A study of British audiences watching Channel 5 and Five usa

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Watching CSI: a study of British audiences watching Channel 5 and Five USA


Despite consumption patterns gradually changing, the notion of flow (Williams, 1974) remains a key concept drawn on by scholars (e.g. Kompare, 2006, Johnson, 2013, Kackman et al., 2011) to understand television. As a concept ‘flow’ is connected to an understanding of the difference of television from other media as far as the viewing experience is concerned: rather than a single film, audiences encounter a number of small units that are combined in the process of audiences’ sense making. In this understanding, ephemera become as important as programmes as they interlink to create a meaningful whole. On the other hand, John Ellis (1992/1982) argues that the more typical form for television is actually the segment which contains a separate meaning within itself. Using an audience ethnography, this article argues that in the experience of audiences, the concepts of flow and segmentation are both in evidence. Rather than seeing them as opposing, therefore, they must be understood as complementary in order to fully account for audiences’ experiences and sense making of television.

Keywords: Flow, segment, ephemera, audience ethnography, watching television

Raymond Williams’s Television: Technology and Cultural Form (1974) is often understood as foundational for television studies (Corner, 1999: 64). Undergraduate courses as well as text books (see for example Bignell, 2013; Creeber, 2006) introduce students to his concept of ‘flow’ which occupies the best part of one chapter of the book. The term is often evoked when scholars aim to define what makes television different from other media, and in particular cinema. This is despite the fact that television as a cultural form and practice is clearly changing, requiring some rethinking in regards to industrial practices (Kompare, 2006) and audience experiences (Kackman et al., 2011). However, as scholars such as Catherine Johnson (2013: 24) have highlighted, ‘we need to be wary of suggesting that broadcast television is dead’, a point driven home by several studies by Elizabeth Evans (2011, 2015) who highlights that new media operate in conjunction with and complementary to television, rather than replacing them. In Britain at least, this is also evidenced in the data provided by the annual Ofcom Communications Market Report (2016a) which highlights a trend away from devices and a slowing down of the decline of average minutes a day spent watching broadcast television, bringing consumption back to the same average as in 2006 (at 216 minutes/day). Considering the enduring appeal of broadcast television, scholars continue to argue that television remains different because unlike cinema and other media, audiences encounter television programmes within the flow of other texts: be that other programmes or ephemera such as trailers, idents and, for commercial television, adverts (Bignell, 2013: 19; Creeber, 2006: 14-16; Corner, 1999: 60-69).

Although Williams himself was moved to define flow on the basis of his own encounter of watching television in a different national context than he was used to, it is surprising that the concept has so far hardly been investigated from an audience’s point of view. One notable exception is Klaus Bruhn Jensen (1995) who uses the concept to measure audience flow. Unfortunately, he focuses primarily on what they see and does not provide audiences the space to articulate how they experience this flow in terms of their meaning making. In the end, what he describes is a textual experience had by audiences, but not their understanding of it. In addition, several other scholars (e.g. Ang, 1985; Gillespie, 1995) do introduce the concept in order to discuss the experience of watching television. However, it is notable that most of them draw on the topic primarily in order to emphasise the primacy of the programme text. Thus, Ang (1985: 22-23) discusses the concept of flow in order to indicate how the television text has been theorised in the past, but then goes on to write that ‘[the socio-cultural characteristics of television do] not mean that the programme does not occupy a special place within those limits: the very fact that so much has been said and written about it proves that Dallas plays a prominent role in the cultural consciousness of society’ (1985: 23; see also Gripsrud, 1998: 28). In other words, she (and others that follow her) make a case for the academic necessity to look at audience perceptions of one specific programme. It is partially as a result of these early justifications to study audiences’ reactions to specific programme texts that flow as a concept to understand how audiences perceive television texts has so far not attracted enough attention.

This article, as the title indicates, emphasises one programme, CSI (2000-2015), but within the specific cultural context of watching it in Britain on a small free-to-air channel, in other words within the context of its specific flow that combines adverts, trailers and idents. Channel 5, the final terrestrial channel to be introduced to the British broadcast landscape in 1997, developed its brand in the early 2000s strongly around the CSI franchise which became its break-out success in terms of audience figures (Knox, 2007). This continued as Channel 5, like the other terrestrial television channels, broadened out into the digital landscape: its sister channel, Five USA, is largely built around American crime drama, including CSI, but also the Law & Order and NCIS franchises. As such, the channels’ brand identities have always negotiated the relationship between US imports and its place in British television culture (Knox, 2007; Weissmann, 2010). The relationship of CSI to Channel 5 and Five USA’s brand identities and, hence, idents in particular, makes the series in its British context a useful case study for the way that ephemera might ‘brush up’ (Kackman et al., 2011: 2) against programme texts, and how they are experienced as part of a flow by audiences.

