Glee has almost all the elements of a perfect TV show for me: high school setting, teens bursting into song at the drop of a hat, lively dance numbers, generally up-beat storytelling, fast-paced dialogue and storylines that don’t shy away from difficult subject matter, such as homophobia and teen pregnancy. Sure, season two had been hit and miss. The series’ reliance on ‘tribute’ episodes (based entirely on the music of particular stars) saw commercial interests impact on the storytelling and the story of Kurt’s homophobic bullying was too easily resolved. But despite this I still looked forward to Glee’s return in autumn 2011 and dutifully set my PVR to record the whole series. Although Sky 1 (which would be airing the series for the first time – it had previously been on E4) announced that they would be transmitting episodes of Glee just one day after their broadcast in the US this was of little relevance to me, because Glee fits into a particular kind of viewing pattern. Rather than watch the episodes as broadcast, I set my PVR to record the whole series and then binge on an evening of three or four episodes in one go. This is partly personal preference – I can forgive the weaker episodes more when watching them alongside stronger one. But it’s also a necessity – my husband can’t stand Glee so I have to store episodes up and save them for evenings when he’s out of the house and I get the telly to myself. While such viewing habits were possible with a VCR, the PVR makes this form of binge-viewing far easier and in our household it’s a common way of experiencing long-form serialised television.
So what went wrong with Glee? Quite quickly into season three I realised the pitfalls of Sky 1 following the US broadcast schedule. Having looked forward to a marathon of four Glee episodes, I would discover that only one or two had been broadcast. In the US, there are regular breaks in the TV schedules for seasonal holidays (Thanksgiving, Christmas) and sporting events. For Glee, the first three episodes of season three were broadcast in succession and then there was a gap of four weeks before another three episodes were broadcast, this time followed by a gap of one week. Three more episodes followed before broadcasting stopped for over a month over Christmas. British viewers are simply not used to such gaps in the schedules, where series are more commonly broadcast weekly without interruption (apart from perhaps a week or two at Christmas). Even though I was recording the series and watching it after transmission, the lack of regularly broadcast episodes disrupted my pattern of viewing and I began to feel dislocated from the series itself. And it turns out I was not alone. Sky 1 received complaints from viewers and decided to decouple its transmissions from the US broadcast schedule when showing the second half of season three after the Christmas break. And it’s at this point that I stopped watching Glee – not because I didn’t want to wait, but because my PVR simply stopped recording the series. I’d become so attuned to the gaps in broadcast and to my PVR not containing episodes of Glee that it was sometime in April before I began to wonder what had happed to the series, well after Sky 1 had started broadcasting season three episodes again on 1 March 2012, a date chosen so that UK viewers would view the season finale only days after it was broadcast in the US.
My experience with Glee has got me thinking about the experience of watching television in the digital era, something I’ve been worrying at for a while. There’s been a lot of work in the past few years attempting to examine how television, and television viewing, have changed with the arrival of new technologies (such as the PVR) as well as the vast increase in the sites for watching television (from the rise in the number of channels to the emergence of new on-demand services and platforms). In much of this work there is often an emphasis on the agency and control given to viewers, which is contrasted with the lack of agency in the flow of broadcast television (see for example Chamberlain’s (2011) interesting article on this). There is a potential history that could be written of a gradual emancipation of the television viewer from the grips of the broadcasters’ schedules by a succession of technological innovations, starting with the remote control and ending with downloading. Yet, as ever, the picture is more complex than that. I’ve been re-reading Raymond Williams’ Television Technology and Cultural Form and he usefully reminds us of the complexities of technological developments, which are shaped by political, economic and (crucially) social changes. He saw broadcasting as a social product of mobile privatisation serving an at once a more mobile and more home-centred way of living. He argued that ‘within the broadcasting model there was this deep contradiction, of centralised transmission and privatised reception’ (1975/1990: 30). It seems to me that this useful theorisation of broadcasting still applies to the altered experience of television viewing in the digital era. The new technological developments that allow us to watch television on multiple screens and on the move can be understood as an extension of mobile privatisation, rather than a break from it. While portable media players allow us to view television on the move at a time when our lives and communities tend to be more geographically dispersed, research also suggests that most television viewing on portable devices occurs in the home. The greatest change that these technologies allow us in the home is an increased individuation of our television viewing experience, emphasising the ‘self-sufficient’ individual agent that has become such an important metaphor in contemporary Western society. And it is this individuation that shaped my use of the PVR for viewing Glee – an attempt to structure my viewing of the series to respond to the individual needs of my personal life. Yet my attempts to structure my own ‘privatised reception’ came into conflict with the ‘centralised transmission’ of the series through Sky 1. While my PVR enabled me to construct my own particular ‘binge-viewing’ experience for television, this was still at the whim of the broadcast patterns of channels and networks, limiting my control as a viewer.
