Television as a Distributional Medium

30 Nov

In our discussion in class, Keegan, Brandon, and I approached the question of what television is a slightly different fashion. Though most potential definitions are based in either narrative (episodes, time lengths, etc.), commercial (produced by networks), or structural (the actual television set) distinctions, it’s possible to think of television as a medium that is primarily concerned with distribution. Consider that none of the narrative conventions we perceive in television as far as episodic structure, time constraints, or seriality are actually inherent to the medium – most of them are arbitrary manifestations of commercial concerns. That’s not something you really see in most media. There are some commercial influences on what makes up, say, a novel (printing, serial publication), but those are ultimately secondary to what a novel actually is and how it conveys information and narrative – in this case, a prose story of a certain length.

Television seems, from a pure content perspective, to be roughly identical to film – both are comprehensive, visual forms of storytelling. But in addition to what are ultimately arbitrary continuing narrative constraints, television’s uniqueness seems derived from the way it brings that content to the viewer. Films are produced and meant to be seen in theaters, in a single setting. People still go to the movies. Television, on the other hand, has always been primarily concerned with getting you entertainment right in your home, and making the process of that entertainment as comfortable as possible. That’s a unifying factor in the periods Lotz identifies as the distinct eras in the history of television: as it becomes easier to broadcast directly into the homes (and pockets) of viewers, television changes accordingly (literally from broadcast networks to the Internet).

So though it obviously wouldn’t be a be-all end-all definition of television, you could take as a starting definition “visual entertainment meant to be transmitted directly into the home,” with all other narrative conventions defining subgenres of television. That would, at the least, allow for some interesting conversation if direct transmission (and likely some other notion of comfort) became primary in the close readings of television shows we’ve done over the course of class. What does the fact that The Sopranos or Six Feet Under are meant to be viewed in-house (possibly on a family set) say about the show’s focus on different sorts of American families? Does the likelihood that viewers are either watching Homeland from the privacy of their own home or on a laptop containing a hybrid of their work and personal lives change or enhance the show’s thematic focus on privacy and public/private spaces in the post-9/11 (Internet) age?

One Response to “Television as a Distributional Medium”

  1. rohulray December 1, 2012 at 1:31 am #

    Your discussion of how we’ve essentially internalized the arbitrary corporate logics and commercial constraints of television as its medium-specific narrative conventions, and how this is a phenomenon you don’t really observe in other media, reminded me of an article Michael Thomsen recently wrote for IGN about how this very logic of TV is now informing the games industry, evident in the meteoric rise of episodic downloadable content in many current videogames (, a distribution format that tears a page from the serialized television model but is perceived by the author as more of an exploitative business model than a narrative approach designed to improve the player’s experience.

    He also goes on to describe how warped our perception of television itself has become: “In its original form television was intended to be a kind of ur-internet, connecting distant places and people to one another by recording sounds and images in one place, translating them into a signal, and sending them to a receiver in another location. This has very little to do with what we mean when we talk about television today.” Indeed, what do we mean when we talk about television today? I think your focus on transmission is a productive starting point.

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