Going Through the Paces
by: Mimi White / Northwestern University
I have been thinking about the pace of television, and wondering if I even know what the pace of television is. This is largely inspired by a phrase used to describe one of the aims of Flow, to offer “television criticism at the pace of television.” I consider this from my current position in Helsinki, Finland. I am just a visitor here, although for an extended stay; it is not my permanent location.
I am not thinking about certain stereotypical distinctions that are frequently made between American commercial-entertainment television and state television systems based in the public-service tradition. It is commonplace, and perhaps progressively obsolete or at least banal, to notice the “fast pace” of American television relative to the others, with its cultivation of sound bite culture, its crass consumerism, and its jarring collisions of programs, ads, promotions, etc. Indeed, in his seminal 1970s study, Television: Technology and Cultural Form, Raymond Williams introduced the term “flow,” allegedly in response to his first encounter with American commercial programming and its shocking, disorienting impact in these terms.
Rather, I am thinking about the pace at which American programs officially appear on television outside the U.S. relative to when they first appear in the U.S. In Finland, and many countries around the globe, one can see plenty of American television programs (as well as programs from other countries) on broadcast and cable stations. But the programming from America is out of phase with its initial appearance in the U.S. So the pace is not just the same.
For example, what I can’t see right now, at least through normal channels — that is, by turning on my television at a fixed time each week: current episodes of the programs that I have routinely watched “at home” in the U.S., and any program that started on American television in the fall of 2004. No Desperate Housewives, Lost, Father of the Pride, Nanny 911, life as we know it, LAX, or big fat obnoxious bosses, to name only a few. Even generating this list gives me pause, since some of these are hits while others are apt to languish, and may already be cancelled. It isn’t necessarily the list that would be formulated by someone producing television criticism at the pace of television, at least in terms of having a sense of the pulse of the current U.S. television season.
At the same time, I can’t watch Finnish television at its own pace, since I don’t know the language. More accurately, I can (and sometimes do) watch Finnish programs, but I don’t know what is going on. Luckily for me, English language programs are subtitled here rather than dubbed. What I can see: last year’s episodes of many American series, including Friends, The Guardian, C.S.I., Law and Order, The West Wing, Everwood, The Sopranos, and Sex and the City (which aired its final episode just before Thanksgiving), among many others. I can watch two-year old episodes of Judging Amy; Las Vegas and The O.C. have recently premiered with what are, in the U.S., last year’s episodes. This is just a sampling of what is available.
When it comes to television, I am especially partial to dramatic fiction programs. So not watching these shows is not a good alternative, but neither is watching documentaries on Discovery. Yet there are constraints on my viewing. Despite the considerable range of English-language television programming on Finnish broadcast and cable stations, the choice for Anglophone viewers is still different from the range of choice in the U.S. Sometimes I end up watching the same shows I regularly watch in the U.S., even though for me they are reruns. I also end up watching American shows I haven’t ever seen before.
During my first extended stay in Finland, ten years ago, I started watching Beverly Hills 90210. After a few weeks, I realized that it was also airing on the Swedish television station included on my cable system. Based on the plot situations, it was obvious that the Swedish station was showing more recent episodes than the ones in Finland. Then I discovered that the Estonian television station (also on the cable system) had started airing the series, which I happened upon during what was clearly a very early episode. For about six weeks, I watched Beverly Hills 90210 three times a week, each episode from a different season. Two of these aired almost back to back on Sunday in the late afternoon. What was the pace of this television?
Whatever the pace was, it was based on my access to a fixed repertoire of channels available at the time on Helsinki cable. It was all “old” relative to what was then showing in the U.S. Each version was also “new” in the immediate national context where it was broadcast, but not necessarily once it crossed borders, which was institutionally enabled by cable television. For me — the American in Helsinki — it was all “new.” For Finnish viewers, the Estonian version might have been “old;” but if they followed the program on the Swedish station, even the Finnish episodes might be “old.”
My awareness of this particular pace, of these paces, was a result of my “estranged” relation to the available media. Otherwise, I would not have been watching BH90210 to begin with, let alone three times a week. But I am not convinced that the nature of pace that it highlights — as a relative, variable, redundant, and multiple phenomenon — is necessarily distinctive to my position as a visitor in Finland. Rather, I have started to realize that the same pace(s) is equally available through, even inscribed within, U.S. television.
There are so many ways to see and to re-see television. Multiply-paced television is available through a variety of circumstances: while channel surfing; when a program is in reruns on cable; when a friend buys the DVD. People regularly tape or TIVO programs for viewing at some indefinite later time, whether or not they actually watch. (I have the sense that a lot of TIVO ends up with only the machine “watching” the show.) There are all kinds of shows with multiple seasons available for viewing on television at the same time, both while they are still in first run and long after. Buffy, the Vampire Slayer, may be cancelled, but it is still on television, both in the U.S. and in many other countries, including Finland. It is also widely available on DVD.
These are all just normal ways of watching television, old and new, for the first or third time, from last week or from the 1980s, at home or away, in habitual viewing conditions or in unfamiliar situations. So the different paces I encounter here in Helsinki turn out to be a particular variant or manifestation of the multiple paces that constitute the pace of television in general.
Even though I mainly watch and write about American television, ultimately I am not willing to let current U.S. television — especially prime time series, and especially the newest shows to appear — set the pace of television. Certainly, the first run of American prime time series is one locus or measure of pace, in particular because so much of it does travel, sooner or later. It can be valuable to recognize, and talk about, the variations and innovations that are especially salient when new shows are on the air for the first time. But this is hardly the only locus or measure of the paces of television, particularly considering that some “new” shows will, inevitably, continue to reappear: they will persist as part of current, ongoing television programming, or may be available on DVD, even at the same time that they are cancelled. The pace of television includes programs that aren’t showing for the first time or only in one place, as well as programs that do not originate in the U.S. and may not ever show there.
While viewers and critics need to be aware of the institutional logics of the medium — including the institutional importance of viewers who are willing and able to keep pace with the pace of prime time television, watching the new shows when they first air, and being particularly interested in what is “new” — I am reluctant to let this logic finally determine or constrain how I watch, and especially the ways I think about, the medium. Understanding institutional values should not be the same as conceding to them.
At the same time, I must admit that when it comes to my personal viewing, I hope the shows I have routinely watched aren’t all cancelled before I get back to the U.S. In the meantime, here in Helsinki, I have started watching Nip/Tuck — last year’s episodes, of course — for the first time, on Tuesday nights, at the exact time when I have normally watched Judging Amy in the U.S. It isn’t just the same.
Please feel free to comment.