In addition, I aim to understand CSI itself as a flow of segments (Ellis, 1992/1982) which audiences need to actively combine in order to create a coherent story. Although often discussed as relatively conservative in terms of its narrative structure as it follows an episodic form of storytelling with only limited character development (Allen, 2007: 4), CSI is clearly part of the televisual turn described by John T. Caldwell (1995): it prioritises audio-visual spectacle, which often punctuates the narrative (Cohan, 2008), creating a ‘quality of the surface’ (Goode, 2007), which requires significant activity by audiences to bring together as coherent whole. Using a small-scale audience ethnography of viewers watching CSI on either Channel 5 or Five USA, I will argue that rather than understand the two concepts of flow and segment, as is usually done, in opposition, they need to be seen as complementary in relation to audiences’ experiences: thus, for audiences, the text consists of segments which are largely read quite separately, and yet recombined in order to make sense of what the programme is about. The article will begin with a detailed analysis of Williams’s concept of flow and theoretical responses to it, before moving into a discussion of the literature about how audiences engage with ephemera as well as other aspects of flow. It will then explain why the methodology of audience ethnography was chosen before analysing its results. Central to the analysis will be a distinction between planned flow provided by broadcasters and experienced flow that audiences make sense of.

Flow versus segment: The theoretical debate

Williams (1974: 78) defines his concept of flow as a dynamic counterpart to ‘distribution’. Distribution, here, perhaps counter-intuitively, is understood in terms of what kind of programmes can be found on different channels, so can be deduced from a statistical analysis of types of programmes. As Williams highlights, although useful, such an analysis doesn’t replicate what viewers actually experience. Instead they are offered a ‘programme’ which he indicates is more than a single text: derived from the use in theatre and music hall, a programme is actually ‘a series of timed units’ (1974: 88). These units can be understood to be separate, but, as he highlights ‘problems of mix and proportion became predominant in [British] broadcasting policy’ (1974: 88). Indeed, broadcast policy in the UK, driven by the wish to bring the nation together, was centrally concerned with the impact of what it meant to combine different kinds of ‘items’. As a result, he argues, we need to understand that there was a significant shift from ‘the concept of sequence as programming to the concept of sequence as flow’ (1974: 89, italics in original).

The decisive change for television, Williams argues (1974: 89-90) came with the disappearance of the interval and the introduction of adverts into these spaces on commercial television. In other words, Williams sees the beginning of ‘flow’ precisely with the increased visibility of ephemera. As Williams writes:
What is being offered is not, in older terms, a programme of discrete units with particular insertions, but a planned flow, in which the true series is not the published sequence of programme items, but this sequence is transformed by the inclusion of another kind of sequence, so that the sequences together compose the real flow, the real ‘broadcasting’. Increasingly, in both commercial and public-service television, a further sequence was added: trailers of programmes to be shown at some later time or on some later day, or more itemised programme news. This was intensified in conditions of competition, when it became important to broadcasting planners to retain viewers – or as they put it, to ‘capture’ them – for a whole evening’s sequence. And with the eventual unification of these two or three sequences, a new kind of communication phenomenon has to be recognised. (1974: 90-91)
This quote highlights his full understanding of flow: first of all, it is planned – people make a decision about what kind of sequences to combine. Secondly, there is an impact of the combination of different sequences: the main sequence is transformed into something else, into the ‘real broadcasting’. Importantly, and thirdly, this transformation is closely connected to broadcasters’ understanding of audiences, and so the sequence becomes meaningful not just in terms of what it represents, but also what kind of audiences it attracts or is aimed at. In this respect, Ellis’s assertion that ‘Scheduling [was] the last creative act on television’ (2000) can be understood as offering further insight: Ellis argues that schedulers are gaining increasing control over what kind of programmes are commissioned for a channel, precisely because they oversee the planned flow of audiences.

