December 29, 2006
Ray Cha and the Definition of Television

Independent scholar Ray Cha has been writing an illuminating series of articles for the online scholarly journal Flow. For those not familiar with Flow, it defines itself as "a critical forum on television and media culture published biweekly by the department of Radio, Television, and Film at the University of Texas at Austin."

In his first article, Cha examines the traditional definition of television and the way the idea is being redefined. He finds that the three dictionary definitions currently in existence for television is each rooted in a particular time and a technological understanding of the medium. The first essay takes the first definition of television, looking at how the VCR/DVR and online streaming of television has changed the initial understanding of television as transmission.

He examines, for instance, the popularity of Nobody's Watching as a challenge to the traditional understanding of television. I first wrote about Nobody's Watching in July, questioning:

If the masses are willing to participate as a test audience, why not launch a legion of pilots on YouTube or allow people to BitTorrent them? Not only do you end up with shows developing strong grassroots potential before they ever hit the air, but you get a wider response to the show in a situation where viral marketing and word-of-mouth give the feedback as to which shows will generate the most popularity based on number of downloads.

I wrote an update later in July as networks began to show interest in the show and again last month.

And, as I wrote about earlier this month, Internet television may become "a reserve for independent TV producers."

Certainly, these types of developments, like the Web sitcom Soup of the Day, challenges traditional understanding of what television is, as it becomes a format and industry description rather than a technological description. What does distinguish the difference between television and film? Is there any technological difference at all?

Cha writes:

The television pilot, "Nobody's Watching" was never aired but leaked to You Tube and gained an audience and press coverage. It certainly "feels" like television. Is the meaning of "television" therefore the intention for eventual broadcast? Intension is not a satisfactory criteria, because it approaches an "I know it when I see it" logic which lacks formal boundaries. Does the fact that NBC picked up the show and put it into production make it television? Again, the retroactive assignment of the label "television" is not useful because what is it before it airs? These questions are left unresolved, as it is perhaps too early to re-define the concept of television.

He questions whether television will be replaced with another term or whether the term will just shift away from its original definition, just as cc no longer means "carbon copy" in the literal sense but has retained its place in society. He is very correct to say, "This lag is created because technologies and our use of technology change faster than our language can adapt."

The second article, "Television Sets Grow Up," looks at the definition of television as the set itself. This essay, however, looks at DVD sets, Internet viewing, mobile devices, and the many other ways that viewers watch television now that may not be tied to a traditional television set.

He looks at word processing to understand the ways in which initial advertising served not to be true, such as the time-saving methods of word processing now leading to people spending much more time working and reworking text than they would have at a time when such widespread revision was not as possible. Particularly, this second essay is about a shift from "a medium and technology of efficiency to control."

This type of haggling over definitions may seem to be an exercise particularly noted to academia. Never have I seen another area in which people spend more time arguing over definitions than they do using the words. But it is important in this context, when the ground is shifting in the industry so quickly that users and producers alike are not quite sure what they are dealing with, to think about the language we are using to describe an industry that is in flux in the midst of convergence culture.

Much as I have written multiple times about the haggling to define convergence in journalism (see here and here and here), the way the industry takes to and incorporates new technologies depends very much on their interpretations of that technology, and definitions that are overly broad or outdated may cause new ideas to not get traction quickly enough because the definition, either through denotation or connotation, of the words used to describe these phenomena evoke resistance from people in the industry in one way or another.

Be sure to take a look at the Flow series if you are at all interested in these debates.