From Flow to Files


Update: The book will be out soon – details on the Television & American Culture website.

As I’ve blogged before,  I’m in the process of writing a textbook called Television & American Culture. I’m close to being done, although I’ve been a bit stalled with other obligations. This January I’m putting my final push in to finish a draft before my semester starts in February. So here’s an excerpt from the chapter about the technology of television, focusing on the shift away from liveness and flow with the rise of DVDs and DVRs. To contextualize, this follows a broad history of TV technology and the discussion of digital broadcasting, and it will be followed by a section on mobile & portable screens, and online video. As always, comments are appreciated!

From Flow to Files

The shift to DTV will clearly change the technological basis of American television, but it remains to see how it might alter how viewers engage with the medium or its underlying industrial system. Another shift has been underway over the past decade that may be less technologically transformative, but has had more of an impact on both the production and consumption of television. As discussed above, for many critics the essence of the television medium is tied to liveness, simultaneity, and flow—watching television means viewing whatever is on at the moment along with millions of others around the country, following the schedule determined by broadcasters. This flow paradigm began to be challenged by the VCR offering an alternative to this dominant mode by introducing time-shifting and the ability to watch pre-recorded tapes, but a series of newer digital technologies have more directly threatened live simultaneous viewing.

The rise of the VCR in the 1980s spurred the home video industry, which has proven to be a crucial market for Hollywood studios. Initially pre-recorded tapes were priced at high rates to be purchased exclusively by video rental stores and dedicated collectors, with prices ranging between $70 and $100 per copy. Feature films were the most popular slice of the home video market, with rentals transforming the film industry by creating another lucrative market for a film after its release. While made-for-television movies fared well in the home video rental market, ongoing series were generally not released on videotape. Even as retail prices for home video dropped throughout the 1980s and 1990s to “sell-through” prices of under $25, making film collections more commonplace, material originally broadcast for television was a marginal part of the home video market.

The minor role for pre-recorded television programming in the 1980s and 1990s can be attributed to a number of reasons. Certainly a television series was a large investment to collect on videotape—each tape could hold approximately two hours, so the cost to purchase multiple tapes of any series was significant to both consumers and rental stores. Perhaps even more challenging was the size of the tapes, as an entire season of a series might take up an entire shelf in a retailer or home collection. Additionally, the thought of purchasing a program that was generally available to viewers via syndication at no cost, save for advertising, seemed daunting for all but the most serious fan—notably the few series that did have major home video releases were cult shows like Star Trek and The Twilight Zone. The industry was wary to invest in bringing television series to the home video market, as they saw it as a risky move that also threatened to undercut syndication sales and advertising revenue. Thus before the emergence of DVD, the bulk of series television videotapes were repackaged “Best Of” collections or selected special episodes of series that were rarely syndicated.

DVDs, which were commercially launched in 1997, changed many of these practices. Even though DVD players became popular quite quickly, the first few years saw the bulk of releases mirroring the videotape market by focusing on Hollywood films. The technological capabilities of DVDs did enable a new opportunity for home video release of television series—because of digital compression and fidelity, an entire season of a series can fit into a box set that takes the shelf space of one videotape, with a higher resolution and better resistance to wear and tear. The institutional practices did not take immediate advantage of this possibility, as the industry still doubted that a market for retail sales of television programming would be significant beyond a cult audience. However the successful release of The X-Files season one box set in 2000 set an industry standard and set of precedents for successfully marketing home video releases: use high-quality and well-designed packaging, include significant “extras” like commentaries and behind-the-scene documentaries, and highlight the high fidelity of DVDs. This model of releasing television on DVDs transforms the flow model of broadcasting into a publishing strategy more common to the book and music industries, turning television programming into an object to be bought, collected, and viewed multiple times.  (See Kompare, 2006)  [Illustration: shot of box sets or videostore shelves]

In the 2000s, the majority of new scripted television series have been given DVD releases, even short-lived programs that had trouble lasting on network schedules. Notably, Family Guy’s DVDs sold so well that Fox reversed its cancellation by returning the series to its lineup, while sets of single-season series like Freaks and Geeks, Wonderfalls, and Firefly have sold far better than their low broadcast ratings would have predicted. DVD sales offer another measure of viewer interest and consumption beyond ratings, although clearly the advertising industry sees such commercial-free release of television as more of a threat than an opportunity—the rise of product integration has been partly in response to the home video shift, as promotions integrated into an episode’s content pay longer-term dividends as part of an archived collection of media rather than commercials featured in a short-term broadcast.

