When doing the research for my book on television branding I spent a lot of time in archives fast-forwarding through the carefully catalogued television programmes to view the junctions or interstitials in between. I was primarily interested in trying to understand how channel branding had changed over the past 30 years, looking for shifts in the design of idents, in the address of continuity announcers and in the style and content of trailers. But all of this viewing got me thinking about the junctions as a fascinating site for examining changes to the experience of watching television itself.
It may seem incongruous, anachronistic, or downright backward-looking for me to insist on the value of analysing interstitials at precisely the moment when the technologies to completely avoid these texts (whether by fast-forwarding through them, using the remote to channel hop, or downloading programming on demand) seem to have become ubiquitous. As Jason Jacobs argues, the arrival of digital technologies has turned interruption – once a feature of television as a medium – into textual pollution that can be removed, rather than endured, tolerated or enjoyed. However, while there has been much excellent work on the new ways of distributing, receiving and engaging with television enabled by digital technologies, research in the UK and the US suggests that most television viewing in these countries is still of non-time-shifted scheduled broadcasting. Therefore, if we want to understand fully the changes that have taken place to television in the digital era we need to examine the changes to broadcast television as well as the new experiences offered by digital technologies.
My contention is that the junctions are a useful site for examining the ways in which broadcast television has changed for two reasons. First, as the moment of break between programmes the junctions are the key battleground for viewer attention, becoming increasingly important as a site for broadcasters with the rise of competition and new technologies (beginning with the remote control) that increased viewers’ control over the broadcast flow. Second, as the point within the broadcast flow in which the broadcaster can communicate directly to the viewer, the junctions shape the experience of watching television and form a central part of what Paddy Scannell has termed the ‘communicative ethos’ of broadcasting – the way in which broadcasters make the experience of broadcasting intelligible to viewers and aligned to the places and times of viewing. Examining changes to the junctions allows us to explore how broadcasters have altered the ways in which they construct and communicate the experience of television in response to the new technologies of the digital era.
Here, I want to focus on two junctions taken from two evenings (14 February 1985 and 15 June 2010) and one channel (BBC One). While some of this will resonate with European readers, I suspect that much of it will seen quite alien to US readers, reminding us that when we talk about the changes to television we still need to be attuned to often quite significant national variations. This is part of a larger article I’ve been writing for the journal Key Words that examines the continued significance of Raymond Williams’ theorisation of flow to our understanding of broadcast television. The article explores in more detail some of the similarities and differences between these two examples and other national contexts. It will be published in November as part of a special edition (edited by Kate Lacey and with contributions from Toby Miller, Tom O’Malley and Ben Highmore, to name just a few) revisiting Williams’ seminal work Television: Technology and Cultural Form, if you’d like to read the article in full.
Let’s start with the interstitial from Thursday 14 February 1985, broadcast on BBC One at 11.15pm after Question Time and before Rock School.
In 1 minute 45 seconds this interstitial combines trailers for a range of genres (from serious current affairs, to comedy and chat shows), focused around an extended promo for the new Monday evening schedule, with graphics related to the channel and the programmes being broadcast. In many ways this interstitial exemplifies Mary Ann Doane’s argument that ‘The major category of television is time’ (1990: 222). Time, Doane argued, only exists because something happens, and so television fills time by organising itself around events. Writing in 1990, Doane claimed that the most common way in which television fills time is through information – the daily stream of newsworthy events characterised by regularity or even predictability. We can see this in this interstitial, where the emphasis is on ordering time through information. Each element of the flow of the junction combines descriptions of what will be on with information about when it will be on: the still image and continuity announcer promoting This Week Next Week at 1pm the following Sunday, the trailer indicating the temporal flow of Monday evening’s broadcast ending with a still image of the schedule, and the continuity announcer concluding the junction by stating ‘and now…’.
The junction, as well as filling the time between programmes, also communicates and illustrates to the viewer the ways in which television itself fills time. The emphasis on temporality is reinforced by the direct address of the continuity announcer, so that this interstitial serves as a reminder or insistence of television’s presence, both now and (in terms of the trailers for forthcoming programmes) in the future.
By the time we come to 2010 the interstitials on BBC One have changed significantly. This example comes from Tuesday 15 June 2010 on BBC1 at 9pm after Holby City and before Crimewatch.
If the interstitials from 1985 illustrated the mode of address of broadcast television as time and temporality, this interstitial presents the experience of watching television spatially as well as temporally. This is perhaps most apparent in the transformation of the BBC One ident. The simple graphic representation of the globe has been transformed into a series of inhabited places. Here BBC One is presented as a space of magical transformation where the familiar world distorts and is unified through the visual symbol of the circle.
Elsewhere in the junction, the static slide has been replaced by what is referred to as an ‘end credit squeeze’ which visually represents the parallel journeys that we could now take to view television across three different channels.