But even in terms of its content – what the sequence represents and how this is experienced by audiences – is the ‘programme’ transformed. Thus, the planned flow of the broadcaster has a direct impact on the experience of television flow by audiences. Williams highlights this in terms of his confusion when he watched television in America where fewer signals are given to highlight the transition from ‘programme’ to ephemera than in the UK. He indicates how trailers and adverts all started to impact on his understanding of the main programme as he could no longer distinguish what was part of the film he was watching and what wasn’t. This highlights that there is another level of impact of flow: as audiences make sense of what they see, they do potentially combine programme and ephemeral texts to form their understanding of the overall meaning. It was for this reason that Williams argued that significant focus should be given to the analysis of schedules, but also how programmes are intersected by ephemera. Some of this call has been heeded: Tony Wilson’s book (1993) includes a consideration of schedules and how they are used to regulate time for both broadcasters and audiences, while Annette Hill and Ian Calcutt (2001) indicate how scheduling proved to be contentious for British viewers of Buffy: The Vampire Slayer. In addition, Catherine Johnson (2005) argues that meanings around particular scheduling slots are established gradually over a period of time. What is missing, so far, is the focus on the micro-level that Williams describes in his own encounter with US broadcasting, particularly from an audience’s perspective.

Williams’s concept, although widely picked up by researchers and teachers, has not remained uncontroversial. Ellis, in his Visible Fictions (1992/1982), expresses the most obvious opposition. In his eyes, rather than sequence and flow the segment is the defining practice of broadcasting. He writes: ‘However, the vast quantity of broadcast TV’s output, usually the critically neglected part, conforms to a different model. Its basic unit is the segment, with segments following on from each other with no necessary connection between them’ (1992: 116-117). Ellis charges Williams with prejudice towards a ‘cinema-style text’ (1992: 118), and argues that adverts are perhaps most typical as broadcast text. They are separate, meaningful-in-themselves units which are clustered together. However, crucially:
they demand short bursts of attention, producing an understanding that rests at the level of the particular segment involved and is not forced to go further, is not made to combine as a montage fragment into a larger organisation of meaning. Thirty seconds by thirty seconds, the “spot” advertisement expands but does not combine: it is the furthest development of broadcast TV’s segmental commodity. (1992: 118-119)
Ellis, then, precisely opposes the idea that the segment is transformed by its place in the schedule or the ‘flow’ of ephemera. Rather, he suggests that audiences understand these segments by themselves and perhaps might only see thematic correlations. But it is the segment, and thus the fragmented nature of the TV experience, that Ellis argues is defining for producers as well as audiences.

The focus on the segment has become more pronounced in scholarship as television has been impacted upon by the fragmentation of audiences and a multitude of technological innovations that have made the industry increasingly nervous. As John T. Caldwell (1995) highlights, part of the US television industry’s response to the economic crisis in broadcasting has been a focus on increased audio-visual spectacle that often only lasts for short periods and require our attention for only short bursts. Similarly, discussing television drama, Robin Nelson (1997: 24) indicates that we are now presented with a short ‘sound-and-vision byte form’ which leads to an increased segmentation and fragmentation of narrative. CSI has often been understood to fit into these schema of television as it includes highly stylised segments which often create specific moments of audio-visual spectacle which can ‘punctuate’ the narrative (Cohan, 2008: 51; see also Lury, 2007; Goode, 2007; Weissmann 2010). As such, CSI presents an interesting case study in terms of looking at how audiences make sense of a segmented narrative within the context of other segments which might or might not impact on their understanding.

Audiences and flow

Considering that the concept of flow was developed to make sense of the specific experience of broadcasting, and the fact that Williams wrote before even VHS (video home system) became widely available, one might want to argue for the lack of relevance of such debates to today’s broadcasting environment. However, most viewers still regularly encounter an element of flow, even when watching television on alternative platforms. Kackman et al. (2011) go so far as to suggest that rather than understanding flow as unique to the broadcast experience, it represents an institutionalisation of culture which is specific in any nation and also affects the forms that convergence takes (2011: 1-3). On the other hand, Derek Kompare (2006) argues for a re-definition towards a greater emphasis on ‘publishing flow’ as television shifts from broadcast to other platforms, in his case specifically to DVD box set releases (though his arguments also stand in the light of streaming services such as Netflix). Catherine Johnson (2013), examining the shift to digital television with a focus on moments of continuity, emphasises a need to recognise that flow operates no longer just on the level of the linear broadcast experience, organised around time, but that there is an increasing emphasis on space and spatial flow. Thus, viewers are reminded to make use of other platforms to continue their engagement with television. At the same time, it is also noticeable, that these other platforms include elements of linear, planned flow: on demand and streaming services often embed adverts and trailers as part of what the viewer has to sit through, and although ‘skipping’ can be an option, it is only an option after part of the advert has been screened. When the viewer accesses content via the broadcasters’ websites, they also encounter idents and (increasingly) trailers and adverts, which connect the programme closely to the channel brand (Johnson, 2012, 2007).

