Category Archives: Television

Age, gender, and television in the UK

UPDATE: This article has now been published – in a corrected form (see the comments below) – as Age, Gender, and Television in the United Kingdom, Journal of Popular Television 3 (1) 2015: 57-73. DOI: 10.1386/jptv.3.1.57_1. The post print of the article can be accessed here: Nick_Redfern – Age Gender and Television post print.

In December 2011 I published a post on genre preferences among UK cinema audiences, applying correspondence analysis to data from the BFI’s Opening Our Eyes report. You can read the article that was subsequently published in Participations last year here.

At the time I meant to write a follow up piece on genre preferences for UK television audiences using data from the same source but I never quite got round to it. I have now finished this analysis and the draft article can be found in the pdf file attached to this post. I also look at how age and gender affect audiences perceptions of television as a medium

We apply correspondence analysis to data produced for the BFI’s Opening Our Eyes report published in 2011 to discover how age and gender shape the experience of television for audiences in the UK. Age is an important factor in shaping how audience perceive television, with older viewers describing the medium as ‘informative,’ ‘thought provoking,’ ‘artistic,’ ‘good for people’s self-development,’ and ‘escapist’ and while younger viewers are more likely to describe television as ‘exciting,’ ‘fashionable,’ and ‘sociable.’ Younger respondents are also more likely to describe the effect of television on people/society as negative. Variation in programme choice is highly structured in terms of age and gender, though the extent to which of these factors determine audience choice varies greatly. Gender is the dominant factor in explaining preferences for some programme types with age a secondary factor in several cases, while age is the explanatory factor for other genres for which gender seemingly has little influence. Male audiences prefer sports, factual entertainment, and culture programmes and female audiences reality TV/talent shows, game/quiz/panel shows, chat shows, and soap operas. Older audiences prefer news, documentaries, and wildlife/nature programmes, while music shows/concerts and comedy/sitcoms are more popular with younger viewers.

The BFI report and the raw data can be accessed here.

Robust time series analysis of ITV news bulletins

I have mentioned numerous times on this blog the importance of using robust statistics to describe film style. This week I continue in this vein, albeit in a different context – time series analysis. In a much publicised piece of work James Cutting, Jordan De Long, and Christine Nothelfer (2010) calculated partial autocorrelation functions and a modified autoregressive index for a sample of Hollywood films. While I have no problems with the basis of this research, I do think the results are dubious due to the use of non-robust methods to determine the autocovariance between shot lengths in these films. The paper attached below analyses the editing structure of the set of ITV news bulletins I discussed in a paper last year, comparing the results produced using classical and robust autocovariance functions.

Robust time series analysis of ITV news bulletins

In this paper we analyse the editing of ITV news bulletins using robust statistics to describe the distribution of shot lengths and its editing structure. Commonly cited statistics of film style such as the mean and variance do not accurately describe the style of a motion picture and reflect the influence of a small number of extreme values. Analysis based on such statistics will inevitably lead to flawed conclusions. The median and  are superior measures of location and dispersion for shot lengths since they are resistant to outliers and unaffected by the asymmetry of the data. The classical autocovariance and its related functions based on the mean and the variance is also non-robust in the presence of outliers, and leads to a substantially different interpretation of editing patterns when compared to robust time statistics that are outlier resistant. In general, the classical methods underestimate the persistence in the time series of these bulletins indicating a random editing process whereas the robust time series statistics suggest an AR(1) or AR(2) model may be appropriate.

The pdf file is here: Nick Redfern – Robust Time Series Analysis of ITV News Bulletins

My original post on the time series analysis of ITV news bulletins can be accessed here, along with the datasets for each of the fifteen bulletins.

My new results indicate the conclusions of Cutting, De Long, and Nothelfer are flawed, and that it is very likely they have underestimated the autocovariance present in the editing of Hollywood films. The discrete and modified autoregressive indexes they present are likely to be too low, though there may be some instances when they are actually too high. This is not enough to reject their conclusion that Hollywood films have become increasingly clustered in packets of shots of similar length, and I have not yet applied this method to their sample of films. It is, however, enough to recognise there are some problems with the methodology and the results of this research.