This rhetorical address to embarking on a journey to different places is also apparent (albeit more implicitly) within the promos that, for example, offer to transport us to a ‘World of Wonder’. The temporal is not absent here, but increasingly the experience of television is being framed through a set of spatial, as well as temporal, metaphors. The emphasis on television’s presence remains, but it is a presence that is now articulated more overtly in both space and time.
Daniel Chamberlain argues that the experience of television in the digital era is framed by new screen interfaces – such as the menus of EPGs, PVRs and online databases like YouTube – that offer personalisation and control as a challenge to the lack of agency in the liveness and flow of broadcast television.
However, across this junction we can see attempts to create this sense of control through an explicit and implicit address to viewer agency. This can be seen, for example, in the explicit address to viewer choice in the end credit squeeze and in the voice-over for the opera promo that appeals to our agency in its invitation to ‘meet’ the greatest sopranos in the world. This is quite different to the junction in 1985 which did not include any such explicit address to viewer agency even though it offered us a menu of choice in the guise of the Monday evening schedule. If the junctions are concerned with communicating the value and pleasures of television, while also attempting to persuade viewers (to watch the next show or switch to another BBC programme or service), then in the digital era part of the value and pleasure of television communicated here is agency and choice.
At the same time, in a period of increased choice, the junctions also need to capture and retain viewer attention. We can see this not only in the end credit squeeze but also in the increased televisuality of the interstitials. The BBC drama trailer, for example, overtly draws attention to the sophistication of its editing in both the use of music and the intercutting between and within each drama. This is a far cry from the BBC Monday night trailer in 1985 where the single clip used to illustrate each programme was clearly separated by the use of graphic intertitles.
As Caldwell argues of televisuality more broadly, the texts within the 2010 interstitial invite more attentive viewing in a way that was not so evident in the mid-1980s – indeed the lack of voice-over in the BBC drama trailer demands that it be watched. The interstitials need to be more entertaining because they can be more easily avoided – they need to give us a reason to view them. As Charlie Mawer, Executive Creative Director at Red Bee Media, has said of his work in creating idents and promos, ‘our job is to reach them [audiences] in different ways and to be more engaging when they are watching so that they don’t flick.’ (interview with the author, 21 May 2010).
These two elements point to two potentially divergent aspects of the interstitial – that it is both communicating something about the values and experiences of television, while also attempting to persuade or control the viewers. While Lisa Kernan notes that US film trailers are explicit in their promotional intent and actively work to keep the viewer aware of the promotional message, British television junctions are far closer to Dawson’s description of digital shorts (such as the mobisodes based on television programmes) which, he argues, attempt to obscure their purpose or provenance as ads. This differentiates them from their US counterparts which are explicitly concerned with persuasion. If in 1985 the promotional purpose of the junctions was obscured through an emphasis on information and description, in 2010 it is obscured through overt attempts to construct these promotional texts as pieces of entertainment in themselves.
This 2010 junction, therefore, illustrates a number of differences in the communicative ethos of broadcast television in the digital era: the increasing spatialisation of the experience of watching television as the sites for television viewing have increased; the appeal to viewer agency and control as part of the pleasures of television viewing; and the shift from informing to entertaining the viewer as idents and trailers are constructed as entertainment in their own right.
Yet there are also continuities and similarities here. While the number and type of texts within the junctions has changed the overall structure is largely the same, starting with a slide or menu voiced by a continuity announcer, followed by trailers and then ending with an ident again voiced by the same continuity announcer. The emphasis on repetition exists not just in this structure (which is repeated for each junction) but also in the repetition of trailers and idents across the evening and over the subsequent days, weeks and even (in the case of idents) years of television viewing. Roger Silverstone (in one of my favourite books about television) has argued that television functions as a significant transitional object providing ontological security by being constantly available, invulnerable and dependable. He points to ‘the place of television in the visible and hidden ordering of everyday life; in its spatial and temporal patterns, as a contributor to our security’ (1994: 19). Although the centrality of television to our experience of everyday life is threatened (but not, as yet, undermined) by the emergence of new forms of media, the interstitials act as potential reassurance of television’s invulnerability, by making the experience of television familiar and predictable, by reminding us that television is constantly available both spatially and temporally. I want to end by suggesting therefore, that in an era of rapid change, perhaps the interstitials, rather than a site of pollution, might be understood as a site of security amidst the uncertainty, choice and chaos of the digital era.
Catherine Johnson is a lecturer in the Department of Culture, Film, and Media at the University of Nottingham. She is the author of Branding Television and Telefantasy and co-editor of Transnational Television History and ITV Cultures. Her current research examines the broader creative industry sector that produces promotional material for the screen industries.