Did you enjoy 1864 (2014)? I sure did. That’s because I watched it on fast-forward. I am not sure I should admit this on a forum dedicated to all things television and I am slightly embarrassed. But more of my red ears of shame later.
1864 is not the only programme through which I tend to zoom. Downton Abbey (2010-2014) got the fast-forward treatment. So did Peaky Blinders (2013-2014) and True Detective (2014). Sometimes at home I get spotted undertaking such viewing practices: ‘How come you’re already watching the end?’ Indeed, how come? Who is this woman who proclaims to teach media studies and essentially omits scenes that could be crucial to character development? Does she not get the concept of narrative? Yes I do, but I simply don’t care about seeing and hearing all of it. At the same time, I don’t like to admit it. Why?
It’s partly because I spend my time trying to encourage students to pay attention to the ways in which meanings are constructed at the level of the television text. ‘Tell me how you have arrived at this interpretation!’ I insist in my feedback. But it’s also because of the ways in which the quality television debate – which has become increasingly central to TV studies over the past 15 years – is nagging away at me. 1864? This is proper public service broadcasting. It’s quality drama woman! Watch it and appreciate its beauty. True Detective? It won several Emmy awards don’t you know! So in this respect, I feel a little bit bad about my fast forwarding. But should I? I’m a populist and care about everyday media consumption. I want to take seriously – and indeed celebrate – how I watch TV (and how others may watch it too).
My love of the fast-forward button could be seen as an expression of agency. I am zooming through adverts (take that capitalism!), but perhaps I am also trying to get the story told in a way that I like. What I so cruelly omit from the narrative is the dialogue of characters that I find unlikeable or boring. I also omit dialogue that I do not understand (Peaky Blinders and True Detective: sorry, I’m a little foreign but I also feel patronised by subtitles. I’m difficult to please). I also skip landscape shots without much dialogue (too many shots of larks in 1864, I get the symbolism, but give me a break!), and endless scenes of men hitting each other (I don’t need to see that much testosterone and snot, thank you very much). When do I decide to stop fast forwarding? When I see characters that I do like. Or a dog. I still watch (most of) the endings, so I think I get the gist of the story. But I follow – and essentially construct – a story which has the characters that I like (human and non-human) at the centre. Downton Abbey really is all about the Labrador, in case you didn’t know. Now that the writers decided to kill her off, I am busy watching her best moments on Youtube. Stuff the telly programme.
Of course, for me to get to know and like the characters, I need to watch and follow them for a bit. So for drama series, my fast-forwarding tends to kick in after a few episodes. When I zoom through a programme, I am not distracted. I am not glancing at the TV (Ellis 1982). I am purposefully zooming through the narrative, on the look-out for characters that interest me. This is a different kind of TV watching than the one imagined in the quality TV debate. I am not one of the serious and discerning audiences who poo-poo ‘ordinary’ television and wax lyrical about quality television that supposedly allows a much more immersed viewing experience (McCabe and Akass 2008). But I am paying attention and I demonstrate agency by creating my own narratives.
Of course, I’m only telling half the story. Because I also fast-forward to save time. Sometimes I want to know how a story ends but I really need to stop watching TV because I have work the next day. Sometimes I fast forward because programmes that have been recorded for me are clogging up the memory space on our digibox and I feel bad about taking up space. So I watch two episodes of 1864 in an hour. Here, my so active shaping of the narrative is not that active at all. And then sometimes I’m just bored with a drama series but I feel bad for not watching all of it. I’ll watch some episodes on fast-forward before giving up on the series. It’s like an unhappy relationship teetering out and lasting way too long simply because I feel I can’t abandon ‘quality’ that everyone else seems to appreciate.
What I don’t do though is switch from one recording to another, or from a recording to regular on-air television. I am not channel grazing or channel surfing. I am programme zooming. Always fast forwarding, never rewinding. I am busy, have a short attention span and am searching for animals in programmes that are not about animals at all. Are there more zoomers out there? There must be. So here is a call for you proper TV Studies people to pay us some attention. Not all of us are gorging on box sets of ‘quality drama’, but we do pay attention to what we’re watching. It’s just that we purposefully skip parts of a programme. We give stories a different focus by looking out for characters that are ignored in much academic writing. We give stories alternative meanings. Sometimes it’s for pragmatic reasons. Sometimes it’s because we’re bored or don’t like the focus of stories as they are told. It’s everyday, ordinary viewing and it’s meaningful. At least it is to me.
Sanna Inthorn is Senior Lecturer in Society, Culture and Media at the University of East Anglia. She teaches media and cultural theory and in her research explores the role of the media in identity formation. Her recent publications include From Entertainment To Citizenship: Politics And Popular Culture(Manchester University Press, 2013). She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org