In addition, evidence suggests that live television viewing is anything but dead. In Britain, for example, in 2015, people still watched 3 hours and 36 minutes of television per day while they were online for 3 hours and 8 minutes per day (Ofcom 2016a). While the number of minutes of consuming live television has declined steadily since 2012 (a summer of British Olympics and a lot of rain which impacted on the high level of consumption in that year), it has not declined as dramatically as is often assumed. Of those 3 hours and 36 minutes, only 29 minutes were time-shifted (an increase of 2 minute since 2014 and 12 minutes since 2010). Although time-shifting television remains a relatively new measure for Ofcom, the practice has existed since the invention of VHS, indicating that, in the UK at least, it remains less popular than live television. Alternative means of watching television – e.g. via streaming sites – replicate behaviour of watching VHS and DVD box sets and are therefore more likely to replace these forms of TV consumption than live television. Nevertheless, live television consumption is seeing a decline, however not yet to the level that would suggest that scholars should move away from the investigation of this form of television consumption. This indicates that ‘flow’ still remains an important concept for audience scholars to investigate.

Despite the fact that in Britain at least, live broadcast remains the most-watched form of television, audiences do avoid at least some of the ephemera that are given with the live broadcast, namely adverts. However, advertising avoidance is widespread across all media (Surgi Speck and Elliot, 1997; Kelly et al., 2010; Johnson, 2013b). Paul Surgi Speck and Michael T. Elliott (1997), for example, describe several forms of advertising avoidance for television: they highlight cognitive (such as ignoring adverts), behavioural (such as leaving the room), and mechanical strategies (zapping/ switching channels). In addition, several technologies also allow the fast-forwarding through adverts which Wilbur (2008) describes as ‘zipping’ because it presents a form of compressed viewing. He highlights that ‘zipping’ actually requires more viewer attention than other forms of avoidance strategies as viewers need to pay close attention to ‘zip’ to the right point, i.e. where the programme starts back again. Peter Danaher (1995) argues that avoidance is lower than is often assumed as ratings do not go down by more than an average of 5%. However, his assessment is based on an analysis of ratings, suggesting that his data could not capture the cognitive and behavioural strategies described by Surgi Speck and Elliot.

The research conducted by Jensen (1995) also indicates that zapping is most prevalent at the end points of programmes or in the middle – when commercial breaks would take place. As Jensen indicates this nevertheless creates a sense of flow for audiences who might see alternative programmes in the middle or indeed adverts on other channels. However, Rick Altman (1986), in what is perhaps the most complex understanding of flow, suggests that flow needs to be understood as a cultural practice of broadcasting that operates in conjunction (and competition) with what he terms ‘household flow’. His argument is based around observations of different levels of flow: the former communist countries are described as having the lowest levels of flow as they operated around restrictions of programming, public service broadcasting as being marked by a relatively low level of flow due to its specific aims and missions, and American commercial broadcasting as containing the highest level. He argues that this is due to the fact that American commercial broadcasting’s main product is the audience which is sold to advertisers, and hence these audiences need to be constantly re-attracted to the screen. In this context, he cites evidence from different studies that emphasise the distraction of audiences in regard to television viewing, and comes to the conclusion that sound is actually more important to the broadcast flow than image as it gives distracted audiences a clue as to when to return their gaze to the screen. This, of course, is also argued by Ellis (1992/1982). In Altman’s understanding, then, the broadcast flow competes with the household flow, and it is sound that allows for the bridging of the two. While his ideas have come under some criticism by John Corner (1999) who rightly argues that Altman’s definitions of flow, particularly through the inclusion of other, e.g. household flows, stretches the term to such an extent to become useless, Altman’s understanding of nation-specific flows, mirrored in the arguments of Kackman et al. (2011), is, as we shall see, also recognised by audiences. In addition, his concept of household flow usefully indicates that the broadcast text itself is not the only thing intersecting with audiences’ understandings of television as the medium competes for viewer attention. It is for these reasons – the recognition that audiences will experience specific forms of flow depending in how they engage with television and where – that the methodology of interpretive ethnography was chosen.

