Considering Flow

by: Doug Battema / Western New England College

I found the FLOW conference to be provocative and engaging. The more free-flowing format allowed for much more interaction and great conversation; the panels I attended were well-organized and effectively moderated; and the opportunity to hear colleagues speaking about their work with more passion and interest than conventional panels typically elicit was inspiring.

Still, throughout the conference, I was struck by two lacunae, both within panel discussions and in television scholarship generally. The first is about commercials. While attending the panel on television as an advertising medium, I realized how little attention we pay as scholars to this raison d'etre of television programming, at least in the U.S. – both as an object of study in contemporary television and in television history. Commercials fall outside the conventional object of study of most television scholars (fictional narrative television or nonfictional news programming) and are wildly unpredictable from the perspective of the viewer and extraordinarily hard for television historians to locate and study (commercials are unscheduled, and often seen as an opportunity for a bathroom break or a quick check of other programming rather than an object of interest in themselves). And when commercials are examined by television scholars, it is often only national – not local or regional – commercials that receive attention, further obscuring other patterns or trends of television use. As Neal Burns pointed out, marketers and advertisers are much more savvy about the design and use of commercials than television scholars; it's worth considering how advertisers and television producers and programmers alike surveil, atomize, and reaggregate their audiences strategically, as an organic component of constructing fictional and nonfictional programming.

Considering how commercials operate – not only their aesthetic design and appeal, but the way in which they function narratively and structurally – is quite intriguing. Commercials are highly iconic, perhaps more so than most conventional narrative programming. Commercial campaigns often use a continuing narrative, recurring characters, or similar themes across commercials, much as conventional narrative programming does – yet without the recognition and attention. Commercials also provide a kind of open-ended, participatory narrative that ideally translates into a sort of fan-based engagement, yet one that is relatively underexplored.

One odd, though telling, indicator of commercials' appeal may lie in the obituaries of commercial spokespeople. The December 2005 passing of Michael Vale – a.k.a. Fred the Baker, the Dunkin' Donuts guy with the catchphrase, “Time to make the donuts” – occasioned a lot of fond memories and brief tributes in various media (I know I heard about this from NPR, and my local television news carried a short story about Vale's death later that night; even People magazine noted his demise), and it's worth considering how valuable that kind of personal connection is for viewers and for the television industry. Consider, too, the cases of Clara “Where's the Beef?” Peller of late 1980s Wendy's fame, or “Marlboro Men” Wayne McLaren and David McLean. These figures and the products they promoted linger in our consciousness, part of our engagement with the television medium – in some cases, they linger far longer than our memories of the fictional programming in which they're embedded.

The second major gap is in the study of sports programming. Like commercials, sports programming often falls outside television scholars' area of professional interest (though, oddly, not necessarily outside our personal interests: for a field in which work is often consciously and self-reflexively driven by our personal likes and dislikes, the relative paucity of work about sports is perplexing).

Like commercials, too, sports programming is unpredictable (games may run long or need to be rescheduled because of weather-related problems, the specific outcome is not predetermined, etc.) and overtly provides an open-ended, directly participatory narrative. And like commercials, sports are fairly ubiquitous on television and are inseparable from the vitality of the medium: one need only look at one of the primary early selling points for television sets in the late 1940s (advertisements in major New York newspapers urged bar owners to satisfy the desires of their customers by letting them watch games in their establishments, while advertisements in the Amsterdam News – New York's African-American newspaper – often highlighted the ability to watch baseball games, especially those featuring the newly-integrated Brooklyn Dodgers, as a selling point of sets) and for HDTV sets in the early 2000s (advertisements and promotional materials often emphasized how real, how lifelike, how detailed sporting events would be in high definition) for evidence of this codependence. Perhaps the most obvious example of this codependence is the Super Bowl – arguably the most valuable single television property in the U.S. today, for its continued ability to draw a mass audience in an era of audience fragmentation.

Yet the study of sports typically remains marginalized. As I mentioned in the panel on “Selling To and Through Racial Identities in Contemporary Television,” it's nearly impossible to consider the class, race and gender dynamics of television without dwelling upon how athletes are used within the medium. “Monday Night Football” was the only program in the late 1980s and early 1990s consistently appearing in the top 20 programs watched by White and Black households; sports purportedly transcend racial barriers and allows us to rewrite identity boundaries, as the “Be Like Mike” [Michael Jordan / Nike] and “I am Tiger Woods” [Nike] advertising campaigns drove home in the 1990s; Saturday and Sunday afternoons from late August through late January or early February are defined by college and/or professional football. It's nearly impossible to think about media history without considering the role sports played in helping to build audiences and stabilize the industry from an industrial standpoint: as Jeff Neal-Lunsford noted in a 1992 article in the Journal of Sport History, sporting events comprised up to 50% of national, prime-time, network broadcasts each year from 1946-1950 – granted, during a time before the national network was fully established.

So as much as I enjoyed the FLOW conference for reminding me how central what we television scholars do is to understanding our everyday lives as citizens and consumers, it also reminded me how much we systematically continue to overlook. I hope future iterations of the conference will continue to be as provocative, and continue to remind us of how many opportunities exist to further our professional horizons and expand the discipline.

Image Credits:
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One comment

  • The Challenge of Ephemera

    Doug raises excellence points here about some of the blind spots of the field (among others, like game shows and kid’s TV which are rarely studied & discussed). I think for both sports & ads, one of the structuring factors that contributes to their marginal place within TV studies is their greater degree of ephemerality – unlike primetime scripted programs, reruns & DVD releases of sports are quite rare, and until YouTube, selective access to ads was quite hard. Much of TV history has been guided by the strategies of syndicators more than some academic rationale – this selectivity extends to entire genres or media forms in these two instances Doug mentions. But the answer to me seems to fill-in the gaps – write the histories of these forms to expand the field, just as reconsideration of soap operas in the 1980s helped correct another major blindspot.

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