Formatted to Fit Your Screen
Jonathan Sterne / McGill University

Is this television?

Watching television?

From time to time, I find myself having a bizarre genre of conversation with colleagues in other fields—usually from those untouched by Anglophone media and cultural studies traditions. When television comes up, my interlocutors declare “I don’t watch television. I don’t even have a television.” This would seem like standard-issue distinction behavior (cue the Bourdieu 1984), except what comes next undermines that reading. Invariably, my interlocutors begin to catalogue all the shows they like and watch on other platforms, usually involving a computer (since this conversation happens often with administrators, The West Wing is frequently mentioned). For most of the medium’s history, watching television meant watching a television, a sensibility still well-established in practical reason and everyday conversation. But of course, this is no longer the case. We now live in an in-between moment, when it is possible for educated and thoughtful people to spend many hours of their lives watching television shows and yet not think of themselves as watching television.

While it is tempting to consider this a problem of self-assertion and taste on the part of the person making the “I don’t watch television” claim, the ambiguous semantic space between watching television and watching a television gestures back to a long and fruitful line of inquiry for television scholars. For that space gets at the problem of defining television. The productive confusion over the conditions under which one watch television would seem to emanate from the ambiguous status of the medium at this moment in its development, or more accurately, its dilution, as has been well-documented by many other Flow writers.

I use the term diluted deliberately. For most of its history, television has been thought of as a medium. For most of the 20th century, the word media has been the preeminent technological figure for thinking about communication. But today, other technological forms of communication may matter more in many contexts. I just finished a book on a format, the mp3, that I argue matters much more than a “new medium” of sound reproduction at this particular moment. We can put our ideas about television through a similar filter. It is not that television is no longer a medium, it is that its status as a medium has lost density and gravity—in a word, its status as a medium is diluted. This is why we can read announcements in the paper that YouTube is trying to be “more like television” when it already contains television. (( The “more like” in this case has to do with keeping people on the site for the purposes of raising advertising revenue. )) Today, television’s relationship to various infrastructures, formats, platforms and protocols may matter more than its relationship to itself as a coherent medium.

YouTube Television

YouTube shows television shows

Although I’m putting a presentist spin on the question, the problem of defining television has dogged its intellectual history, from Leo Bogart (1956) and Raymond Williams (1992) on down to Anna McCarthy (2001). As James Hay has argued, there is a dual tendency in academic television criticism to treat television as a medium like any other, or a medium like no other; one instrumentalizes television as anything; the other deifies it as everything (2001, 205). Riffing on Williams, he writes that we should consider television

as an assemblage of practices, as a social technology dependent on and instrumentalized through a broad array of practices and technologies. Within the interplay of exchanges, the televisual refers to mechanisms linked by/to particular sites and by/to other mechanisms at these sites, and it refers to mechanisms adapted to particular tasks of linking/delinking subjects and places. Thinking about the televisual in this way requires not only a different logic of mediation but a different understanding of TV as site. TV criticism’s focus on the internal properties of texts and of their subjects, TV studies’ preoccupation with the distinctive features of the medium or its audience, generalize the site of television or dwell on TV’s separateness as both identity and sphere/site. They have tended to see the site of TV as language and the psyche or to ascribe it to culture as a distinct and separate sphere in social relations and history. Television, I propose, matters or matters differently at different sites (211).

Reading back eleven years, this passage looks positively prophetic against the profusion of platforms, protocols, technologies and sites through which one might engage with television today.
Another set of issues arises if we set Hay’s definition of television next to Lisa Gitelman’s definition of media. For her, media are:

socially realized structures of communication, where structures include both technological forms and their associate protocols, and where communication is a cultural practice, a ritualized collection of different people on the same mental map, sharing or engaged with popular ontologies of representation [….] If media include what I am calling protocols, they include a vast clutter of normative rules and default conditions, which gather and adhere like a nebulous array around a technological nucleus […] so telephony includes the salutation “Hello?” (for English speakers, at least), the monthly billing cycle, and the wires and cables that materially connect our phones. E-mail includes all of the elaborate layered technical protocols and interconnected service providers that constitute the Internet, but it also includes both the QWERTY keyboards on which e-mail gets “typed” [again, for English speakers] and the shared sense people have of what the e-mail genre is (Gitelman 2006, 7–8).

Gitelman goes on to qualify her definition further, pointing out that the technological nuclei of media are not permanent or stable over time, and neither are the protocols or practices associated with media: “it is better to specify telephones in 1890 in the rural United States, broadcast telephones in Budapest in the 1920s, or cellular, satellite, corded and cordless landline telephones in North America at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Specificity is the key” (8). As far as I can see, Hay and Gitelman are singing the same tune, and by this measure, they have given us a more nuanced definition of television and of medium.

A careful reading shows that the definition of medium is itself historically specific. E-mail works as a medium in Gitelman’s definition from a contemporary perspective, but in 1974, it would likely have been subsumed under computers or some other hardware-based definition, despite the fact that mechanical and electronic media have always existed somewhat independently of their technological forms: sound recording and sound film both existed in several technological forms at once throughout their histories (this is well-understood in sound studies, but is only beginning to be accounted for in cinema studies; see, e.g., Acland and Wasson 2011).

