Monday, April 09, 2007

Many Flows

Back to reading and thinking about comps stuff this weekend, I read an article by Matthew P. McAllister and J. Matt Giglio about "commodity flow" in children's television. They base this concept on a theory first proposed by Raymond Williams, which introduced the concept of television flow as a way to understand the technological and cultural experience of watching television. McAllister and Giglio further introduce a second term, "promotional flow" to the mix. With my head still firmly stuck in Csikszentmihalyi's definition of flow in play and immersing activities, I've decided to sketch out a brief taxonomy of these "flow" concepts to help keep them all straight (and perhaps trace their overlapping genealogy). Raymond's 1975 Television: Technology and cultural form appears on my technology comp, so I'm sure I'll have plenty of opportunity to explore these distinctions further in the weeks to come.

Television Flow: Relates to television programming and the audience experience. "Flow" describes how channels and networks try to hold their audiences' attention to a single program (despite commercial breaks), from one program to the next. According to Raymond Williams, as McAllister and Giglio (2005) write, television as a technological and cultural experience "beings together discrete phenomena (events that occur outside of the medium in different locales and contexts) by framing them in a continuous stream of images and sound channeled through television" (p.27-8). The ease with which the audience can switch between channels, due to the homogeneity of program structures and uniform scheduling on nearly all stations (e.g. new shows start at the hour and half hour, commercials are often scheduled concurrently), Raymond (1975) emphasized, make flow an inter-channel as well as intra-channel experience...as well as "the defining characteristic of broadcasting" (p.86, 93). It is further enabled by techniques such as program promotions, cliffhangers in programs right before a commercial break, strategic scheduling to decrease incongruence between images and sounds on the screen (and increase their flow into one another).

Commodity Flow: McAllister and Giglio (2005) define this as "the often-seamless movement" and "embeddedness of promotional and commercial techniques throughout television generally but especially in children's television" (p.27). Budd, Craig and Steinman (1999) argue that television enables a "flow of commodities" that is characterised by a visual and thematic homogeneity, which is reproduced across programming, commercials and promotional spots to create a [somewhat] unified experience. This strategy not only works to keep the audience in front of the television, but also "uses all possible television forms to sell." To me, this evokes strategies like host-selling, product placements and program-length commercials.

Promotional Flow: McAllister and Giglio (2005) identify a second influence of "commercial product flow" on television, which arises as a result of the synergistic strategies employed by an increasingly concentrated media industry. They writes, "Corporations owning different media outlets often exploit promotional and licensing linkages between properties to create efficiencies. Television holdings, then, may be used to promote (and be promoted by) music, book, film, and other media subsidiaries" (p.29). The more common term for this is cross-media synergy, but Kinder (1991) has also called it the "children's media supersystem".


Budd, M., Craig, S. & Steinman, C. (1999). Consuming environments: Television and commercial culture. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Kinder, M. (1991). Playing with power in movies, television and video games; From Muppet Babies to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Berkeley: U of California Press.

McAllister, M.P., & Giglio, J.M. (2005). "The commodity flow of U.S. children's television." Critical Studies in Media Communication 22(1): 26-44.

Williams, R. (1975). Television: Technology and cultural form, New York: Shocken.

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