By Emeritus Professor David Rowe (@rowe_david) Institute for Culture and Society, Western Sydney University
(Image: David Rowe)
Television: From Rationing to Bingeing
Talking about television generates many words relating to ingestion, like TV appetite, fare, diet, menu and, currently in vogue, binge. Is binging just another stage in the evolution of television viewing or a fast flowing pipeline to unhealthy cultures and bodies?
Before we discuss today, how did we get here? Well, once upon a previous century, there came a new domestic technology called television. It entered most households, first in the capitalist West, to signal the end of post-World War II austerity, an exciting new leisure option. I grew up in provincial Britain not long after the ‘box in the corner’ was subject to a principle that I later learnt at university to be called ‘stratified diffusion’. This means that consumer durables like washing machines, fridges and cars generally move from being the preserve of the affluent few to the general population through technological innovation, mass production and economies of scale.
Television was given a broad remit: “to inform, educate and entertain”, as the BBC would declare in its 1937 Charter. Note the order of these functions, because bringing the world home at the touch of a switch caused considerable anxiety that minds would be evacuated by trivial light entertainment or manipulated by political propaganda. Even in America, with its negligible public service broadcasting sector, the big commercial networks like CBS, NBC and ABC prided themselves on the quality and seriousness of their news and current affairs in the face of such reservations about the ‘electronic drug’.
Although the rationing of food and fuel ended in many places after the coming of television, viewers were on a slim diet of broadcast content. Only a small number of available analogue channels could be watched, and initially in black-and-white on small screens in a bulky set containing a cathode ray tube. How strange, even alien, that world looks today when the most common complaint is that there is just too much to watch and not enough time to watch it. Black-and-white is now colour, analogue decommissioned by digital, ‘dumb’ has become ‘smart’, and standard definition now ultra-high. TV sets are flat, screens are of almost cinematic proportions, and conventional broadcasting challenged by Over-the-Top (OTT), streaming, web-based and mobile services. What hasn’t changed is a collective fixation on the idea and the experience of television. It has not only influenced how the world is seen, but through the process known as ‘mediatisation’ it has changed the world itself in various ways.
I have been analysing developments in television (and the wider media) for quite a long time, and am convinced that the practice of bingeing is worthy of serious consideration. Ironically, as I’ve suggested the term echoes a concern from the early days of television that viewers would be ‘glued to the box’ and gluttonously consuming easily digested screen fare. When live sport became a television staple in a ‘match made in heaven’, there was a particular worry that active athletic participants would become couch-bound spectators.
Many other issues were raised as a whole new research field of media effects studies emerged. Could, for example, voters be unduly influenced by biased programmes or political advertisements in making their election day decisions, and would exposure to dramatised screen sex and violence lead to imitative promiscuity and aggression? A theory of de-sensitisation proposed that seeing too much of the suffering of others on the nightly TV news would make people inured to its horrors in their everyday lives. Not to mention the suggested physical effects, like deteriorating eyesight and accelerating obesity. There was much less anxiety, notably, about the gruesome Shakespearean tragedies taught to me at school or the children’s books I read for far too long under the covers by torchlight.
Television in Australia: Technology and the Practice of Viewing
In settler-colonial societies like Australia, there is an additional reservation about television. Would the identity of a nation formed only in 1901 be culturally obliterated by an imported diet of American sitcoms and British period dramas? You will notice that I am almost compulsively using metaphors of bodily consumption in connection with TV viewing, the most influential of which is currently ‘binge-watch’, the 2015 Collins Dictionary word of the year. For me, it recalls Monty Python’s film The Meaning of Life and the grotesque scene involving Monsieur Creosote, who literally explodes in an up-market French restaurant after over-indulging on food and drink. Would an unlimited television diet, figuratively speaking, cause viewers to blow themselves up, splattering words and images everywhere but unable to comprehend and critique them?
The parallel development of technology and globalisation has made regulating television increasingly difficult for individual nations like Australia, despite official policies ranging from classification systems to local content quotas. Because screen content is everywhere, the current focus is less on how to access it and more on what we might call impulse control. New generations of ‘digital natives’ and many of their analogue predecessors are intolerant of any limits placed on their viewing practices. They expect to get what they want right away, being accustomed to the digital disruptions of the likes of Uber Eats and Uber rides. Previous generations had to wait months for ‘hot’ drama series, especially from the U.S., to make it to Australia, and until quite recently episodes were spaced out according to the rhythm of weekly TV ‘appointments’.
A watershed moment in Australia came in 2015, when Netflix’s streaming video-on-demand swept into and disturbed a broadcast environment where the three commercial free-to-air networks, the two public service broadcasters and the Foxtel pay-TV oligopoly had maintained something of an uneasy peace since the arrival of subscription television in 1995. Specialist multi-channelling had already evolved so that, for example, Roy and HG’s dictum that ‘too much sport is barely enough’ became a reality, as dedicated viewers could watch live, as-live and recorded sport events in high rotation from anywhere in the world. Netflix was not the first streaming service in Australia, but it has had the fastest take up.
Today, digital platforms are constantly on the march, either as new entrants or in association with existing Australian networks. Stan, Disney+, Apple TV+, Amazon Prime Video, Paramount+ and many other streaming services are drawing viewers from free-to-air television. TV used to have a problem with tracking audiences, relying on viewer diaries and, later, set-top devices to monitor TV use in generating ratings as markers of success and as lures to advertisers and sponsors. But now, smart TV algorithms minutely crunch our viewing patterns and suggest what they think we will like based on our previous choices, including more doses of the same long-form drama, documentary, reality series, sports leagues, news and currents affairs.