Cutting JE, Delong JE, and Nothelfer CE 2010 Attention and the evolution of Hollywood film, Psychological Science 21 (3): 432-439.

Time series analysis of ITV news bulletins

Back in the summer I wrote a post looking at the relationship between the discourse structure and the formal structure of BBC news bulletins (see here). This week I have the first draft of a similar paper looking at news bulletins from ITV.

The pdf file can be accessed here: Nick Redfern – Time series analysis of ITV news bulletins


We analyze shot length data from the three main daily news bulletins broadcast on ITV 1 from 8 August 2011 to 12 August 2011, inclusive. In particular, we are interested to compare the distribution of shot lengths of bulletins broadcast on different days and at different times across this time period, and to examine the time series structure by identifying clusters of shots of shorter and longer duration in order to understand the relationship between this aspect of the formal structure to the discourse structure of these broadcasts. The discourse structure of the bulletins in this sample is fixed, and remains constant irrespective of the subject of news items themselves suggesting that content is adapted to meet the needs of this structure. The statistical results show that neither the day nor the time of broadcast has any impact on the distribution of shot lengths, and the editing style is consistent across the whole sample. There is no common pattern to the time series of these bulletins, but there are some consistent features in the time series for these bulletins: clusters of longer takes are associated with static shots of people talking on-screen, while clusters of shorter takes occur with montage sequences, sports reports, series of news items, and footage from non-ITN sources. Consequently, the presence and order of discourse elements in a bulletin shapes its formal structure.

The data for the bulletins used in this study can be accessed as an Excel 2007 file here: Nick Redfern – ITV News Bulletins

I’m a little wary of making direct comparisons between this data and that of the BBC news bulletins as they are separated by three months and deal with news presentation in very different circumstances. The data used in the ITV study covers the week of the riots in the UK this August, and this presents a very different news cycle to that seen in the BBC data from April. However, some general points can be made:

  • In both samples clusters of longer shots are associated with people speaking at length on camera, and these shots are framed in the same way.
  • In both samples clusters of shorter shots are often associated with montage sequences accompanied by a description from an off-screen reporter or with footage that is derived from other sources (e.g. library footage, other broadcasters).
  • In both samples, there is no evidence of any trends or cycles in the time series.
  • There is no significant difference in the median shot lengths and dispersion of shot lengths in the two samples of bulletins (BUT remember these are from different times of the year, so this information is only of limited use).
  • Day and time of broadcast have no impact on news bulletins for either broadcaster (but again the comparison is not as direct as I would like).

Overall, there is some evidence that news bulletins are stylistically homogenous across these broadcasters. I will do another study looking at the comparing the bulletins from the both the BBC and ITV from a single week, but this will have to wait for another day.

Empirical research on television style

The various selections of empirical research on film style that I have posted on this blog have been dominated by feature films, and television has received rather less attention. In part, this is because there is a lack of research on television style: Schaefer and Martinez (2009) (see below) write:

that formal study of the craft of editing television news appears to have suffered from a lack of a conventional vocabulary for describing and analyzing structural techniques used in what is primarily an audio-visual phenomenon, maintaining that television journalists have traditionally learned the evolving art of news shooting and editing through an immersion process that does not readily lend itself to conscious articulation of forms. Hence, it should not be too surprising that discussions of the evolution of trends in journalistic editing are often based on scant anecdotal evidence.

The ‘dearth of formal analysis’ is something that can be easily remedied: the materials are easy to access and the methods are well known. A question worth exploring is why has no one done this research?

A few weeks ago I posted a draft version of a paper on the statistical analysis of style in BBC news bulletins (here), and I am currently part way through a similar paper on news broadcasts on ITV. But until then, here are some papers worth reading on television style that address various issues that have been raised elsewhere on this blog.

Bolls PD, Muehling DD, and Yoon K 2003 The effects of television commercial pacing on
viewers’ attention and memory, Journal of Marketing Communications 9 (1): 17–28.

