What Television Meant to Me

By Megan Whitfield

Watching television has always been a part of my daily routine. However, unlike how I consume programs today, through mediums like Netflix and online streaming, growing up I only understood television as being the free-to-air shows offered to me on the TV in the lounge room- be that Hi-5 after Kinder, or The Simpsons at 6pm every evening after school.

What I watched was dictated by the broadcasting schedule offered to me, as it fit into my extra-curricular and schooling commitments. Further, if I missed a program, I relied upon my family or friends to fill me in on what I missed.

However, this relationship with television changed on a family holiday to Queensland. As my brother and I flicked through the channels in our hotel room, we made the found out that we had pay-tv. We discovered that we had access to Nickelodeon, and a new world of entertainment was opened up to us. It was a luxury, one that we were all too aware would disappear in a matter of days and so we made the most of it. We spent hours marathoning shows like the Grim Adventures of Billy and Mandy and Spongebob Squarepants- my first experience with binge-watching.

Planned ‘flow’, when used in this context, describes the entire televisual experience- from programs watched, down to the order in which they are shown, and even the ad breaks. It reflected how the broadcasting schedule is developed to structure viewing over a sustained period, attempting to prevent viewers from ‘flicking over’ onto another channel at any stage (even once an episode is finished). In part, this is at the control of broadcasters, using ads for upcoming programs and relevant advertising relatable to the viewers, but is also moulded by the typical daily routines of viewers- hence prime-time viewing falling when families have typically finished work and dinner for the day, meaning that viewing will be less distracted.

Unlike during the school-term, on holidays I had no commitments to pull me away from the TV. I wasn’t confined to Saturday morning cartoons or prime-time shows. Typical broad-casting schedules didn’t apply to me as strongly, my televisual experience reflective more of my viewing habits today. Where previously, yes, I could be lured into watching a new TV show once mine had finished, the later shows ran, the less suitable and appealing they would be for me.

In contrast, Nickelodeon was a channel primarily focused on the interests of my brother and I. We were the assumed mass audience, around 10 years old, looking for some simple cartoon entertainment to fill our day, and as such the planned flow of the network reflected this. Ad breaks were vibrant and typically only fell at the ends of episodes, keeping us watching entire episodes so as not to miss any content. The episodes themselves were short enough that when our concentration levels waned, we could still easily pick up what was happening, and the seemingly endless loop of cartoons meant that we never had to wait long until our favourite shows were back on. Coming from free-to-air TV, watched only in the lounge room, this was a novelty that had me hooked and began to alter my interpretation of what television was.

Mad Men- A Study in Liveness

Set in the ever-evolving 1960s, Mad Men is a fictional, historical drama based around Sterling Cooper Advertising Firm in New York, and subsequently the lives of those who work there. Based in such a period of social instability and a significant rise in commercialism, the show deals with the unexplored experience of ‘liveness’ and uncertainty of the role of television within the household.

Typically associated with broadcast news, ‘liveness’ can be described as being “the perceived simultaneity of image capture and reproduction at millions of geographically dispersed locations”, (Allen).

In presenting the rise of technology in an ever-modernising world, Mad Men explored this concept most powerfully through the penultimate episode of season 3. This episode focused on the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, and the massive reaction to the news by the American population. Despite some historical inaccuracy of the way this news was shared around America (the show presenting television as the main information source for the public where it was more likely radio), the episode explored the compulsive news-viewing of Americans (as represented by the lead characters), analysing the regulation of one’s behaviour around television.

So over-wrought and shocked by the event, the television became a source of knowledge and guidance for the characters of Mad Men, many becoming compulsive consumers of its ongoing ‘updates’ (namely, Pete Campbell and Betty Draper). Characters stayed home from work and ignored social obligations, such as Pete Campbell and Trudy Vogel choosing to not attend a wedding in preference of watching the news, reflective of the nation-wide grief felt by the American population. This scene reflects the sense of union live television evokes, typically covering an event of mass-audience interest, as supported by academic Ellis, who suggests the “immediacy of the image” and sense of ‘liveness’ work to evoke a “relationship of co-present intimacy” (Ellis, 1992).

Further, as initiated by the introduction of the concept of ‘liveness,’ (and in the experience of the JFK assassination as re-produced by Mad Men, having ongoing news coverage), the show also explores the idea of television and the home. The show adopts a dystopian perspective of television as a cultural technology, subtly presenting it as encroaching on the familiar dynamic of the household (in accordance with the 1960s setting).

Where previously protagonist, Don Draper, assumed the absolute authoritative role within his family and house, in this episode he returns home to find his wife and children staring at the screen, watching arguably ‘unsuitable’ content. However, despite his orders, they do not stop watching- the TV assuming the power. In this sense, the television is presented as being disruptive unto ‘traditional’ family power structures, interfering with the private sphere of society, as were concerns held by society at this time of unfamiliarity with this technology.

Ultimately, historical drama Mad Men intelligently explores concepts of ‘liveness’ and the relationship between television and the home throughout its series as it draws viewers in to its re-imagination of the 1960s. This exploration is most notably demonstrated through multiple character interactions in the penultimate episode of series three.