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Computing changed the ‘flow’ of watching television

Viewers can now select what they want to watch and when they want to watch it. Shutterstock/Rasulov

Computing changed the ‘flow’ of watching television

The latest in our Computing turns 60 series, to mark the 60th anniversary of the first computer in an Australian university, looks at how audiences can now use the technology to change the way they watch television.


Celebrations of 60 years since Australia’s first university computer was switched on coincide with the anniversary of another significant technology – television.

Australia’s first television transmission also started in 1956, first in Sydney and days later in Melbourne.

These two technologies developed along largely separate paths. One was hidden away in government and research institutions, the other was more prominent as a domesticated and commercial media platform within family life.

That is until the switch from analogue to digital signal, finally completed in 2013. This digital transition brought them together in ways that have forever changed the way audiences consume television content.

From mass media to ‘new media’

Historically, we used to think of television as part of the mass media, along with radio, newspapers and so on. But with the turn to computational media, sometimes known as “new media”, we began redefining established questions around audiences and ownership of media.

This computational shift is particularly evident if we contrast the experience of television from an early broadcast in 1956 with today.

At 7pm on Monday November 19, 1956, the ABC launched its Melbourne TV station (ABV2). The programming schedule for that evening began with an official opening from the Minister for Labour Harold Holt and ABC executives. This was followed by interviews with Olympic athletes (Melbourne was hosting the Olympics that year).

The rest of the evening’s programming went as follows:

7.30pm: the Frankie Laine show

8pm: the crime drama, Fabian of Scotland Yard

8.30pm: a special This Is The ABC featuring interviews with popular radio presenters and behind the scenes look at production

8.50pm: a live variety show, Seeing Stars

9.15pm: a wartime documentary War in the Air

9.45pm: transmission ceased.

Let it flow

This brief summary of an evening’s broadcast signals very clearly the concept of flow that influential British cultural historian Raymond Williams famously described as the defining characteristic of broadcast television.

Flow, Williams notes, was the planned organisation of discrete programs into a sequence that determined a coherent experience of “watching TV”. He says this planned flow was initially borrowed from older forms of media entertainment, such as radio, before television developed its own generic forms.

Flow speaks to the experience of watching TV, that is continuous and, paradoxically, fragmented. Programs bleed into each other, without definitive intervals between, while trailers promote other programs during ad breaks.

Flow, then, is the pre-computational experience of analogue television that we were once familiar with, in which the broadcaster determined the schedule. It included transmission technology continuously broadcasting on television screens into private homes.

Then, there was the financing of commercial television by advertising with planned flow to capture and retain audiences. And finally, there were the all important programs produced to fit these contexts, such as the sitcom or later lifestyle and reality programming.

The viewer was positioned as a passive receiver while also part of an imagined public audience.

The viewer decides what to watch

The nightly experience of viewing enabled by computing technology is in some senses radically different to the concept of flow described by Williams. Yet at the same time it can be seen as just a re-arrangement.

Computational television is understood through the metaphor of a file rather than a flow. The file is a discrete unit of audiovisual content that can be viewed, stored, aggregated or shared across multiple devices.

As a file, digital television is not transmitted into homes, but accessed from different screens at any time or place via the internet (providing the internet connection doesn’t fail).

While we can identify a range of technologies shaping these developments (from video software formats to personal video recorders and file-sharing sites), a clear example is through subscription streaming websites, such as Netflix.

Launched only a year ago in Australia, Netflix exemplifies the experience of file viewing. Each person’s sequence of viewing is not planned by the broadcaster, but assembled through individual preferences from the available catalogue of shows.

But it still flows

Yet, the sequential arrangement of files can still be understood as a flow – though an idiosyncratic one – determined by the viewer rather than the broadcaster.

Digital TV, like other kinds of digital media, tends to be framed within a democratising or participatory media discourse. The formerly hierarchical models of mass media are replaced by the personalised productive dynamics of digital media.

At the same time, we need to consider how computing has not simply reorganised the ways media are produced, distributed and consumed in terms of empowering people, but also how notions such as flow have become re-articulated. This is made visible in the operations of computer algorithms on sites such as Netflix that recommend programs based on past patterns of viewing.

Recommender algorithms and features such as autoplay, can be viewed as creating a more individually curated experience of what ostensibly remains television flow – a series of units assembled into a period of viewing.

What computation does is remove files from mass planned flow, and allow them to be re-assembled into individualised flows in our viewing lives. Freed from scheduled transmission, yet fragmented by taste and technology, it raises new questions about the status of the audience as a public.

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