This study investigated the effects of advertising pacing (i.e. the number of visual cuts in an advertisement) on viewers’ voluntary and involuntary attention to an advertisement, as well as its effects on the recall of claim-related and non-claim-related components of the advertisement. Using a limited capacity model of information processing/retrieval as its theoretical base and physiologically oriented measures of attention, this study provided some evidence that fast-paced advertisements (as compared to slower paced ones) may have a positive effect on viewers’ involuntary (automatic) attention towards an advertisement, but have little differential effect on their voluntary attention. Furthermore, it appeared that the enhanced involuntary attention gained through the use of fast-paced advertisements comes in the form of attention directed towards the non-claim (advertisement executional) elements of an advertisement as opposed to the message-based (copy) elements of the advertisement. The practical and theoretical implications of these findings are discussed.

Choi YJ and Lee JH 2006 The role of a scene in framing a story: an analysis of a scene’s
position, length, and proportion, Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media 50 (4):

A scene is proposed as the unit of analysis in broadcast news studies as a way to measure a more accurate representation of perspectives and arguments of a story. Based on film studies, a scene is defined as a unit that represents continuity in time, place, character, ideas, or themes in a news story. The role of a scene in a news story is analyzed by examining how the position, length, and proportion of a scene frame and valence are related to story frame and valence.

McCollum JF and Bryant J 1999 Pacing in children’s television programming, Annual Meeting of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication, 4-7 August 1999, New Orleans, LA.

Following a content analysis, 85 children’s programs were assigned a pacing index derived from the following criteria: (1) frequency of camera cuts; (2) frequency of related scene changes; (3) frequency of unrelated scene changes; (4) frequency of auditory changes; (5) percentage of active motion; (6) percentage of active talking; and (7) percentage of active music. Results indicated significant differences in networks’ pacing overall and in the individual criteria: the commercial networks present the bulk of the very rapidly paced programming (much of it in the form of cartoons), and those networks devoted primarily to educational programming–PBS and The Learning Channel–present very slow-paced programs. (Contains 26 references, and 12 tables and a figure of data.)

Pak H 2007 The Effects of Incongruity, Production Pacing, and Sensation Seeking on TV Advertisements, unpublished Ph.D. Thesis, Cornell University.

This study addresses an important area of research that has fascinated advertising professionals who are eager to make more attractive ads: understanding how the viewing audience perceives and processes television advertisements. Ad incongruity, the introduction of unexpected elements that are atypical of a given ad category, and production pacing were tested to explore the roles of these stimuli in capturing higher levels of arousal, which can produce both better evaluations and clearer memories of ads. Sixty subjects, who were recruited from among undergraduate students at Cornell University and patrons of a local shopping mall, participated in an experiment in which a set of TV ads was shown. Participants then answered questions immediately following exposure to the ads, providing data pertaining to sensation seeking, ad evaluation, arousal, and memory. The ads themselves represented six different conditions: incongruent and slow paced, incongruent and medium paced, incongruent and fast paced, congruent and slow paced, congruent and medium paced, and congruent and fast paced. The main findings involved Lang?s limited capacity model. It was found that the mental capacity or cognitive load required to process incongruent fast-paced ads exceeded study participants? cognitive capacity to process the information in such ads. When ads with both fast paced and incongruent elements were shown, participant?s memory for that particular kind of ads declined. The study provided confirmation of Lang?s (2000) limited capacity model. The study?s contributions include a key finding pertaining to incongruity effects that should help to resolve discrepancies in the literature on incongruity. As expected, incongruent ads were evaluated more positively, and were more arousing and better remembered than congruent ads. Production pacing also had some effect on participants. As pacing increased, participants remembered better and ad evaluations tended to be more positive. However, ad type had a significant influence on the processing of ads. Car ads were evaluated more positively, were more arousing, and were better remembered than over-the-counter drug ads. There were no significant relationships between sensation seeking and incongruity or sensation seeking and production pacing.

Schaefer RJ and Martinez TJ 2009 Trends in network news editing strategies from 1969 through 2005, Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media 53 (3): 347-364.