The interpretative ethnography, made use of here, required the observation of a small number (four) of households as they watched an episode of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation which was followed by short, semi-structured interviews. This methodology was chosen in order to be able to observe media use in its most natural environment (Gillespie, 1995) and to document the specific flow encountered by audiences. Inevitably, my presence did impact on the behaviour of my participants; thus I believe that all of them watched CSI with a bit more attention than they would normally do. However, all of them tried to reassure me that their behaviour was quite representative of what they would normally do. Nevertheless, one participant noticed that she was more self-aware because she was being watched. This facilitated a very reflective discourse about her emotional reactions to particular scenes, but also meant that she spent significantly more time exploring her reactions to those particular scenes rather than allowing her emotions to be carried from scene to scene. Issues of power (the researcher, who is understood as a public authority, entering an existing, but crucially private environment) were negotiated in part by observing friends and friends of friends and thus reducing the traditional distance between those who are being observed and those who do the observing (Murphy 1999). At the same time, this meant that participants knew me as a fan of CSI, and appealed to that part of my identity when speaking to me. I attempted to keep a level of distance by returning to a number of prepared research questions and ideas that directed the observation and interviews. This is in line with other research that also employs this methodology (see for example Thornham, 2011). Helen Thornham (2011: 9-10) highlights that such a methodology is not about the generation of scientific, objective knowledge, but about the development of an interpretation of relations: in my case, my aim was to understand how dedicated audiences of CSI experienced flow at a particular historic time (when a large portion of television consumption was still live and when CSI had become an everyday object, watched for many years by the participants who had largely seen the specific episode we watched together before) and space (watched on two channels that defined their brand image around the programme). The interpretive framework meant that the focus both in the research design and the analysis was on the interrelationship between audience’s knowledge of the programme and their view of the ephemera that surrounded it.

Considering Altman’s (1986) findings on household flow, it is important to give some background on each one observed. All involved some form of cohabiting: in three as life partners, in one as friends. In two households, I could only observe one person, in one case because the other member of the household did not want to watch the programme which meant that the other person usually watched CSI by themselves. In the other household, the other person did not feel they had the time to be observed. All but one household was child-less. Household income ranged from very low (for the two women in their twenties who were still studying) to above national average. Two viewers had transnational experiences of watching CSI: originally from the USA, one woman had first encountered the series as an education exhibit at a museum, before watching it with her grandparents in Florida at the age of 10. She now watches the show with her flatmate who had also been to the US before and had watched the series there. The difference between their British and American viewing experience was discussed a lot in their interview and will be examined below. All of the households regularly watched CSI on either Channel 5 or Five USA. During the period of observation, Five USA had a dedicated slot called ‘CSI Sunday’ which many participants watched on a regular basis.

Table 1. Overview of participant demographics

Age and Sex

Occupation and Education Level

Level of Engagement

Participant A

Early 20s, female

Student, studying to BA (Hons) level

Dedicated fan, has been to events

Participant B

Early 20s, female

Student, studying to BA (Hons) level

Dedicated fan, has been to see the exhibition

Participant C

Mid-30s, female

Not currently in employment, educated to BA (Hons) level

Watches regularly, but relatively casually

Participant D

Early-40s, female

Works in higher education, educated to PhD level

Watches regularly, but no longer a fan

Participant E

Early 40s, male

Works in the arts sector, educated to Masters level

Watches regularly with partner

Participant F

Mid-50s, female

Works in higher education, educated to MA level

Fan, but has not been to events

Each participant displayed a different way of engaging with the programme: the youngest ones (Participants A and B) were the most dedicated and watched intensely, justifying their close engagement with the fact that they were fans of the show and often spent their whole Sunday night watching the programme together. The one man (Participant E) that was observed watched least intently, partially, as he suggested because he primarily watches with his partner who wants to watch the programme. In part, however, the political situation also impacted on his behaviour, as he was closely following events in the wake of Brexit on Twitter. Considering the magnitude of the event, Brexit also popped up in another conversation during the observation with another viewer (Participant C). Here, similarities with the episode which dealt with the genocide in Rwanda were highlighted by the participant who recognised similar tendencies of xenophobia and racism in the discourses surrounding Brexit. Both cases indicate how the viewing context is strongly shaped by events that pre-occupy a household, or what Altman (1986) called the household flow. As my observation made evident, such pre-occupations impact on both how the viewer makes sense of what they see, as well as the depth of their engagement with what is offered to them as the flow of programme and ephemeral text.

In the following, these aspects of making sense and engaging with the television flow are unpicked further. I have decided to discuss the findings by separating them into the two large themes of segment – Ellis’s concept (1992) based on his critique of flow – and flow. As will become evident both aspects are at play and they highlight an interesting viewer preference for a pleasurable confusion between ephemera and programme text and thus flow. However, such a flow is hardly ever offered by television which means that viewers experience television – particularly in Britain – as largely consisting of separate segments.

