Commercials, Flow and TV


The immediate impact of television was much like the radio– it improved people’s lives–specifically the lives of families (p. 20). However, Williams critiqued the television and compared it to cinema, calling it an “inferior” form of technology because it lacks commercials, and less commercials mean less interruptions. He continued Czitrom’s discussion of the struggle between commercial and government interests. Much like the telephone and the radio, the television was subject to consumer-business struggle, namely over what its uses should have been and what obligations, if any, this new technology had toward the public interest. Williams spent a bit of time hinting at definitions of these terms, or at least delineating what was considered ‘public’ and what was ‘commercial.’

Williams walked through the ways television permeated everyday life. He began with a look at news and its presentation, moreover its use as a platform for argument and discussion, and its framing and bias-forming capabilities (pp. 44-48). He revisited this point later on in the chapter to concede that the television’s platform for discussion, when compared with other earlier attempts, is the more improved version. Television had large influences on education, drama and film, and presented a certain catch-22: on one-hand television-viewing largely became an activity done by individuals and no a group activity, but on the other hand television’s reach to large groups was good for production (p. 60).

Branching off of this catch-22 and literally capitalizing off of it were advertisers, influencing of American leisure, from sports-watching to prostitution!  Television influenced more than anything, the concept, use and reach of advertising—because of the television’s reach to large audiences it made this medium a better fit. Interestingly, Williams believed that advertisements, in a way, reflected television and called it “the reduction of various lifestyles and characteristic situations to fast-acting televisual conventions…” (p. 68). This idea of reducing the medium for pure profiteering echoed Czitrom’s sentiments about the radio; if radio was once the “Fourth Dimension of Advertising” then television may have been and currently is the trump card (Czitrom, “The Ethereal Hearth” p. 77). Television may have also further solidified the significant role of advertising in the home. However, the advertiser’s triumph may have stunted the growth of quality television.

In his discussion of the distribution of television, Williams introduced the concept of television flow, dependent largely on the type of programming which can be divided up into twelve different categories including: news/public affairs, education, entertainment, children’s programming and movies. These categories can be further broken down into sequences of programming and further into flow. Sequences and flow, he says move viewer attention from one specific show or program toward the more general (perhaps passive) idea of just ‘watching TV’ (p. 92).

Williams analyzed closely the flows of both American and British television, and concluded that Britain’s television flow was better. He wrote about the time he was in Miami and was watching TV, and though the programming was broken up with commercials, there was not much delineation between one program and the next. Williams said after his American-TV watching stint he still couldn’t make sense of what he had watched calling it an “irresponsible flow of images and feelings” due largely to the number of ‘interruptions’ due to commercial breaks (92). This analysis of television extends into commercials and news and revealed how the repetition of time and other elements, like education and entertainment, combined to reflect the values of American society.

Williams’ discussion of future media in the last chapter is particularly intriguing because of the number of mediums that have been created since the book was written. Among other new forms of media, Williams predicted the coming of ‘interactive’ television where the viewers are in control of “the flow” of what they watch, when they watch it, and are able to ‘rate it’ which sounds a lot like Netflix or Hulu (p. 144). However, he pointed out that that much of the new media is reactive in that its contents are already decided upon before it gets to the consumer, or what he says is “choice on its terms” (p. 151). One of the critiques of contemporary television is that there is no control over the exposure to images and messages inherent in commercial advertising. One of the greatest appeals to Netflix is that there are no commercials (albeit the ‘normal pauses of where they usually would be on regular broadcast TV make for awkward watching). However, using technology like interactive TV which may or may not have commercials, though, still doesn’t allow viewers to regain their agency (entirely) of what to consume and what not to. In the case of contemporary interactive television, little to no critical thinking is done regarding its reactive nature, or of the “new flow” these new technologies present.