Toward a phenomenology of television

This is an interesting reply by ejwinner to a post by David Ottlinger.

He writes

The true structural principle of television did not become recognizable until the late ’70s, when television began broadcasting 24 hours a day. By the late ’90s, when cable television was multiplying into literally hundreds of channels, it should have been obvious to all; but part of the success of television is that it depends on, and manipulates, our attention to the particular. Most people do not think of themselves as ‘watching television.’ They see themselves watching Seinfeld or Mad Men or The Tonight Show or ‘some documentary about the North Pole.’ On the immediate existential sense, they are quite right, it is the individual program to which they attend. The trouble is, when the Seinfeld rerun ends, many of them do not get up to do something more interesting in their lives; they sit there and watch Mad Men. Or at least let it play on while they discuss what it was like to live in the ‘60s, and then the Tonight Show… and if they can’t get to sleep, it’s that documentary about the North Pole on the Nature Channel, or an old movie on AMC (does it really matter which?), or an old Bewitched rerun….

and I can’t find anything that I disagree with.

I think you will enjoy his commentary.

About makagutu

As Onyango Makagutu I am Kenyan, as far as I am a man, I am a citizen of the world

36 thoughts on “Toward a phenomenology of television

  1. Mordanicus says:

    Television is an instrument to “pacify” the people, a means to erode the idea of active citizenship by offering an endless stream of entertainment. All with the single purpose of disengaging the people from active involvement in society and politics.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Eric Alagan says:

    Interestingly, I watch much less television now, including YouTube and cable and all – about an hour/day tops – compared to 20 years ago.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. The guy would be right if television stopped being a thing in 2008. However, with the advent of Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, and YouTube Red, audiences actually pay for content now. With the programming available there, major networks are forced to compete with better stories and more diverse fare.

    Even taking the paradigm of advertising into account, the model requires people to find and consume the advertising. This doesn’t diminish the experimentation of TV, but just explains how it can be done without an audience having to pay too much for it. Better TV will actually earn money.

    There’s plenty of great TV out there; people have to find it. I suppose this might be a problem for people who want their entertainment provided to them without having to work for it. But choice of entertainment isn’t really a drawback here. Nobody’s lamenting the decline of literary works as a whole simply because anyone can publish these days. The same is true for TV.

    Liked by 2 people

    • makagutu says:

      I want my entertainment to come to me while I go to look for knowledge 🙂
      Yes there are decent shows. And if you watched enough of them in a day, you would easily become a couch potato

      Liked by 2 people

  4. NeuroNotes says:

    “The trouble is, when the Seinfeld rerun ends, many of them do not get up to do something more interesting in their lives;”

    How does he know this — Is he a bug on the wall of every home? Lol

    Liked by 1 person

  5. renudepride says:

    A very truthful observation. Far too many people substitute television for living. Thank you for posting this, my Kenyan brother and friend. Naked hugs!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Our tv is on all day, but a good 80% is playing cd channels….no voices, pictures, ads…..just music.

    We read, email, play with our cats, cook, garden, & talk to each other!
    Very few programs hold our attention in the evening, & we will NOT watch something we think is dumbass!


  7. ejwinner says:

    thanks for the link to my article.

    The criticisms in comments are understandable. Let me just say that the implication of what I write is that individual television shows borrow aesthetics from other media. So I say that discussion of individual programs (or of individual viewing habits) doesn’t disprove my critique. Television itself is a social phenomenon, not an art form.

    And yes, as I noted, on-demand viewing and DVD markets have altered viewing practices, in ways that need to be treated differently. But that doesn’t challenge the general criticism of television itself.

    We always generalize from experience and/or data when discussing social phenomena. We can’t discuss them otherwise.


    • makagutu says:

      You are welcome and I still think it is a good post.


    • “Television itself is a social phenomenon, not an art form.”

      That’s the problem with your critique in a nutshell. You’re basically dismissing television on networks and cable as art simply because it sells advertising. It would be like dismissing every Italian Renaissance sculpture as propaganda simply because princes funded them.

      Television does have an aesthetic that boggles the mind in its permutations. It can borrow from more media than just film because it is not constrained to one editing room. It explores characters in a depth that beforehand could only be realized in novels. And with the advent of social media, it can engage audiences directly like live theater. This is just staying within the bounds of fictional television.

      Non-fiction lets people learn things, watch conversations, and even sometimes yell at their screens. While some of this is intentionally geared to keep people sitting through commercials, that ignores the fact that something is going on in between them. Functionally, this is no different than reading a newspaper article and seeing an ad in the bottom corner. The article still exists, and it still conveyed its own idea.

      Television (and even film and radio) is still a new art. Compared to writing and theater, it’s an infant. Its different qualities simply make it different from other art forms. But people can do new things with it, and it will grow and develop over time. One can see this in how online streaming has put out new shows that networks and cable could not do themselves.


      • ejwinner says:

        The first problem confronted in television programming is how to fill up time – all 24 hours of the day. The second is how to maintain audience shares over time. This is the existential and economic reality of the medium. All other concerns, for good or ill, such as you discuss, come after. I just don’t see any aesthetic generated by just having to fill up time with just anything that attracts an audience.


        • Actually, the first problem of television channels that sell advertising is how to fill up time. It (and the second problem) says nothing about how the actual shows are made or what potential artistic expression goes into them. What you’re doing is conflating the sale of art with the art itself, as if the sale negates all artistic expression.

          By your reasoning, no aesthetic is generated by novels because the publishers that produce them are only interested in selling copies. Likewise, no aesthetic is actually generated by films that are shown by theaters who want to make a profit off of admission. It does not matter what novelists or filmmakers are trying to express because an intermediary is not interested in making the same expression.

          Can the sellers and distributors of art negate artistic expression? Sure they can, but I don’t think it rises to the level of a necessary negation.


          • ejwinner says:

            No, you’ve missed my point about time and programming. Publishers and film studios are in the business of producing works that attract attention. TV producers are about filling up time, any works presented are secondary. Films and novels are produced for a market place. Television *is* the market place – and the principle product is the audience.

            But unless we see these distinctions, we’ll never see the forest from the trees.


            • It’s not that I’ve missed your point; it’s that I’m pointing out a flaw in your reasoning. If you only look at television from the perspective of the networks that manage programming and commercials, then you’d be fine. However, television (and similar streaming services) do not solely exist for the networks. Television necessarily involves more than just a network making a decision about which shows it airs along with commercials.


  8. shelldigger says:

    Television has become the medium for making people more dumber.

    I can watch a decent sitcom or two. Maybe the original Walking Dead series. Other than that I prefer baseball and football, as they are what I call reality tv. Oh and we watch a fair a bit of MSNBC just to keep up with the shenanigans of our lovely politicians.

    Don’t get me started on the so called reality tv that ain’t. A cesspool of stoopid. Strangely enough attracting many viewers to my complete and utter surprise. I don’t get it. It’s all a scam you bunch of dumbasses!


    • makagutu says:

      I recall your story of reality TV that wasn’t meant to be or should it be non dealing as dear president has tweeted


      • shelldigger says:

        Well I’ll be damned, someone did read it lol.

        Yes, that experience has forever skewed my understanding of reality tv. I sort of already knew it was B.S. just wasn’t sure how. Now I know.


        • makagutu says:

          I would rather they are honest from the beginning they are going to be lying all through so I can choose how I want to be lied to.
          Only reality TV I watch is big cat diaries


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