Common amongst all observations and discussed in all interviews was the tendency by all participants to avoid adverts. The participants however displayed different forms of advertising avoidance. Participant F left the room twice (behavioural avoidance), two muted the audio, the man instantly returned to his Twitter feed whilst his partner similarly played with her telephone (mechanical avoidance) and the two flatmates talked all the way through the adverts (cognitive avoidance), in part using the adverts as triggers to discuss their personal lives and therefore bond further. Two participants indicated during the observation and during the interviews that when they were watching programmes on demand, they would normally fast-forward through the adverts. All of the participants expressed their annoyance with adverts, largely because they were perceived as irrelevant. Adverts were described as ‘junk’ (Participant E, male, early 40s) or ‘boring’ (Participant A, female, early 20s, and Participant C, female, mid-30s). One viewer explained in some detail why she avoided the adverts:

When I’m watching television what happens is I have the TV on, and I would have it so I can hear it properly, and then the adverts come on and I feel that I’m being shouted at. So I hit mute or go out of the room. It’s just too loud. If you advertise me stuff, I know what you’re trying to do, you don’t need to shout at me like that. (Participant F, female, mid-50s)
The response indicates quite a significant awareness in terms of what strategies are being used by advertisers to attract greater attention to the screen, particularly as far as the use of sound is concerned. As indicated by Altman (1986), sound here operates as a clue for the audience – however, here to reduce their attention rather than bring the viewer’s attention back to the screen. This media literacy was also evident in her and other responses in relation to who the adverts and hence the programme was for. Indeed, three of the participants used the expression ‘women of a certain/particular age’. Interestingly, although three of the women were in the described age groups (between 30 and 60), none of them felt particularly addressed by the adverts.

Importantly, rather than completely rejecting the adverts, all but one of the participants indicated that they would be willing to put up with adverts or even engage more closely with them if they were – in the case above – less blatant in their aims to attract attention or more relevant to the viewers. Participant C (female, mid 30s) ended up watching one advert in quite some detail because it featured a celebrity she was interested in and advertised a beauty product which she said she usually wants to know about, even if she doesn’t then buy the product. Nevertheless, it indicated that she was willing to focus on material she was interested in. Similarly, the two young women (participants A and B, in their early 20s) were indicating that most of the adverts felt not aimed at them (‘I don’t need nappies from Aldi’), but engaged with them when they reminded them of personal matters. Thus, in the same interview one advert was discussed for quite some time because the main character reminded them of Participant A’s mother’s boyfriend. The emphasis on personal relevance highlights yet again how central the pre-occupations of households with particular things in their lives are to their willingness to engage with ephemera in particular. It suggests that ephemera only have a chance to attract attention and hence become meaningful in some form to the viewers when they are perceived as relevant. The exception to this rule is offered by the two young women who, as deeply engaged fans of the programme, watched the adverts no matter what. As Participant A (female, early 20s) explained:

I tend to zone out of the adverts. But I’ll sit and watch them. Because I don’t dare go and leave to make a cup of tea or use the bathroom. Or anything, in case I miss something. In case I miss it coming back on. So I never dare leave.
Here, it is the dedication to the programme itself that allows the adverts to be registered, even when attempts are being made to avoid them or reject them.

This behaviour in relation to advertising avoidance seems to indicate that audience do not tend to experience the planned flow of ephemera and programme as unified text, but rather as segments. Ellis’s description (1982/1992) of adverts as exemplary for how we should understand television thus seems accurate: the evidence from the observation in particular makes it clear that audiences engage with individual adverts as separate entities that do not seem to feed into the larger meaning of the main programme text. However, the situation is actually more complex: all viewers engaged at least to a little extent with the adverts and they made sense of them in relation to specific target demographics that they understood CSI to be aimed at. The series thus became meaningful in terms of its commercial context. Therefore, because CSI appears on Channel 5 and Five USA in the context of the planned flow of adverts and programme, audiences’ reading of the series is clearly impacted, even if audiences attempt to separate adverts from the programme text.

The separation between adverts and programme text is experienced as heightened in Britain as a result of the recurring ident card that sits between programme and advert break. This particular ident card is relatively simple in design: on Channel 5 and Five USA they tend to be of simple flat, colourful surfaces with either the number 5 or Five USA on them. Importantly, unlike everything surrounding them, they do not contain any sound and they therefore offer an audible marker of difference. This is highly appreciated by the viewers who use them as a means to return their attention to the programme text. Where they do watch the programme recorded or on demand, they use the ident as a marker to start and stop forwarding or ‘zipping’ through the adverts. Where they use behavioural strategies to avoid the adverts, they use the lack of sound as an indicator that the programme is about to start back and return to their seats. Their usefulness was particularly highlighted by Participant A and B (female, early 20s) who had experienced American television where such a marker wasn’t available. Both highlighted how they experienced adverts as even more annoying as a result. Participant C (female, mid-30s) described the ident cards as ‘a nice little buffer’, suggesting an element of effort by the viewer to change their level of engagement with what they see on screen: from concentrated on the programme to distracted when the adverts are on. Thus, rather than participating in the flow of content as suggested by Williams, these ident cards partake in the creation of clear boundaries and hence segments for audiences that they perceive as largely unrelated to each other. In this respect, Altman’s understanding of different levels of flow becomes meaningful again: in Britain, the relatively clear delineation of adverts and programme through the ident card which audiences recognise is stipulated in a broadcast policy (Ofcom 2016b) that continues to see the terrestrial channels as being under some (though decreasing) public service obligation.

