Exploring The Influence of 'Flow' on Viewing Aesthetics

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15 min read

Published: Feb 13, 2024

Words: 2989|Pages: 7|15 min read

Published: Feb 13, 2024

Table of contents

  1. How does ‘flow’ influence the aesthetics and experience of watching television?
  2. What, then, is “flow”?
  3. Conclusion

The changing experience of watching broadcast television. Based on Raymond Williams’ theory of “Programming: distribution and flow”

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How does ‘flow’ influence the aesthetics and experience of watching television?

Have you ever wondered why all the furniture of any house is oriented towards the same direction; the television? A small box which, far more than being a system of transmission by means of hertzian waves, provides unconceivable experiences. A drawer of programs and chains. A window of information and retransmissions that no matter how good or bad they are, has become a daily companion of our chores. Television is part of our domestic, everyday experience, an essential machine that apparently never stops offering content. It does not matter at what time you turn on the TV, because you will still be served with entertainment. Nonetheless, due to its popularity, television has been introduced itself into the competitive business, changing radically its meaning and experience; which not always has the same impact in the viewer. This is in consequence of the “flow”, a term profoundly debated and analysed with loupe by Raymond Williams, a theorist who revolutionised the panorama of television by discussing the idea in ​Television: Technology and Cultural Form ​(Williams, 1974). This essay will evaluate how the idea of “flow” can reshape the aesthetics and experience of watching television, as well as discuss how it has become one of the guiding terms for understanding broadcasting television.

The term “flow” firstly emerged as a keyword for the television studies in the 1970s, which, over time, has given rise to a wide sea of ideas due to its ambiguity. In ​Television: Technology and Cultural Form ​(Williams, 1974) the author presents the “flow” as a concept to describe the defying way in which television’s distribution has altered its nature. Yet, this term has also been used as a primary idea with regards to new social examinations and as a regulating concern for the measures that the political economy could implement to deal with worldwide TV, however, this will be discussed later on during this essay.

“In all developed broadcasting systems the characteristic organisation, and therefore the characteristic experience, is one of sequence or flow. This phenomenon of planned flow, is then perhaps the defining characteristic of broadcasting, simultaneously as a technology and as a cultural form.” (Williams, 1970; 80). With this statement, Williams is perhaps defining flow not merely as an important matter to take into account when organising television in a textual manner, but also when it comes to the viewing experience and the response that the audience offer. That is why Williams uses “the characteristic organisation” and “the characteristic experience” with the purpose of linking both ideas into “this phenomenon of planned flow” (Williams, 80). In other words, Williams believes that this term sophisticatedly connects the technical meaning of television textuality with the abstract idea of the experience. Indeed, the author suggests that the actual intention of the flow is to flourish the reconfiguration of television’s nature and the experience of cultural texts. As he argues “the real programme that is offered is a ​sequence ​or set of alternative sequences of these and other similar events, which are then available in a single dimension and in a single operation.” (Williams, 1970; 86).

Nevertheless, the semi-technical meaning that Williams presented has resulted quite ambiguous for other theorists such as John Corner, who openly debates Williams’ definition of the concept in ​Critical Ideas in Television Studies ​(Corner, 1999) by saying that flow “has become a notion of self-evidence critique, carrying with it negative assumptions about television’s temporality and power and the viewing relationships which it encourages” (Corner, 1999; 60). By this, Corner affirms that the term has been introduced in a bubble of judgments and debates that still persists today and many critics have had something to say as the concept “cannot really sustain the weight of theory which has often been placed upon it” (Corner, 1999; 60).

One of those critics is Lynn Spigel who notes, “Perhaps because it has been so influential, the concept of flow has also been criticized for its attempt to explain too much about television by devising a covering law for the very diverse kinds of experiences we have when we watch TV.” (Spigel, 1992; 25). What the term suggests is so global that holds a great vast of refinements in order to describe more precisely the essence of the cultural experiences it provides to the audience. John Ellis also offers a new discussion about the “flow”, which results quite close to the initial idea of Williams’ sense of the term. He proposes that the textual system of television is based on “segmentation”. The theorist mainly introduces the concept with the purpose of sharing how television presents a unique and particular both textual and cultural format. In ​Visible Fictions ​(Ellis, 1982) the author exposes how Broadcast TV has developed a new set of aesthetics which instead of adopting the original format of entertainment cinema -as being a single and coherent text- now Broadcast TV presents relatively distinct sections which are characterised for being small sequential unities, which its maximum duration is around five minutes, combining images and sound. He follows his explanation with: “These segments are organized into groups which are either simply cumulative, like news broadcast items and advertisements, or have some kind of repetitive or sequential connection, like the groups of segments that make up the serial or series” (Ellis, 1982; 112).