The Covid-19 pandemic and its rolling series of lockdowns produced the perfect conditions to secure more subscriptions among an immobilised population. It is no surprise that Foxtel called its streaming service Binge, fortuitously launched in May 2020 soon after the pandemic took hold. Recently, the Arts + Culture Editor of The Conversation website, motto “the university as a giant newsroom”, offered viewing recommendations from its contributors in declaring that, “With around half the nation in lockdown, there’s never been a better time to binge watch TV”. The Section did, though, carry an article entitled “What art are you engaging with in lockdown? Australians are mostly watching TV — but music, singing and dancing do more for your mood”. The authors distinguish between passive/receptive and active arts activities, raising once again the longstanding association between screen viewing and degrees of stillness and indolence (reading is presented here, a little troublingly, as passive/receptive as it lacks the requisite kinetic dynamism).
Certainly, all this non-linear TV viewing can play with our sense of time, eradicating the old gaps between episodes and inviting ‘just one more’ until we realise that many hours – even much of the weekend - have passed without us noticing. Perhaps we are increasingly induced by television into a trance-like state, a way of holding a troubled world at bay, in a manner that echoes the concerns of old-school critics of television. There is little prospect that the tide of new television offerings will recede after the pandemic.
Television, Policy and the Cultural Citizen
It would be easy – indeed facile – to mount a polemic against all this change in television land. These largely take the form of nostalgic yearnings for the mythical golden days before TV, or in its earlier decades, coupled with unworkable legislative attempts to arrest digitally inspired developments. But this realisation should not be mirrored by a fatalistic sense that nothing can be done, and that the television market ought to be allowed simply to resolve its own business without intervention by governments, ‘moral entrepreneurs’ and critical academics. We need, instead, to think philosophically and sociologically and to frame tenable social and cultural policies in the digital media sector. Informed public debate on ‘cultural citizenship’ is urgently required to help produce a sophisticated cultural policy and a diverse media ecology. Here are two examples of areas that should be the focus of public discussion:
‘Binge’ is now used with a touch of postmodern irony regarding television, although as mentioned the concept has historically caused much anxiety. A key question is ‘bingeing on what’? It is well understood that a TV binge can be very stimulating or, alternatively, pacifying. But every choice to binge means that a large chunk of time must be diverted from some other pursuit, despite the hyperactivity of simultaneous multi-screen use and multi-tasking. So, it is undesirable if binge territory becomes too monocultural, with viewers algorithmically funnelled into a small number of highly promoted screen genres at the expense of diverse, experimental programming. If this binge activity crowds out other activities, including physical exertion, artistic performance and cultural attendance, and is consistently accompanied by unhealthy eating and drinking, then ‘nod-and-a-wink’ jokes about binge-watching ring rather hollow.
There is a recent Senate inquiry into The State of Media Diversity, Independence and Reliability in Australia and a Media Reform Green Paper, Modernising Television Regulation in Australia, addressing New Rules for a New Media Landscape. Media policy isn’t the sexiest topic for everyday discussion, but knowledge of it is vital in a digital media world where the rights and responsibilities of ‘cultural citizens’ figure conspicuously alongside more conventional issues of political representation and economic security. Australians elect governments to do much more than allow large media, communication and technology corporations, many of them overseas owned, to use their enormous economic muscle to shape national cultures in their own image. Most of the television content on which many viewers binge is produced elsewhere, with Australia being a useful mid-sized secondary market in a global marketplace. So, we need to use our ingenuity and will to enable more culturally diverse and locally-focused TV options. These should involve Indigenous and migrant cultural experiences on which we may, if so disposed, binge. Also, especially after the pandemic has badly mauled a neglected Australian cultural sector, there needs to be a wide-ranging public and governmental commitment to a sumptuous cultural cuisine on and off screen.
To conclude, in less than a century most people in countries like Australia have acquired the capacity to binge-watch television. Pandemic lockdowns have given additional impetus to this cultural practice. The moralism of previous decades has given way to amused tolerance. Neither position is sustainable. To return to a metaphor of bodily consumption, just as we increasingly ask questions about the provenance and environmental effects of what we eat and drink, our relation to television should be similarly interrogated. If we binge, then on what are we bingeing and what are its ramifications across the entire field of culture? These are social questions, not just matters of individual preference, and the answers to them lie in public debate and political action to produce the satisfying cultural richness that accommodates many tastes and which we can all relish.
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1 This article was first presented as a keynote talk at Q Theatre’s Talks & Ideas event ‘Binge’ on 16 September 2021.
Originally intended to take place at ‘The Joan’ (The Joan Sutherland Performing Arts Centre) in Penrith, New South Wales, the Covid-19 pandemic required the event to take place via Zoom (https://www.thejoan.com.au/events/binge/).
It also involved a panel discussion and Q&A. The other panel members were Patrick Lenton (Writer and Journalist), Loretta Farrell (Emu Plains-based Filmmaker and creator of Watcha Doin’ Today), and Vonne Patiag (Filmmaker).
Penrith Performing & Visual Arts Support: Melissa Cannon (Producer and Host), Tim Anikin (Technician) and Nick Atkins (Question Moderator).