My agency and control was also limited by a couple of other factors. The sheer range and number of television channels limited my awareness of the change in Glee’s scheduling. I’m not a regular Sky 1 viewer, I don’t frequent websites for Sky or Glee where this scheduling change might have been announced and I’m presumably out of the demographic for the third-party sites where Sky might have announced such a change. This points to the difficulty of finding material with the proliferation of television channels, something I’ll address in future blogs about a current project (with Paul Grainge) about the role of screen promotion in the digital era. My experience with Glee was also shaped by my lack of experience of, and technological aptitude for, downloading and my strong preference for television viewing on the television set in the living room as opposed to the computer which is located in my study (for me a site of work not leisure). In this sense, I am like the majority of television viewers in the US and UK who primarily watch scheduled broadcast television (see Dawson 2010). If my experience with Glee season three points to the continued significance of theorisations of broadcasting for understanding contemporary television, then it also reminds us of ways in which broadcasting has adapted to fit into the patterns, rhythms and habituated behaviours of daily life and demonstrates the extent to which these are nationally specific.
Any Brit who has ever tried to watch television in the US will be struck by the continued relevance of Williams’ description of his encounter with television one evening in Miami. It’s worth quoting here, not just for the quality of Williams’ prose, but also because it resonates so strongly with my own experiences of television viewing in the States (Atlantic liner aside).
One night in Miami, still dazed from a week on an Atlantic liner, I began watching a film and at first had some difficulty adjusting to a much greater frequency of commercial ‘breaks’. Yet this was a minor problem compared to what eventually happened. Two other films, which were due to be shown on the same channel on other nights, began to be inserted as trailers. A crime in San Francisco (the subject of the original film) began to operate in an extraordinary counterpoint with not only the deodorant and cereal commercials but with a romance in Paris and the eruption of a prehistoric monster who laid waste New York. […] I can still not be sure what I took from that whole flow. I believe I registered some incidents as happening in the wrong film, and some characters in the commercials as involved in the film episodes, in what came to seem – for all the occasional bizarre disparities – a single irresponsible flow of images and feelings (1975/1990: 91-2).
Such encounters can now be had after mere hours on a plane, but the confusion that Williams experienced due to the lack of signifiers between the transitions from commercial to promo to movie is arguably heightened in contemporary US television. As I have argued elsewhere (Johnson 2012), one response to increased competition from the US networks has been the development of new broadcasting strategies, such as hot switching (where one programme leads immediately into the next without any break) and cold starts (when a programme begins with a scene and delays or cuts its title sequence). These strategies create a new rhythm for broadcast television, and for a viewer not used to such rhythms it can be difficult to judge when one programme has ended and another (or a promo) has begun. My own experience of watching broadcast television in the US has tended to be characterised by an underlying feeling of discomfort not dissimilar to Williams’ sense of an ‘irresponsible flow of images and feelings’ (ibid.). Despite my familiarity with many of the programmes broadcast, the unfamiliar rhythm and tone that come from the fundamentally different structure and address of US broadcast television has tended to make my experiences of viewing US television viewing strange and unsettling. Glee points to the ways in which these rhythms extend into the weekly and yearly patterns of television broadcasting and the difficulties of transferring the rhythms and patterns of one broadcast nation to another.
For British broadcasters this poses a problem. For decades British viewers have been complaining about the time lag between the broadcasting of episodes in the US and in the UK. As the internet has made it increasingly easy to share television viewing experiences across national boundaries and to construct globalised communities around the viewing of certain programmes and genres, delayed scheduling becomes more and more problematic. Indeed, the internet potentially allows viewers across the world to circumvent the broadcasters altogether and download programmes as soon as they are broadcast. Clearly the matched scheduling adopted by Sky 1 was an attempt to respond to these problems, yet one that caused enough viewer complaints for Sky to decide to de-couple and delay transmission of the second half of season three. If Williams talked of a contradiction in broadcasting between centralised transmission and privatised reception, this example points to some of the ways in which reception is becoming increasing public, from the downloading sites that disrupt the one-to-many model of broadcasting, to the websites and social networking sites that allow viewers to share their viewing experiences with a global public from the privacy of their own homes. Yet it also points to a conflict between two different aspects of television viewing: on the one hand the desire to be up-to-date in order to be able to engage with a broader community of viewers and share that viewing experience; and on the other hand the desire for the regularity and familiarity of a pattern of weekly broadcasting. Within the digital era, then, new tensions are emerging between nationally habituated rhythms and patterns of broadcasting and the visibility of, and access to, globalised sites of reception, between the increased individuation allowed by on-demand, PVRs and downloading and the desire to communicate, engage with and share our viewing experiences.
What my experience with Glee season three reveals, then, is a series of tensions shaping the experience of television viewing in the digital era. With broadcasting remaining the primary way in which television is viewed, it is unsurprising that tensions between centralised transmission and privatised reception continue, arguably accelerated by the increased drive towards individuation supported and facilitated by new media technologies such as the PVR and on-demand. At the same time, we can see the emergence of new tensions between privatised reception and public engagement as viewers increasingly use communications technologies as part of the experience of television viewing. Such tensions play out within a global landscape revealing the continuance of nationally specific habituated patterns and rhythms that shape our everyday encounters with television. So where does this leave me and Glee season three? Maybe this will finally give me an incentive to have a go at downloading television, taking me further away from my habituated dependence on broadcast television. Perhaps I’ll wait until the season is repeated, placing my fate in the hands of the broadcasters and the chance that I’ll actually notice that the repeats have started. Or I could wait until the series is released on DVD and binge-view to my heart’s content. While none of these options would have been available to me in 1975 when Williams wrote Television Technology and Cultural Form, the continued relevance of his work reminds us of the values of being alert to the continuities, as well as the changes, when attempting to understand the new experiences of television viewing in 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.