Following the idea that Ellis presents about his is theory of segmentation, Jane Feuer goes deeper with the concept of “flow” by introducing philosophical reasonings and speculations. Feuer describes the concept bearing in mind Williams’ arguments but turning them into a illusion. For her, the “flow” is just an abstract content that does not fulfill its meaning as television explicitly exhibits those discrete segments of information and stories in its textual system. She also adds that “Williams should more accurately say that television possesses segmentation without closure, for this is what he really means by flow.” (Feuer, 1983; 15-16). As I mentioned before, there are many believes about “flow” as a component of commercial television -which its main objective is to maximise the number of viewers planned by programmes and networks- and Feuer particularly emphasises in this belief by adding in her argument that “Flow as such is neither natural nor technologically determined. It is an historically specific result of network practice: ‘flow charts’ are constructed by network executives prior to being reconstituted by structuralists.” (Feuer, 1983; 16).

Distinct ideas were exposed by critics such as Horace Newcomb and Paul M. Hirsh, who proposed an specific method to analyse how television executes its textual system properly. Their proposal is to “strip” a sequence of programs during the viewing to rightly analyse it. “Our most traditional views, those that are the most repressive and reactionary, as well as those that are surversive and emancipatory, are upheld, examined, maintained and transformed. The emphasis is on process rather than product, on discussion rather than indoctrination, on contradiction and confusion rather than coherence.” (Breines, 1983; 6). They see television as a forum to expose different points of view that address the same topics, whether they have a cultural or social connotation, with the pursuance of exhibiting social issues from a vast variety of perspectives. Bearing this in mind, they conclude that in order to fully analyse the range of cultural meaning that television offers, there must be a profound examination and study of the “viewing strip” rather than analysing the programs or units individually. “We are now examining the “viewing strip” as a potential text and are discovering that in the range of options offered by any given evening’s television, the forum is indeed a more accurate model of what goes on within television than any other that we know of.” (Newcomb and Hiris, 1994; 509). This idea is quite close to Williams’ point of view on how the audience tends to stay for more than one programme at a single time, as he argues “Then again it is a widely if often ruefully admitted experience that many of us find television very difficult to switch off; that again and again, even when we have switched on for a particular ‘programme’, we find ourselves watching the one after it and the one after that.” (Williams, 1974; 94).

To conclude this section of juxtaposed ideas about the “flow”, I will present John Fiske and his “intertextuality”. He suggests that “Flow, with its connotations of a languid river, is perhaps an unfortunate metaphor: the movement of the television text is discontinuous, interrupted, and segmented. Its attempts at closure, at a unitary meaning, or a unified viewing subject, are constantly subjected to fracturing forces.” (Fiske, 1987; 105). In other words, he affirms that this textual system encourages individual programmes to find its significance among the continuities and discontinuities that each unity structures the flow. To have an interpretational viewing and read beyond the superficial, finding meaning in the subtext that connects each segment.

Furthermore, Williams’ argument about the “flow” were also criticised from another perspective: an institutional point of view. It has been said that “flow” gives television a connotation that undermines its honest value as a critical term for the medium to be conceptualised far from its consumerist purposes. Having said that, flow has become a concept used in the industry as a marketing strategy. This includes a programming carefully planned, that chooses the place for commercials and its major determination is to increase and maximise the audience continuity on a distinct channel. This last sentence leads us to the next topic, which is advertising, as it has a powerful influence in the flow.

Advertising occupies, especially physically, a relevant position in television broadcasts. Indeed, it is claimed that it is 'the longest program on television.' Spots and other media of commercial communication inserted into the programs, cover a notable number in percentage of time until reaching the maximum quotas in the prime time hours. It is often said that TV does not produce programs but viewers for our advertisements. ​In fact, advertising constitutes the main point of reference for the television’s system; the source of the almost exclusive financing. Likewise, advertising manifests itself as 'the soul' of communication and mass culture. Intentionally it causes not only direct influence through the content of advertising that the messages carry; but also indirect influence based on programming (choice of genres that guarantee maximum audience), that make advertising one of the principal -if not the main factor- sources influence on the culture of our time.

Williams openly discuss how commercials have stolen most of the spaces in the “concept of interval” (Williams, 1974; 90). One of the major matters that characterises the “flow” are the intervals. These were firstly introduced in earlier phases of broadcasting services, both in television and radio. They both had a particular sound or image that made them distinctive from the actual programme in order to announce that an interval was taking part of the programming schedule. However, as Williams argues, this concept of the interval has been revalued. “This was intensified in conditions of competition, when it became important to broadcasting planners to retain viewers -or as they put it, to ‘capture’ them- for a whole evening’s sequence” adding that “the eventual unification of these two or three sequences, a new kind of communication phenomenon has to be recognised” (Williams, 1974; 91).

Moreover, a tendency to confusion is added here: the messages that advertisements emit are often mixed with the 'primary' contents disseminated by the media -mainly by information, entertainment, fiction, etc.- And this also happens through a confusion of roles: presenters and journalists become the bearers of commercial messages, emphasising, to the implausible, the commercial nature of television programming. The authors and the complex editorial’s autonomy of the broadcasters is sacrificed, favouring the conquest of spaces for advertising. As far as I am concerned, it is understandable that this happens in the field of commercial broadcasting, however it seems quite alarming that the same public service falls into the same advertising networks lowering its qualitative programming. Hence, competitive pressure has led official channels to schedule their timing with the same percentage of programming as commercials. Once more, everything is aimed at capturing viewers.

