Liveness with a Lag: Temporality & Streaming Television [Part 2]

August 13, 2012
By | 4 Comments

In part one, I discussed how Roku changed my television consumption practices. But there is also a wide disparity between current content accessible via streaming technologies like Roku and that available via more traditional modes of consumption. I felt this pretty acutely upon “cutting the cord.” Many current series simply don’t appear on Hulu or Netflix—and when they do, it’s often early seasons and not the most recent ones. As a result, I started watching older content that was free and readily available on the Roku channels. (I couldn’t stomach the idea of paying for individual episodes through Amazon. I was supposed to be saving money, not spending it in different ways.) I fell into reruns of 227 on Crackle and The Twilight Zone on Netflix. I also got obsessed with Pub-D-Hub, which streams public domain films and television for digital audiences. One of the criticisms lobbed at cable TV is that it repackages too much old content—sometimes referred to as the “old wine in new bottles” phenomenon. Streaming television via Roku definitely has this feel to it. And as much as I tried to embrace it, I started to feel “left out” after a while. Friends and colleagues would be discussing The Real Housewives of Atlanta, and all I’d have to contribute would be a mildly amusing anecdote about a hygiene film from the 1950s. Interesting, perhaps, but it started to feel like the cultural forum constituted by contemporary television was going on without me.

One of the primary characteristics of television is its liveness, the ways in which the medium constructs a sense of presence and immediacy. McPherson adapts this idea for web environments by calling it “liveness with a difference,” highlighting how the web “structures a sense of causality in relation to liveness, [making it one where] we navigate and move through, often structuring a feeling that our own desire drives the moment” (462). She underlines the “volitional mobility” afforded by the Internet, the ways in which user experiences destabilize the orthodoxy of linearity and narrative that attend the consumption of other moving image media. That said, my experience streaming television feels more like “liveness with a lag.” Not only do I have to wait for clips to load before I can watch anything, but I am almost always watching dated content. And I can’t watch many of the things I want to because they are simply unavailable with the Roku technology—to say nothing of the frequency with which the device “freezes” when moving between channels. I am constantly rebooting it in an effort to get it to work properly and then waiting for the content to restart again.

Using Roku, it becomes clear that the liveness afforded by streaming television is hemmed in by the political economy of the medium. The industry practices that structure the experiences of streaming television are still in a state of “becoming.” Not everything streams, and when it does, it’s often older content re-circulated for this new platform. Moreover, devices that sync existing television sets with the Internet are imperfect technologies. The protocols for streaming television are tremendously in flux and seem to change with every corporate quarterly announcement and marketplace product launch. Nevertheless, the facts remains: there’s simply less contemporary television programming available via this new mode of distribution. In addition, it can involve the tricky enterprise of syncing an analog technology—my old, beloved TV set—with a digital stream. These two entities are not always a perfect match.

The moral of this particular story: be careful what you wish for. I saved money by cord-cutting and using Roku is, in many ways, similar to watching television as I always have. But it is different enough that I want to go back. I recently moved into a new apartment in a new state. Calling the cable company to set up service was at the very top of my “to-do” list. Of course, I need to wait nearly three weeks for installation. This seems especially cruel after a year that often felt like I was watching television on delay.


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4 Responses to “ Liveness with a Lag: Temporality & Streaming Television [Part 2] ”

  1. Robert P on August 13, 2012 at 9:55 AM

    I enjoyed this, Hollis, thank you. The “liveness with a lag” idea reminded me very much of the strange temporal relation to live TV events of living in the southern hemisphere, where I grew up. Watching major world events (read: northern hemisphere) “live” meant outside of normal viewing times, ie. the middle of the night or the middle of the afternoon. The alternative was to watch with several hours of lag if the event was then screened in local prime-time. I’m curious to know how this plays out now when on-demand technologies proliferate. I note today, for instance, that my friends in Sydney are posting Facebook comments today – 16 or so hours later – on the Olympics closing ceremony.

    • Hollis on August 25, 2012 at 6:38 PM

      Thanks for your comment, Robert. Your observations about the lag in watching TV “on the other side of the world” remind me of Graeme Turner’s essay in the anthology TELEVISION AS DIGITAL MEDIA. To what extent is convergence attended by simultaneous divergences? These fall out of view a lot, alas.

  2. Cynthia B. Meyers on August 13, 2012 at 9:58 PM

    Most of the TV industry will be so happy to hear you are returning to paying for subscription television again! It is not an accident that you cannot watch current episodes or seasons on streaming services. Most content providers believe that withholding current content from online or streaming access will be sufficient to discourage potential cord cutters. Apparently this strategy has worked in your case!

    The TV industry, like the film industry, believes in release windows. By allowing viewers access to content only through a sequence of distribution outlets, they hope to maximize the value of the content. The order of the windows depends on the relative margins of revenue: so, for example, content owners earn the most revenue from premiere episodes on HBO or broadcast networks; they earn less selling the rerun episodes to a basic cable network; and even less to a streaming service like Netflix long after the premiere. Likewise, audiences pay the most for access to the first window and pay less and less for the later windows.

    In my opinion, windowing is an “old media” strategy based on forcing audiences to fit their viewing to industry preferences rather than audience convenience. In a digital media environment, in which it is technologically possible for programs to be available to audiences anytime anywhere, the legacy industry will not deliver this to audiences because they don’t want to lose the windowing business model. Likewise, by fragmenting access across many services so that viewers have to hunt for programs, the TV industry is hoping that viewers will give up and just pay a cable MSO or DBS or telco for the convenient expensive big bundle of program services, thus preserving the traditional business model.

    But don’t feel bad! As media scholars we can justify paying the subscriptions for research purposes!

    • Hollis on August 25, 2012 at 6:40 PM

      Thanks for your lengthy comment! I fully anticipate not feeling a spot of guilt about the cable subscription. Let’s hope the “windowing” you refer to goes the way of the dodo bird….