Watching TV as an Active Process:
Northern Exposure

Benjamin Symes

As we live we search for meaning and the process of watching television is no different. We do not find the same meanings as each other, however, and so where does meaning spring from? For it is in relation to this search for the source of meaning in each experience, that the process of watching television can be seen as active.

We watch and listen and try to 'make sense' out of what we see and hear. We can only 'make sense' of what we sense through the relation of the 'new' experience (that which we encounter at the moment of perception) to the perceptual framework within which we experience it. We cannot find meaning independent of our perception of it, for in order to identify meaning and give it shape it has to lie within this perceptual framework.

There can never be no activity, for in recognising the experience we have to be active in relating it to what we already understand.

Because this framework shapes every meaning we make through our lives, it contains many different aspects, which act as contexts within which we watch. The active process in watching television is that of making meanings from the interplay between these contexts and the experience itself.

Before illustrating this process with reference to my watching of Northern Exposure I will first give an example of two contexts which underly all the meanings we make.

We perceive through human eyes and make pictures and from colours by organising them in particular ways. This can be seen in relation to 'Gestalt Principles of Visual Organisation'. A similar process is active in making sense of sound.

We also perceive in realtion to our own cognitive abilities which form our understanding of both language and sequences of events.

The process of making meaning is active from the beginning of our life and consequently seems instinctive. We give meaning so quickly, to much of what we experience, that we can easily take the activity for granted.

This is apparent in our familiarity with television. We are never taught to make sense of what we see on the screen. We have learnt to make meaning ourselves through the kind of process described above and so it becomes difficult to be aware of the meanings we are constructing.

It is difficult to find anybody who has never seen television before, whose perceptual framework does not include any understanding of the medium, but our experience of television also acts as a context. I have an understanding of the basic concept of film and this allows me to make sense of what I'm looking at.

The television is only a small screen in relation to our normal field of vision and so it would seem that I can 'build' the part of the image that I do not see around that which I do. My meaning would also be quite different if, for some reason, I was watching with the sound off.

All these frames shape the meanings I make.

It must be stressed that each meaning I construct is not directly related to certain contexts in the overall framework, but rather from the interplay between all of them in differing combinations.

Indeed everything I write or think has itself been perceived and given meaning in this constant interplay between 'new' experience and my evolving perceptual framework. It would be impossible to identify every construction of meaning that I have made through my life.

Such is the nature of life that we cannot find complete meaning. We cannot press the pause button on the video tape of life. Life is changing and it is through the awareness of the passing of time that the perceptual framework is always left open.

The process of constructing meaning is so active that at every moment it is looping back to go forward. It is not simply a matter of adding the experience to the framework for in giving the experience meaning we simultaneously change the framework around that meaning. The meaning then becomes a context in itself. This gives us an insight into the fluid and open-ended characteristics of the process of making meaning.

I am working with language, however, and must to some extent be fixed and linear in my description as I can only describe one context at a time. If I were to relate each context to each perception - which is what appears to be happening - the essay would be concerned with one moment of viewing.

For both the sake of interest and greater insight on a broader scale I will analyse the process of making meaning on a relevant level to my context as a regular viewer.

Every Wednesday evening at 10.30 I turn on the television and settle down to watch Northern Exposure on S4C. I have been watching the programme for several years and have seen 40+ episodes.

My familiarity with the experience of the programme allows me to quickly make sense of what I am seeing. These meanings allow me to search for meanings in the programme which are a 'new' experience to me. For when I watch I am concerned with making meanings on the level of understanding both the specific episode and the series in general. This may be the unfamiliar content of a new episode or a meaning that I construct when thinking about the framework of meanings I have already made.

It is impossible to describe the process completely but I intend to glimpse an insight into its dynamics. To do this I will be playing a metaphorical video tape of my experience. With this tape I can 'play' various different meanings that I have made or seem to be looking to make. By 'pausing' the tape I can suggest the interplay of contexts which may have been relevant in forming my interpretations.