Overall, the findings in relation to the ephemera of adverts seem to suggest that audiences do not experience the planned flow of the broadcast as something that could be understood as an experienced flow. Apart from the relationship between ephemera and target audiences, which was clearly recognised, the participants indicated a preference for a clear delineation of programme from ephemera and a focus on specific adverts when they did engage with the adverts rather than avoid them. However, as will become evident below, overall the picture is more complex, and in particular as far as the experience of the segmentation of the text itself is concerned, what actually emerges is an understanding of the television text as a flow of segments.


Although the above suggests that the segment is central to the television experience for audiences, it is noticeable that so far I have only addressed the relationship between adverts and programmes and the role of ident cards to separate them. More importantly, there is evidence that the adverts are nevertheless understood as meaningful for the programme text insofar as they are read in relation to who the programme is aimed at, in line with previous findings (Mikos, 1994). In other words, although the experience of the segment clearly plays a role, there is evidence of something else that seems closer to the experience of flow that Williams (1974) describes.

All interviews raised the question of narrative as a combination of fragments. What was interesting to see, was that every individual viewer recombined these fragments differently in order to come to an understanding of what the narrative was about. Key to their interpretation was a specific focus that, like a leading thread, allowed them to knit the narrative together. For the male participant (early 40s), this thread was offered by the dialogue as he commented on how his whole media consumption is very ‘text-led’, meaning both written text (including on television, but also Twitter) and dialogue. He disliked moments of visual narrative where perhaps one piece of evidence was explained because it forced him to engage differently, namely visually, with the programme. For the women in their early twenties, the focus was on character, and they recombined their extensive knowledge of the series as a whole in order to come to an understanding of how the particular episode was meaningful in terms of character development. In contrast, the other women very much read the narrative in relation to its specific episode. Two of them, one in her 40s, one mid-50s, focused on theme to make sense of the episode and both of them highlighted that they understood the two narrative strands as interrelated with each other. Participant C (female, early 30s) on the other hand combined a mix of focus on character and theme in order to make sense of how individual characters needed to be judged.

Although this suggests that meaning is created in the flow of narrative, it is important to stress that the sense of segmentation was just as strong as the sense of linkage or continuation. Participant C made this particularly clear:

Interviewer: … that moment when you get the science explain what happens

Participant C: Yes, the science explains what happens. The educational bits.

Interviewer: Yes, but you said it’s like an insert, I think you used the word insert, so it’s quite fragmented when you think about it.

Participant C: Yes, I think, but I don’t really notice it because the insert explains the main content, so it’s linked.

Although Participant C opted for a word that suggested that the piece was additional and not needed, an insertion into the narrative, she did not go as far as to describe the narrative as a whole as fragmented. Thus, although segments of the episode are clearly recognised as unique and separate, within the larger narrative, they are understood to exist within the narrative whole. This suggests that rather than opposing concepts, segment and flow might need to be understood as complementary: while viewers recognise difference in unique parts, they also see across them to make sense of the larger (con)text.

In relation to the planned flow of ephemera and programmes that Williams described, audiences indicate a level of appreciation when they feel that this flow connects to the programme itself. In one instance, the planned flow included a segment of interviews with cast members before the ident and the programme which was highly praised in the interview after the observation (Participants A and B, female, early 20s). During the observation itself, it became clear that it took the two participants a few seconds before they realised what they saw was not as yet the programme, but just a series of interviews, indicating an element of confusion not dissimilar to Williams’s original experience. In addition, idents and trailers that attracted attention and praise were usually the ones that related in some way to the series:

