What is Flow?


In television programming, flow is how channels and networks try to hold their audience from programme to programme, or from one segment of a programme to another. Thus, it is the ‘flow’ of television material from one element to the next.

Academic Input on Production and Purpose

The term is also significant in television studies, the academic analysis of the medium. Media scholar Raymond Williams is responsible for first using the term in this sense. He emphasised that flow is “the defining characteristic of broadcasting, simultaneously as a technology and as a cultural form.” (Williams, 1974, p.8). Robert Fink (2005, p.132) states “It is evident that what is now called ‘an evening’s viewing’ is in some ways planned by providers and then by viewers as a whole; that it is in any event planned in discernible sequences which in this sense override particular program units”. Williams (1974, p.89) argued that ads glued programmes together which created the sense of television flow with a shift “from the concept of sequence as programming to the concept of flow.”

Williams claims that flow is determined by television’s “stage of development,” but Rick Altman (1986), Professor of Cinemas and Comparative Literature at the University of Iowa, argues that the culture of the medium produces and determines its flow.

He notes that the soundtrack is unique to American culture and is one of the techniques that shapes the viewer’s flow or his or her experience watching television. He notes that the soundtrack provides the viewer with sufficient plot, cues important events by sound (sound advance, e.g. clapping before it is seen on screen), and creates continuity. These sonic elements create an intermittent flow of television. The goal is not to get the viewers to watch carefully, but to keep them from turning the television off.

Impact of Technology

Since the 1990’s, the concept of flow has been threatened by new technologies and programming strategies that free the viewer from the old television model.

VCRs, DVDs, DVRs (such as TiVo), Video-on-Demand, and online video sources all allow the viewer to construct their own flow.

They are no longer limited to a choice of three or four networks, as they were in the 1950’s-1960’s.

Consequently, the concept of flow is under attack and may not survive beyond the broadcast era of television.


Altman, R. (1986) Television/Sound in Studies in Entertainment: Critical Approaches to Mass Culture. Tania Modleski (Ed). Bloomington: Indian University Press. pp.39-54.

Fink, R. (2005) Repeating Ourselves: American Minimal Music as Cutlural Practice. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Williams, R. (1974) Television: Technology and Cultural Form. London: Routledge.

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