How do television narratives work?
In Storytelling in Film and Television, Kristin Thompson notes that the ease with which viewer’s comprehend visual narratives belies the complexity of the storytelling techniques deployed by filmmakers and programme makers. She writes that,
Popular films and television series tell stories in an entertaining, easily comprehensible fashion. They seem simple, yet often the audience must keep track of several characters, multiple plot lines, motifs, and thematic meanings. Television viewers often face the additional challenge of frequent interruptions – for commercials, for week-long gaps between episodes, and even for stretches of time between seasons. Yet they manage to keep track of not only a single long-running narrative, but often several simultaneously (2003: ix).
In this survey I will look at the formal properties of television narratives, and I take my examples from fictional television programmes from the United Kingdom and the United States. Specifically, I will focus on how television narratives are constrained by the demands of the medium before turning to the salient characteristics of television narratives, including accelerated exposition, redundancy, seriality and multiple plot lines, open-ended narratives, and distributed identification. These characteristics will be addressed by focusing on a specific example: episode seventeen from season 6 of Friends: ‘The one with Unagi’ (Warner Bros. Television, 24 February 2000) .
Film and television
Popular films and television series have in common some storytelling norms. These include psychologically defined characters who struggle to solve a clear-cut problem or to attain specific goals, fictional worlds characterised by internal coherence, plausible and linear causality, and the appearance of spatial and temporal continuity. Indeed, there is a genre of fictional television programming – the ‘TV movie’ – that has more in common with the cinema than with other types of television narratives. For example, the recent Stephen Poliakoff dramas Joe’s Palace (BBC1, 4 November 2007) and Capturing Mary (BBC2, 12 November 2007) were prestige, feature-length productions with larger-than-average budgets, and, like films, were trailed for weeks before transmission as unique events. In promoting Capturing Mary the BBC described it as ‘a new film from Stephen Poliakoff,’ indicating its difference from other types of programming that are more typical of the television schedule (e.g., series, serials, soap operas).
The nature of television as a medium imposes constraints on what is possible in television, so while there are some norms shared by film and television, there are also significant differences. First, as a medium that is consumed in the home, television is subject to much stricter censorship than the cinema, and so television is limited in terms of subject matter and access. That is to say, there are limits on what can be the content of a television programme in addition to restrictions on when programmes can be broadcast. Second, television budgets are considerably smaller than those for film and production schedules shorter. Consequently, many television programmes – particularly soap operas and sitcoms – are shot in studios, and use a limited number of sets. For example, Friends (Warner Bros. Television, 1994-2004) was filmed before a live studio audience using only a few sets that featured in almost every episode (e.g., Joey’s apartment, Monica’s apartment, Central Perk). This use of studios limits the use of other locations – especially outdoors locations – and, consequently, restricts the range of narrative events that can take place to those that are plausible only within the coherent fictional world of the show. This enables television programmes to be produced quickly, and also increases the tempo of the narrative.
Accelerated exposition, dispersed identification, and multiple storylines
Unlike film, where narrative dominates the space and time, the television schedule dictates the amount of time available in which a narrative can be told. The episode of Friends considered here fits into a half-hour slot in the schedule, but contains only a little over 20 minutes of narrative programming. For this reason, television narratives are marked by their use of accelerated exposition – storylines must be established quickly and unambiguously. In the case of some television programmes – such as soap operas – that air several times a week, there will be no sequence devoted to exposition at all. In the case of this episode of Friends, there are three story lines:
- Storyline 1: Joey needs money.
- Storyline 2: Ross tries to teach Rachael and Phoebe about self-defence.
- Storyline 3: Chandler and Monica have an unsuccessful belated valentine.
These storylines are not accorded equal amounts of time in the episode, but all are established in the same way: familiar characters talk about some problem they face (Joey tells us that he is short of money); or some event that has happened (Rachel and Phoebe have been to a self-defence class); or an event that will happen (Monica and Chandler’s romantic evening). Because each episode of Friends does not need to re-establish the central premise of the show, each episode can begin its storylines much earlier than a film, which will typically take the first act to establish its fictional world, characters, and motivation. In this episode of Friends, three storylines are established within the first five minutes of the show.