I would say my favourite [ident] is the Channel 5 one, and it was the one they did, like in a big warehouse and they had like a screen which presented the 5 logo, I think they still use it. And they would have something in the front that would be relevant to the type of show that was on, so with CSI it would always be a car chase and it would go through the screen. (Participant A)
Like other viewers, Participant A is able to recollect a lot of detail about the particular ident. In addition, she describes it as ‘favourite’, thus indicating a preference for ephemera that speak directly to the programme text. A similar preference is indicated by Participant F (female, mid-50s) who suggests that a sponsorship advert in which a car is driven in front of a series of words in order to hide or reveal a sentence, connected in some way to ‘murder mystery’ and was ‘clever’ also because it fitted the context of CSI. The playful engagement with the programme itself was clearly read in a positive way, suggesting that the flow of ephemera and programme can be an enjoyable experience precisely when linkages are directly possible. Here, the experience of being addressed as someone who likes the genre or even the specific programme seems to be central to the participants’ pleasure. In light of the fact that the participants did not feel addressed by other adverts despite the fact that they largely fell into the implied age and gender category, this poses some interesting questions about the disjuncture between the imagined identity construction developed by advertisers and broadcasters and that of actual audiences. To answer these questions would require further investigation; however, it is useful to note here that the construction of their identity around interests clearly impacts on the audience’s experience of flow.

Importantly, these ephemera also contributed to the understanding of the programme text as the observations in particular made evident. Participant F, who had discussed the sponsorship advert that had revealed a sentence with the words ‘murder mystery’ and its relation to CSI, kept referring to CSI as a murder mystery during the observation, whilst Participants A and B discussed CSI at some length in relation to strong female characters which was the theme raised by the cast interviews shown before the programme:

Participant B: Cause… even in the interview, the girl, Georgia Fox was saying how there’s more shows now with a lot of strong female characters, and that’s what this is… lots of strong female characters 

Participant A: It has got a lot of strong female characters. I mean the fact that I got hooked on it very quickly, as a female, I can relate to that, I like those strong characters, like Catherine and Sara. I like Calleigh in the Miami one. I like her. I don’t like Miami much because I can’t stand Horatio. But the characters that I do like are mostly the women. I mean I quite like Ryan Wolf because he’s quite an interesting character, but then I quite like Calleigh because she’s quite strong and independent, and it’s the same with New York, and I quite like that. But it’s mostly men in New York. There’s more… in the male-to-female ratio, there’s more male characters. 

Here, the theme set by the interviews is explored in relation to the participants’ own enjoyment of the series, suggesting that ephemera such as short behind the scenes videos can impact on how audiences understand their own relationship with and pleasure in the programme. Although this experience didn’t quite go so far that the viewers didn’t recognise the difference between the ephemera and the programme, their reactions nevertheless indicate that the planned flow of television does provide context that impacts at least latently on sense making processes and at least in some cases leads to a similar (initial) confusion that Williams describes which is, however, experienced as pleasurable.

The article set out to examine how viewers experience the planned flow of ephemera and programmes by providing an audience ethnography focused on CSI: Crime Scene Investigation. As such, it made the distinction between the planned flow provided by broadcasters and the experienced flow of audiences. As indicated, the findings highlight that rather than competing concepts, flow and segmentation need to be understood as complementary in relation to how audiences experience live television.

The audiences’ advertising avoidance suggests that the experience is one of segmentation at least in some respects: their level of engagement changes and they see the ident card at the beginning or end of each advert break as ‘nice little buffer’ that facilitates the transition of engagement. As indicated, this must be understood within the specific planned flow of British broadcasting which even today provides perhaps a greater focus on segmentation than American TV (Altman, 1986). Adverts are read individually, when read at all, in relation to the relevance of the advert to their own lives. At the same time, there are linkages made between the adverts and the programme in relation to understanding who the programme is aimed at. There is greater evidence of audiences reading across segments in the way they make sense of the fragmented narrative which, according to one viewer, includes ‘inserts’ that nevertheless connect to the larger narrative. How this narrative is threaded together seems to be entirely dependent on the individual: in the cases observed here, nearly as many differences were observed as there were participants. In addition, key events, such as the Brexit vote, impacted also on how much attention the flow of narrative and ephemera is given. In this regard, Altman’s (1986) assertion that there are a number of flows impacting on understanding, including household flows and others, seems prescient.

In relation to the issue of planned flow and the potential for impact on how the programme might be read, it became clear that this is primarily achieved when segments such as cast interviews, idents or sponsorship adverts directly relate to the programme and/or play with themes of the programme. In these cases, the planned flow can lead to a pleasurable confusion that impacts on the specific reading of the episode that is shown. However, as long as such playfulness of ephemera with programme themes remains limited, particularly as far as adverts are concerned, the experienced flow described by audiences remains one of disruption and segmentation.


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