The connotative shadow of hardware looms large over any definition of media today, even though media forms, like e-mail, seem ever less attached to any specific form of hardware (since you can do your e-mail on a computer, PDA, mobile phone, kiosk, or for that matter print it out and treat it like regular mail—and may in fact do all these things in the same day). Looking back historically, writers tend to associate telephony with telephones, radio with radios, film sound with cameras and movie projectors, sound recording with phonographs, tape recorders, CD players, and portable stereos. This is why television can be conflated with a television set in everyday conversation. Yet the mediality of the medium lies not simply in the hardware, but in its articulation with particular practices, ways of doing things, institutions and even in some cases belief systems.


YouTube via Gaming System on a CRT

So what binds together television on a TV set, a game system, a laptop, a smartphone and a tablet? The institutional and technological weight we normally associate with the idea of television as a medium seems too heavy to sit comfortably in all this different hardware, especially as the hardware becomes more and more of a variable. The ideal of television as a kind of text is equally unsatisfying if we think about textuality purely interpretively (rather than also considering its conditions of production and circulation), for what inside the text ontologically separates shorts made for YouTube from television shorts on YouTube?

We will need a handful of middle-range concepts to navigate this space, and I will offer but one in conclusion: format. Like media, the term is certainly baggy. It can designate a file format (.wmv, .doc, .mov); it can designate the sensual characteristics of what is seen (color; high-definition; stereo or 5.1); and in television, it can also describe programming trends and practices (“presented in a talk-show format”). But the form offers a way into thinking about the combination of standards, technical routines and sensual characteristics of those things we call television. Writers have often collapsed discussions of format into our analyses of what is important about a given medium. McLuhan’s claims about “coolness” and TV came from descriptions of screen size and color (McLuhan 1964, 22), which today seem less like fixed aspects of a medium and more like hardware variables (though we should give him credit for using “definition” to talk about the sensory dimensions of TV already in 1964). I am suggesting that an emphasis on format helps us separate our conceptions of media from their manifestations as (what we now call) consumer electronics. Format points us back to the conditions under which mediality occurs.

To take an obvious example from the present moment, consider the digital spectrum and high-definition broadcast. Since the 1940s, North American analog television has been filmed and broadcast with a 4:3 horizontal / vertical aspect ratio. A 1936 report by the U.S. Radio Manufacturers’ Association Television Committee first suggested the 4:3 aspect ratio, which was then set in U.S. Policy by the National Television Standards Committee in 1941. 4:3 was chosen because that was the aspect ratio for Hollywood films. In part as an attempt to compete with television, Hollywood stepped up ongoing efforts to adopt wider screens (Boddy 1990, 34–35; Gomery 1992, 238–46). Thus, to this day North American analog televisions have a 4:3 aspect ratio, and audiovisual content from other media (such as film which is often 1.85:1) or formats (such as high definition, which is 16:9) is reformatted to fit the 4:3 TV screen when we watch it on analog TVs—either through “letterboxing” or through re-editing. Cue the McLuhan (1964) and Bolter and Grusin (1999) about media containing their predecessors.

Formatted to Fit Your Screen

Formatted to fit your screen…

This disclaimer, once ubiquitous on videotapes of Hollywood films released to VCR, is miraculous for the layers of meaning it contains. It is meant to signify editing to change the proportions of the image. But in fact by definition anything that appears on television screens has been “formatted to fit your screen”—it has been subject to a host of data processing routines and is presented in a particular sensuous form. If the image was not formatted to fit your screen, you wouldn’t see it on your screen. You may not like how it fits on your screen, but that is a separate matter of playing with the aspect ratio on your remote control. Thus, format is a place where aesthetics and storage and transmission come together, as anyone who watches HD content and reruns of shows made for what we now call standard definition (that used to be just television) can attest.

When it goes the other way, television’s formatting and formatted qualities are actually more pronounced. HD shows are compressed and chopped up to be seeded over torrents. They are recoded to appear in variously-shaped video windows in VLC player, Quicktime or Windows Media Player, or transcoded to be streamed off YouTube, Vimeo, or Critical Commons. But because of their combined institutional and aesthetic histories, they are still somehow television. I am not proposing format as a replacement for medium. But I believe it is one of a handful of words—infrastructures, platforms and standards are a few of the other places we need to be poking around—useful for thinking through television in its condition as a diluted medium, and in turn diluting the concept of medium as a central touchstone of how we imagine the technological dimensions of communication. In this sense television remains a typical medium, for while TV retains its specific cultural, technological and institutional histories and trajectories, all media today are more or less diluted.

Image Credits:
1. Josh Bancroft via Flickr
2. Screen capture from, 1/23/2012
3. franciscominciotti via Flickr
4. Screen capture from YouTube, “Opening to Space Jam (1996) VHS,” provided by author

Please feel free to comment.

Sources Cited

Acland, Charles, and Haidee Wasson, eds. 2011. Useful Cinema. Durham: Duke University Press.

Boddy, William. 1990. Fifties Television: The Industry and its Critics. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Bolter, Jay and Richard Grusin. 1999. Remediation: Understanding New Media. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Bogart, Leo. 1956. The Age of Television: A Study of Viewing Habits and the Impact of Television on American Life. New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Company.

Bourdieu, Pierre. 1984. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Gitelman, Lisa. 2006. Always Already New: Media, History and the Data of Culture. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Gomery, Douglas. 1992. Shared Pleasures: A History of Movie Presentation in the United States. London: BFI.

Hay, James. 2001. “Locating the Televisual.” Television and New Media 2 (3): 205-234.

McCarthy, Anna. 2001. Ambient Television: Visual Culture and Public Space. Durham: Duke University Press.

McLuhan, Marshall. 1964. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Williams, Raymond. 1992. Television: Technology and Cultural Form. Hanover: Wesleyan University Press.