plot developments or resolutions, wondering about characters and their choices, luxuriating in the details of the story’s construction” (34); however, in connection to the cycle of flow and the increased methods of binge and marathon watching, a user who consumes a season over a rapidly short period of time might not experience these moments of introspection.
I think it is particularly interesting to think about the challenges or implications that accompany this loss. When online viewers miss out on that opportunity to brood and interpret the text, is the viewing process altered? Sodano’s discussion often harkens back to advertising and how broadcasting companies use television programming as a supplement to the advertising as opposed to the other way around. If this is true, then online ad-free viewing, in a way, destroys the expectations set forth by traditional television broadcasting. With sources such as Netflix, viewers are not obligated to watch commercials or promotional spots. The “flow” exists purely within the television show itself—the narrative arc from episode-to-episode, as well as from the beginning of the show to the end of the show—controls the temporality across the programming. Even with Netflix’s original content, they are limited to the brief promos that play on the top of the page when a user logs in. If advertising is so important to television programming and broadcasting, how might Netflix be changing this? I’m patiently waiting for Netflix commercials on regular TV…