Four editing variables were tracked through a content analysis of U.S. commercial network editing that spanned a 36-year period. The analysis revealed that synthetic-montage increased and continuity-realism decreased from 1969 through 1997. Network news editors also embraced faster pacing, shorter soundbites, and more special effects between 1969 and 2005. When taken together, the results suggest that U.S. network television journalism has evolved from more “camera of record” and realistic news techniques in favor of a variety of synthetic editing strategies that convey complex audio-visual arguments.

Finally, this paper has appeared in the latest issue of Pediatrics though I am somewhat dubious about its methodology due to the way they have defined the pace of the programmes used, which appears to be based on scene transitions rather than shot transitions:

Lillard AS and Petersen J 2011 The immediate impact of different types of television on young children’s executive function, Pediatrics 128 (4): doi: 10.1542/peds.2010-1919.

Objective: The goal of this research was to study whether a fast-paced television show immediately influences preschool-aged children’s executive function (eg, self-regulation, working memory).

Methods: Sixty 4-year-olds were randomly assigned to watch a fast-paced television cartoon or an educational cartoon or draw for 9 minutes. They were then given 4 tasks tapping executive function, including the classic delay-of-gratification and Tower of Hanoi tasks. Parents completed surveys regarding television viewing and child’s attention.

Results: Children who watched the fast-paced television cartoon performed significantly worse on the executive function tasks than children in the other 2 groups when controlling for child attention, age, and television exposure.

Conclusions: Just 9 minutes of viewing a fast-paced television cartoon had immediate negative effects on 4-year-olds’ executive function. Parents should be aware that fast-paced television shows could at least temporarily impair young children’s executive function.

Time series analysis of BBC news bulletins

Following on from my use of running Mann-Whitney Z statistics to look at the time series structure of Top Hat (here), this week I have the first draft of an analysis of 15 BBC news bulletins using the same method.

The pdf file can be accessed here: Nick Redfern – Time series analysis of BBC News bulletins


Shot length data from 15 news bulletins broadcast at 1300, 1800, and 2200 on BBC 1 between 11 April 2011 and 15 April 2011, inclusive, is used to compare the editing style between different bulletins broadcast at different times on different days and to examine the time series structure by identifying clusters of shots short and long duration. The results show there is no evidence that shot length distributions of BBC news bulletins vary with the time or day of broadcast, and the style of editing is consistent across the sample. There is also no evidence the highly structured format of television news is related to the time series of shot lengths beyond the opening title sequence, which is associated with a cluster of short shots in every bulletin. The number, order, and location of clusters of longer and shorter shots is different for each bulletin; and there are several examples of abrupt transitions between different editing regimes, but no evidence of any cycles present in the time series. Although there is no overall common pattern to the editing, there are some consistent features in the time series for these bulletins: clusters of shorter shots are associated with footage derived from non-BBC sources (library footage, other broadcasters, public information films) and montage sequences; while clusters of shots of longer duration are associated with shots in which the viewer is addressed directly by the presenter or reporter (including graphics), live-two-way interviews, and speeches or interviews with key actors in a news item.

The data is described in the above paper and can be accessed as an Excel 2007 file here: Nick Redfern – BBC News Data

The geographies of cinema

This week some interesting papers on the subject of the geography of cinema, which covers a wide range of topic from the political economy of film industries to the representation of space in cinema. As ever, this list is not comprehensive, but has a selection of interesting papers I have come across.

For each paper I give the reference of the published version, but the version linked to may be a pre-print, a web version, working paper, or a technical report and so page references, formatting, etc., may be different and this should be kept in mind if you want to quote from this research. Most of the files are pdfs.

You can access my papers on British film and geography here (on Manchester in 24 Hour Party People) and here (on London in Notting Hill and South West 9). Other references are given on the page about me.

Alanen A 2008 The structure of Finnish film production at the enterprise level, Tieto & Trendit Journal of Statistics Finland 3/2008.

Alanen A 2008 In Hollywood or in the backwood?, Tieto & Trendit Journal of Statistics Finland 5/2008.

Arrowsmith C, Verhoeven D, and Davidson A (n.d.) A method for detecting geographical cinema circuits using Markov Chains.