The ability of the show to support three narratives in such as short space of time is based on the higher number of central characters than would be normal in the cinema, which will be organised (usually) around a single major character. Friends is based around six major characters (Chandler, Joey, Monica, Phoebe, Rachael, and Ross), though these characters rarely all follow the same storyline. Due to the high number of major characters Friends, like other television shows, are characterised by dispersed identification. Soap operas, for example, typically have over thirty major characters, many of whom will not be involved in a particular episode. This dispersed identification favours multiple storylines. Hollywood cinema, by contrast, will typically feature only double plotting – the main story in which the hero achieves some goal and a romance story line. The use of multiple storylines in Friends requires the show to shift the viewer’s attention from one group of characters to another in an uncomplicated manner, and in order to cover the transitions between these storylines, two types of stylistic devices are used. First, movement between the different groups of characters and their narratives are marked visually with shots of New York city streets (Figure 1). Second, these transitions are marked sonically by brief pieces of music.
Figure 1 Exterior shots of New York are used as a narrative transition between locations and storylines (Friends, Warner Bros. Television, 1994-2004) 
In this episode of Friends, the three storylines are closed out by the end of the episode, but some aspects of the show continue from week to week and from season to season – Monica and Chandler’s romance continues, as does the interminable story of Ross and Rachael. Thus while some storylines are closed off, providing the viewer with a sense of closure, others will continue over a longer time period. In the case of The X-Files (20th Century Fox Television, 1993-2002), stand-alone episodes with storylines that were concluded at the end of each show were mixed with conspiracy episodes that continued the long range narrative arcs of the show across a whole season and also between seasons. Each season of The X-Files ended with a cliff-hanger to maintain the audience’s interest when the show returned the following year.
Structure and redundancy
Another scheduling constraint is the need for commercial television channels to incorporate advertisements into the flow of the programming. Kozloff (1992) identifies a range of ways in which television has learned to compensate with these interruptions. First, the flow of the schedule will determine the structure of the narrative, and Friends has developed a fixed structure that allowed it to accommodate these interruptions within the overall structure of the narrative. Developed for American television, the show is divided into four segments around three commercial breaks:
- Segment 1: 2 sequences (including opening titles) = 141.8 seconds. Storyline 1 is established.
- Commercial break 1.
- Segment 2: 7 sequences = 612.1 seconds. Storylines 2 and 3 are established.
- Commercial break 2.
- Segment 3: 6 sequences = 440.6 seconds. Storylines 1 and 3 are concluded.
- Commercial break 3.
- Segment 4: 1 sequence (Coda and closing titles) = 50.3 seconds. Storyline 2 is concluded.
In the UK, an episode of Friends is interrupted only in between segments 2 and 3, but the point at which the other commercial breaks interrupt the structure of the show can be pinpointed when the screen momentarily turns black.
Second, television narratives incorporate breaks into the flow of the narrative in order to cover ellipses of time and/or action. Friends bridges the first commercial break by returning us to the same location (Central Perk) at a later time. The show bridges the second commercial break by using the interruption to cover an ellipsis in the third storyline: we return to Chandler and Monica at a later time but engaged in the same storyline. There is no direct relation between the coda after the final commercial break and the third segment, and this final segment of the show carries no new narrative information: it replays Ross’s idiocy for a final time without adding anything to the storyline. This final segment is also the shortest of the programme and serves the flow of the schedule more than it does the causal chain of the narrative. Third, television programmes will often build their narratives to a high point of interest before each break to ensure that the audience will stay tuned: the emotional peak of the cliff-hanger provides a bridging mechanism across the rupture in the narrative.