DVD box sets are changing both the cultural use of television programming and the creative choices made by producers. Many viewers have been so taken with the freedom, flexibility, and lack of advertising enabled by DVDs that they wait for video releases to follow favored series. This mode of consumption is particularly tied to the rental market, with the rental-by-mail model of Netflix as a popular way of working through a television series. Television writers have latched onto the possibilities of DVD viewing to redefine the way they tell stories—because DVD viewers are more likely to watch episodes with smaller gaps between episodes and frequently will rewatch favorite series, series like Lost, Arrested Development, and Heroes features more complex storytelling strategies that demand regular viewing with close attention, supplemental commentaries and extras, and the ability to rewind for details. Viewers have embraced “binging” marathons for series like 24 on DVD, even attempting to mimic the show’s real-time narration. The transformation of television programming from a fleeting broadcast flow into a collectable and archived object on DVD has helped raise the cultural legitimacy of the medium, with acclaimed shows like The Wire and The Sopranos embraced as the cultural equal of literature and cinema on the shelves of some collectors and connoisseurs.

In many ways, the DVD set makes the ephemeral flow of programming into something more tangible and material, an object to be owned and purchased; but DVDs also transform television in a less tangible and more abstract way by shifting programming into the digital realm. Once a show is on DVD, each episode enters the familiar realm of computer interfaces, organized by menus rather than schedules. Although copy protection protocols make it difficult for most viewers to make copies of DVDs, even for personal back-ups or other fair uses discussed in Chapter 2, there is easily accessed software that allows consumers to “rip” DVDs and transfer the content to personal computers—this digitization redefines programs into computer files, with an associated set of uses and possibilities common to the digital realm. Online file sharing, video remixing and reediting, and proliferation across multiple screens are all enabled by the DVD’s native digital format.

DVDs are far from the only way that television programs function as computer files. In part to try to offset the illegal file sharing that confounded the music industry in the early-2000s, the television industry has embraced a variety of online distribution platforms to bring programming to technologically advanced viewers. In 2005, production studios and networks began to offer episodes of current and classic programs for pay-per-download for $1.99 on iTunes, Apple Computer’s online media store. While broadcast hits like Lost and Desperate Housewives were among the top programs, lower rated shows like The Office and Battlestar Galactica fared surprisingly well on iTunes, helping to keep them on the air despite questionable ratings. Other official downloading options have followed from the success of iTunes, including’s Unbox, alongside numerous illicit methods of downloading through software like BitTorrent, making downloaded television into a popular option especially among younger viewers. [Illustration: iTunes menu]

The television industry has been eager to embrace online streaming video, generally using network or channel websites as platforms to deliver advertising supported programs from their current schedules and archives. In many ways, streaming video is more consistent with the traditional distribution and transmission roles of the television industry, with programming delivered at no cost in exchange for delivering viewer’s attention to advertisers—networks and channels retain their role in promoting programming, directing viewer choices, and branding their own online identities. Just as downloading comes in both sanctioned and illicit forms, streaming video can be found both legally on network websites and on non-licensed illicit sites that collect a wide range of online video, including user-posted videos on YouTube and more explicitly pirated sites that emerge and disappear frequently. The television industry has been aggressive in trying to shut down illicit online video options with copyright lawsuits, while offering its own alternatives through licensed platforms like Joost and

The industry-controlled transformation of programming from scheduled flow to digital files has been driven partly by the rise of DVDs and downloadable video, but new consumer technologies have also added to this shift significantly. VCRs enabled time-shifting, but it was used far less frequently than renting or buying pre-recorded tapes. In 1999, a new device was introduced that centered on time-shifting: the digital video recorder, or DVR, which was first marketed by TiVo and now-defunct Replay TV. While TiVo remains the most common brand name DVR, with its die-hard advocates among its user base, most DVRs are offered by cable and satellite companies as part of a subscription package. While DVRs received a tremendous amount of hype in the early 2000s, its adoption has been gradual, with only around 20% of households using a DVR in 2007. However, for people within the media industries who were among the early adopters of DVRs, the technology clearly pointed toward a radical shift in viewer behavior, with many industrial strategies of the 21st century designed to react to an anticipated sea change.