Curti GH 2008 The ghost in the city and a landscape of life: a reading of difference in Shirow and Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell, Environment and Planning D 28: 87-106.

Dell’agnese E 2005 The US–Mexico border in American movies: a political geography perspective, Geopolitics 10: 204-221.

Escher A 2006 The geography of cinema – a cinematic world, Erdkunde 60 (4): 307-314.

Eliashberg J, Elberse A, and Leendera MAAM (2006) The motion picture industry: critical issues in practice,current research, and new research directions, Marketing Science 25 (6): 638-661. [The link to this article appears to have been broken, and so it has been removed].

Falicov TL 2002 Film policy under MERCOSUR: the case of Uruguay, Canadian Journal of Communication 27 (1).

Gamir A and Manuel C 2007 Cinema and geography: geographic space, landscape and territory in the film industry, Boletin de la asociacion de geografos españoles 45: 407-410.

Lorenzen M 2008 Creativity at Work: On the Globalization of the Film Industry, Creative Encounters Working Papers 8.

Lukinbeal C 2002 Teaching historical geographies of American film production, Journal of Geography 101: 250-260.

Lukinbeal C 2004 The map that precedes the territory: an introduction to essays in cinematic geography, GeoJournal 59 (4): 247-251.

Lukinbeal C 2005 Cinematic landscapes, Journal of Cultural Geography 23 (1): 3-22.

Lukinbeal C 2006 Runaway Hollywood: Cold Mountain, Romania, Erkunde 60 (4): 337-345.

Lukinbeal C and Zimmermann S 2006 Film geography: a new subfield, Erkunde 60 (4): 315-326.

Mezias JM and Mezias SJ 2000 Resource partioning, the founding of specialist firms, and innovation: the American feature film industry, 1912-1929, Organization Science 11 (3): 306-322.

Mould O 2008 Moving images: world cities, connections and projects in Sydney’s TV production industry, Global Networks 8 (4): 474-495.

Richardson S 2005 Welcome to the cheap seats: cinemas, sex and landscape, Industrial Archaeology Review 27: 145-152.

Scott AJ 2002 A new map of Hollywood: the production and distribution of American motion pictures, Regional Studies 36 (9): 957-975.

Scott AJ (n.d.) A new map of Hollywood and the World.

Turok I 2003 Cities, clusters, and creative industries: the case of film and TV in Scotland, European Planning Studies 11 (5): 549-565.

Vang J and Chaminade C 2007 Global-local linkages, spillovers, and cultural clusters: theoretical and empirical insights from an exploratory study of Toronto’s film cluster, Industry and Innovation 14 (4): 401-420.

3-D week on Channel 4

In September I wrote a piece on why I did not think that the future of home entertainment lay in 3-D television. This week, Channel 4 have been showing various programmes in 3-D, and so it seemed like the perfect opportunity to test the potential of the technology.

The results were more underwhelming than I had anticipated. No, really – I didn’t think it would be this bad.

The first programme of the week was ‘The Queen in 3-D,’ shown in two parts on Monday and Tuesday.It featured too affable gentlemen, Bob Angell and Arthur Wooster, who shot colour 3-D footage of the coronation in 1953. The programme was made of non-3-D sections where we got the history of the coronation, some talking-head segments, which were in 3-D, and the 3-D footage of the coronation. The pair of filmmakers appeared from time to time to ask us to put on or take-off our 3-D viewing spectacles. This take-them-off and put-them-back-on-again soon became irritating.

The stongest 3-D effect was in the talking-head segments, but it did not add anything to the social history of the coronation and the effect itself was disappointing. Things do not look any more real – if anything the 3-D effect was quite surreal as the image looked like a series of very flat layers stacked up one on top of the other. It did not have any depth or shape to it. The effect of spatial separation between these flat layers was evident (although, as I have said, not consistently), but it made me think of Ivor the Engine more than anything else. (For my non-UK readers under the age of 25, Ivor the Engine was an animated series created by Oliver Postgate in the 1950s and used stop-motion animation of cardboard cut-outs).