After the second commercial break, the show re-establishes its three story lines by having the characters restate their problems or goals. Such redundancy is distinctive of television narratives. The most famous example of redundancy is the opening titles of Star Trek (Desilu Productions, 1966-1969), in which we are reminded of the mission of the Starship Enterprise at the beginning of every episode. Another strategy for incorporating redundancy is for a programme to give a brief visual summary of earlier significant events – each episode of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip (Warner Bros. Television, 2006) begins with a brief résumé of what has occurred earlier, and is introduced by one of the characters (in voice-over) with the words ‘Previously on Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip…’ Alternatively, characters will discuss important events, and this is particularly the case in soap operas. In Coronation Street (Granada Television, 1960- ), for example, this heavy use of redundancy allows soap operas to develop their narratives without the need for exposition. Brown and Barwick (1987) have argued that soap operas are organised around the pleasure of gossip and that for this reason the feature numerous sequences of women talking. In Coronation Street, this is apparent in the women in the clothes factory who gossip about life on the street, and this gossip plays an important narrative function as it allows the show to repeat and reassess important narrative information within the diegesis of the programme. In the case of Friends, redundancy is evident at the beginning of segment 3 in having Monica explain that she forgot to make Chandler’s valentine present, in having Joey explain his plan for making money, and by having Rachael and Phoebe have the same conversation about self-defence that began their storyline. The need to incorporate redundant situations in the narrative derives from the way in which audiences watch television: a viewer will occasionally miss a week of a series and so will need to be re-orientated to events that have occurred in their absence, while we do not necessarily watch a television programme from start to finish and so the viewer will have to be made aware of the storylines in the short-term as well as the long-term.
Memory and forgetfulness
This episode of Friends is part of a longer narrative that stretches across the whole history of the show, and depends upon the audience’s memory of earlier storylines and characters: the interruption of Monica and Chandler’s romantic evening by Janice’s nasal whine depends for its humour on the audiences’ memory of a character that is no longer a part of the show and her relationship to one of the main characters. Television narratives often depend upon the viewer’s familiarity with a show and their memory of key narrative events for their effectiveness – audience memory facilitates accelerated exposition, multiple storylines with dispersed identification, redundancy, and long-range narrative arcs. However, some programmes are organised around the forgetfulness of the narrative: each episode of The Simpsons (20th Century Fox Television, 1989- ), for example, begins from the same place with no narrative progression from the show: Bart and Lisa never grow any older, and Mr. Burns can never remember Homer’s name. Where The Simpsons does allow for narrative events to become permanent features of the show (e.g., the deaths of Maud Flanders and Frank Grimes) or for the characters may refer to prior narrative events (such as Homer’s numerous jobs), but always in a manner that maintains the inherent forgetfulness of the show. For example, Ned has to constantly remind Homer that his wife is dead, while Marge has to remind him of his adventures as an astronaut, boxer, bodyguard, etc. Indeed, Homer’s inability to remember any of the events in his life is an important narrative strategy of the show, allowing for major storylines to be ignored or recalled as necessary. The show’s memory is also relegated to mise-en-scène so that objects from past episodes appear in the background where they can be recognised by viewers: in the episode ‘Lisa the Skeptic’ (9.08) we have a rare incident where the characters interact with their past when Homer opens his closet to reveal his Mr. Plow Jacket, the heads of the Itchy and Scratchy robots, his Barbershop quartet Emmy, his space helmet, and other items that refer to earlier episodes (see Figure 2).
Figure 2 References to past shows become part of The Simpsons mise-en-scène (‘Lisa the Skeptic,’ 20th Century Fox Television, 23 November 1997) 
In summary, then, television narratives share some storytelling norms with films, but due to the constraints of the medium, television narratives demonstrate significant differences. Programme makers have adopted a series of strategies to cope with these constraints, including accelerated exposition, multiple storylines and seriality, distributed identification, and redundancy. Programme makers have also developed a repertoire of stylistic devices to enhance the clarity of the narrative. Long running television programmes depend on the audiences’ memory of characters and prior narrative events for their effectiveness.
- A transcription of this episode of Friends can be read at http://www.geocities.com/vspramod/Links/friends/617.htm, accessed 25 February 2009.
- Framegrabs from Friends are taken from http://www.sitcomsonline.com/, accessed 25 February 2009.
- Framegrabs from The Simpsons are taken from http://www.lardlad.com/, accessed 25 February 2009.
Brown, M.E. and Barwick, L. (1987) Fable and endless genealogies: soap opera and women’s culture, Continuum 1 (2): 71-82. Available online: http://wwwmcc.murdoch.edu.au/ReadingRoom/1.2/Brown.html, accessed 24 February 2009
Kozloff, S. (1992) Narrative theory and television, in R.C. Allen (ed.) Channels of Discourse, Reassembled: Television and Contemporary Criticism, second edition. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press: 67-100.
Thompson, K. (2003) Storytelling in Film and Television. London: Harvard University Press.