DVRs capture the flow of the television schedule, converting all programming into digital files stored on a hard drive and accessible via a menu interface. With a DVR, viewers are always in the time-shifting mode, as its interface is actively standing-by, ready to time-shift, pause live television, rewind up to thirty minutes of material, or record an entire program even while midway through. DVRs can be programmed to record all episodes of a favorite program, and even can recommend programs based on similar program tastes. If time-shifting is an exceptional practice for a VCR, it is the norm with a DVR—our default mode of using a DVR is always ready to disengage from the schedule-driven flow that traditionally structures the experience of watching television. The majority of DVR users embrace time-shifting for most genres, with news and sports still most commonly viewed in real time and series programs often recorded; a DVR transforms the schedule grid into a menu of options for present and future viewing. DVR users rely less on network scheduling strategies, undoing many of the promotional techniques detailed in Chapter 1—a program on a DVR is detached from its original network or channel, moved into a list of choices accessible with a computer-driven menu.

One common fear provoked by DVRs concerns its impact on advertising, as most DVR users fast-forward through commercials. Nielsen has adapted its measures to include DVR users as a category of ratings, but many advertisers have questioned the usefulness of measuring viewers who are probably fast-forwarding through their commercials. However, some research has suggested that DVR users can recall brand names from ads equally well as traditional viewers—a viewer fast-forwarding through an ad break is actually paying close attention to the screen to detect the show’s return, while traditional viewers often leave the room or allow their attention to wander during commercials. Some advertisers have tried DVR-friendly ads, with clear text on the screen to deliver the message—in an extreme example, fast-food chain KFC embedded a code word in a single frame to get a coupon for free food in one highly-publicized 2006 ad, requiring DVR users to slowly scan the ad for the hidden information. More widespread impacts of DVRs on the advertising industry include the rise of product integration in the 2000s to “TiVo-proof” programs, ads on sports and news programming becoming more desirable, and higher value placed on specific placement of ads near the end of ad breaks.

While many in the television industry see DVRs as a threat to the advertising model, the technology also offers significant opportunities for market research and audience measurement. TiVo’s software logs every time a viewer pauses or fast-forwards, changes the channel, or records a program, enabling a detailed account of how viewers engage programming with far more precision than traditional ratings systems. TiVo compiles this data and sells its reports to networks and advertisers, enabling the industry to get a different sense of viewer behavior; while TiVo users are a small minority of the television audience, they are typically a more economically desirable segment, appealing to advertisers as a way of knowing what appeals to technologically savvy consumers. TiVo also allows advertisers to deliver targeted commercials directly to its users, with lengthy promotions available for interested TiVo viewers to watch on demand. Thus the DVR cannot be seen simply as a threat to advertisers, but also as offering a shift in how sponsors can reach out to and engage viewers, and potentially raising privacy concerns for viewers uninterested in being monitored in their viewing patterns.

The most significant impact of DVRs might not be felt for a generation, as many of today’s young viewers will grow up never knowing television as a medium defined by liveness, synchronous viewership, or industry-controlled scheduling. For today’s DVR children, “what’s on television?” refers to what is on the DVR menu; as they grow up in an on-demand programming environment, the strategies used to harness the attention of viewers in the 20th century will appear out of place with their definitions of what television is, just as many older viewers today have a hard time imagining why viewers might want 100s of channels or to pay for premium television. DVR and DVD technologies do not determine their own cultural uses and meanings, but we can see a broad and significant transformation underway as the flow model of television gives way to the convergent logic of computer menus, archived discs, and portable files, leading to still unforeseen shifts in the medium’s institutional practices and cultural circulation.

One Response to “From Flow to Files”

  1. 1 Derek Johnston

    I wonder if there was a difference between markets in association with video. I understand that you are writing here about the domestic US market, but I remember that in the UK, television on video was a bigger thing, particularly for new American cult series. For example, “Star Trek: The Next Generation” was available in the UK on video tape before it was broadcast, and all of the “Star Trek” series were well represented on store shelves in sell-through VHS. Similarly, series like “The X-Files” were released in their entirety on VHS, while even David Lynch’s “On The Air” had a complete release, although I think that came after it’s broadcast on BBC2.

    I think that this may be to do with access. If there was an actual difference between the sell-through practices of the US and UK, it would probably be that people in the UK wanted access to this new material and, rather than wait for it, were prepared to pay for the VHS. It would be interesting to see industry figures on sales in the respective countries.

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