This image of Ivor the Engine was taken from the Walesonline page, where you can find an obituary of Oliver Postgate, who died in December 2008. Imagine this in 3-D, and you sort of get the idea.

The flatness of the image was all the more disappointing, as I have recently been re-watching the 3.5 hour long documentary on the making of Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982) that is part of the Ultimate Collector’s Edition Blade Runner box set. This excellent documenatry has a great section with Douglas Trumbull and his fellow model makers, designers, matte painters, special effects cameraman, supervisors, etc. There is a great bit where they explain how they created the image of Los Angeles disappearing into the distance by using flat pieces of brass, so that the city is built up of layer upon layer of this model pieces to create a convincing experience of the immensity of the city. This old fashioned method creating in camera effects through multiple passes over a model landscape, gives a much better effect than 3-D. Obviously it is unfair to compare Channel 4 to the production of Blade Runner, but if we are going to hail 3-D as the future, then it should at least be an improvement on the technology of the past. When I get to see a 3-D landscape as good as that made in 1981, then we can talk about being impressed. Maybe James Cameron’s Avatar will be the film to take us there. But if the ‘last analogue film,’ as Blade Runner was referred to, can achieve such wonderful effects of depth and shape by using flat pieces of brass, 3-D faces a stiff challenge.

Matthew Yuricich’s matte paintings for Blade Runner are amazing, and better than 3-D. This image is taken from an interview with Douglas Trumbull over at Kipplezone, which is definitely worth checking out.

The 3-D effect in ‘The Queen in 3-D’ and the magic programme presented by Derren Brown that followed it was evident in some shots more than others, and this has been a problem through out the week – the inconsistency of the 3-D effect just doesn’t make it seem worth the while.Just as 3-D adds nothing to social history, I found that the magic tricks were harder to follow wearing the 3-D glasses. Also because 3-D television is so rare, I kept looking out for the 3-D effect and missed what was going on with the tricks themselves. I can see the appeal for magic shows to use 3-D – the lack of reality that was alienating in the documentary footage is ideal for illusions. It may that the future of 3-D in the home is limited to some genres of programming – but if this is the case, then selling the audience a new 3-D television is going to be that much harder.

I watched the first part of Flesh for Frankenstein (Paul Morrissey, 1973), which is every bit as bad as I remember, and found that even wearing the glasses I could see the amber and blue shapes on the image instead of the 3-D effect. The 3-D effect itself was very intermittent in this film, being quite strong in some shots but barely noticeable in others.

As my eyesight is pretty much perfect I don’t wear glasses or contact lenses, and I did not like the fact that I have to wear the 3-D spectacles. They very quickly became uncomfortable, and after a while I started to get a headache.

I also burnt my toast. The problem with 3-D in the home is that you do not just watch TV and do nothing else. Rather, the TV is on and has your attention some of the time, while various other things make competing demands on your attention. 3-D seems to depend on the viewer attending to the television screen and nothing else – which is fine in a cinema, where I have made the effort to go out and paid my money with the specific intention of watching the film. But at home I may be talking to another person who is either with me or on the phone, I may be attempting a crossword. My toast was burnt because my attention could not be divided so easily between the screen and the toast, and because I was wearing the 3-D glasses and couldn’t see what was happening. 3-D is all very well as a novelty for films, but once you actually try living a life it falls apart almost instantly.

In order to get the best effect, Channel 4 advised you to dim the lights. Well, I don’t have a light-dimmer switch – I have a light on-and-off switch. So now I am sitting the dark, on my own, watching a programme of which only a small part is actually 3-D (and even then the effect is inconsistent), wearing uncomfortable glasses that are giving me a headache, unable to see anything properly, and eating burnt toast.

Do you want to come from work and sit in the dark wearing 3-D glasses, ignoring your nearest and dearest while watching underwhelming television programmes? Of course not.

The future of home entertainment?


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) [1].

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) [2]

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) [3]


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.


  1. A transcription of this episode of Friends can be read at, accessed 25 February 2009.
  2. Framegrabs from Friends are taken from, accessed 25 February 2009.
  3. Framegrabs from The Simpsons are taken from, 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:, 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.