Regarding this confusion, Williams presents his own personal experience while we was in America, narrating his “first encounter” with the american television. He proceeds to explain how while he was watching a film, he encountered himself with some difficulties in “adjusting to a much greater frequency of breaks for commercials” (Williams, 1974; 92). The author then adds: “Here there was something quite different, since the transitions from film to commercial and from film A to film B and C were in effect unmarked” (Williams, 1974; 92). Then, he proceeds to analyse and compare the television’s programming in Britain and in America as a further study of the “flow”. With the results, one can conclude that TV is hypothetically examined as a social mechanical 'other,' rather than being absorbed into a European social convention by means of stylish research and standard development, it is in any case Europeanized by the excellence of being arranged on a Western anthropological point of view. The full meaning of this 'other' social structure reveals its essential “flow” to the European explorer, who thinks about it from the ethnographic vantage point. Consequently, the medium is therefore posed as an ethnographic discovery in the formative stages of television theory.

However, this experience was particularly criticised by John Corner, who emphasised that Williams is narrating an experience from the perspective of a cultural outsider being a fresh and unexperienced viewer of the American television. Hence, he points out that “His personal encounter offers a way into analysis but it does not document the televisual experience of the American viewer precisely because of his lack of familiarity with the new conventions.” (Corner, 1999; 62).

What, then, is “flow”?

Notwithstanding, “flow” has become the basic TV pre-computing experience we once knew, in which the broadcaster chose its schedule. It included transmission development, continually imparting on TV screens into private homes. By that time, the business of television was financed by advertising with an organised and planned flow to catch and hold spectator gatherings. Finally, there were the exceptionally noteworthy ventures which made possible to fit these specific conditions, such as the sitcom or later lifestyle and reality programming, making the viewer part of an imagined open crowd as an aloof collector. TV has definitely become a fundamental medium of diffusing content and diverse materials, adjusting as best as possible to information and entertainment formulas. After the world conflict, it is a television programming scheme that takes into account the diffusion of audiovisual materials and the production of original materials on three major genres: information, cultural dissemination and entertainment. Within the variety of programs of each TV and each nation, zapping has become a magic formula to change programs. There are people who enjoy advertising for sales status and new commercial products. Others, on the other hand, use zapping to get rid of the huge load of advertisements.

After having examined the concept of the “flow” from a variety of perspectives from different theorists and critics, I have attempted to propose how television has always worked along these lines, as a device of a worldwide mobility and separation. Of equivalent significance, at some dimension, television has steadily been comprehended by theorists in these terms. This has most unmistakably been communicated in the use of the concept of “flow,” which has at the same time served to naturalize TV's worldwide, gendered directions. Having said that, we can all agree that flow and the way in which television programming is scheduled can definitely change and reshape the aesthetics and our experience watching television. This abstract concept has caused a clear transformation on the way the audience experiences television as it has changed the concept of attending to a distinctive unit when “our most general modes of comprehension and judgement are then closely linked to these kinds of specific and isolated, temporary, forms of attention” (Williams, 1974; 87); to a popular “watching TV” that underlines the base of what is now called as “flow”. As Williams argues: “Yet for all the familiarity of this model, the normal experience of broadcasting, when we really consider it, is different. And indeed this is recognised in the ways we speak of ‘watching television’” (Williams, 1974; 89). The audience has clearly become an ally of television due to the sensation of the “flow” that has made it a companion of our everyday life experiences.

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In conclusion, the textual analysis provides an insightful examination of four short stories, delving into their themes, characters, settings, symbols, and figurative devices. Each story explores different aspects of human experience, from the impact of war on individual lives to the complexities of family relationships and personal growth. Through the analysis, we see how characters navigate crises, make choices that shape their lives, and find meaning in symbols that represent hope, love, and perseverance. Ultimately, these stories offer profound insights into the human condition, reminding us of the resilience of the human spirit and the power of choice in shaping our destinies.


  1. De Leon, David & Breines, Wini. (1983). ​Community and Organization in the New Left: 1962-1968​: The Great Refusal. The Journal of American History. 70-471.
  2. Horace Newcomb and Paul M. Hirsch, “Television as a Cultural Forum,” in Horace Newcome, ed., ​Television: The Critical View​ , 5th edition (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), 503-515​.
  3. Jane Feuer, “The Concept of Live Television: Ontology as Ideology,” in E. Ann Kaplan, ed. Regarding Television (Los Angeles: American Film Institute, 1983), 12-22
  4. John Corner (1999) ‘Flow’, ​Critical Ideas in Television Studies​, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 60-69.
  5. John Ellis, ​Visible Fictions​ (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1982).
  6. John Fiske, ​Television Culture​ (London: Methuen, 1987).
  7. Lynn Spigel, “Introduction,” to Raymond Williams, Television: Technology and Cultural Form (Hanover NH: Wesleyan University Press, 1992).
  8. Raymond Williams (1974) ‘Programming: distribution and flow’, ​Television, Technology and Cultural Form​, London: Fontana, 72-112.
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Exploring the Influence of ‘Flow’ on Viewing Aesthetics. (2024, February 13). GradesFixer. Retrieved June 14, 2024, from
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