This also echoes the nature of the active process for it does not progress in a linear fashion. We do not concentrate on developing one meaning but instead jump around our framework to form different meanings at different moments.

Let us watch then...

Watching the first scene, I wonder how the Aurora Borealis will affect the characters throughout the episode.

This is the meaning I have made from what I have seen. But how have I made it? Why do I think that the 'Northern Lights' will affect them? I scan what I have already seen:

Maggie has been dreaming.

In relation to my own experience of life, dreaming is signified by my waking up in bed after what seems like a 'real' experience. I see her wake up in bed immediately after I have seen her awake and driving a car and so I assume that she is dreaming. What else?

Maggie walks into the opening shot. She is dressed as a young lad in 'period' costume and she sees an old car and gets in. Everything seems unfamiliar to her. It appears to be set in the 1930/40's. A dog gets in the other side and starts speaking to her in Quebecois. This is quite strange.

In relation to my perception of what is 'real', formed within the context of my life experience, I see a talking dog as something 'quite strange' (if I had seen the dog talk before in the programme it would perhaps not seem so strange as it does now). In relation to my experience of Northern Exposure being set in the present day her period clothes seem unfamiliar. I infer that this dream is even strange to Maggie herself. Back to the end of the scene:

After her dream Maggie gets out of bed, walks to the window and looks, amazed, at the 'Northern Lights' in the sky. The Aurora Borealis is affecting her dreams.

In my experience the Northern Lights are something I perceive to be a spectacle. I would be amazed to see them and from the interplay between this and my understanding of human expression (her face and her words) I see that the lights also amaze Maggie. They seem to be unusual.

By relating what I have seen to my understanding of the way stories work, itself formed in in the context of my life experience, I connect her strange dreams to her wonder at the 'Northern Lights'. It is from this connection that I infer her dreams have been affected by the lights in the sky.

The opening titles for the programme begin.

In my experience of Northern Exposure I understand that there is often a scene before the opening titles. This scene tends to act as a prologue to introduce the theme of the episode. I also know that the programme often features strange phenomena that are associated with the setting (Alaska) and that the stories explore how these phenomena affect the characters. From what I see and the contexts in which I see it I infer that this week's episode will explore the characters' development in relation to the Aurora Borealis.

In this way then we see that meanings are multi-layered and interweaving. At any given moment the meaning is formed within this complex mesh.

I have identified the meaning that the charcters will be affected and with this I can look for further meanings.

In what ways is it affecting them?

Chris, Joel, Maurice and his two friends are sitting around a table playing Poker. They are talking about strange dreams and Chris suggests that each of them are having another's dreams. I believe him.

Why do I believe that Chris is right?

Joel (the doctor) is having problems in his attempt to practise Psychotherapy for he has no idea what is wrong with Harling. Marilyn (his Native American 'office manager') suggests that he should try looking at Harling's dreams. I think she is right.

I am interested in Native American culture. Through that interest I understand that dreams and their meanings play a large part in this culture. I also believe, perhaps romantically, that in Native American culture there is greater understanding of the mystical effects of Nature and Elemental phenomena on humans. Through these contexts I see that Marilyn is the woman to listen to.

A similar context of personal identification with a character is apparent with regards to Chris.

Chris is the town disc jockey and he loves words. He describes the 'Northern Lights' as a "beautiful show .. from the ionesphere, a performance by the lovely Miss Aurora Borealis."

I also love words and the poetic expression of them, which is why I am studying English Literature, and through this context I identify well with Chris. I also like his character and this has been formed in relation to various aspects of my personality. To some extent then I want him to be right. Although his view seems unconventional - I have never before heard of people swapping dreams - I place it in the context of what I know about the programme.

The 'genre' of the programme is comic and 'offbeat', dealing with the unconventional in a light-hearted way. Through this context I see Chris' view as utterly plausible.

Having identified this I am looking to make other meanings which seem relevant.

Maggie and Harling are in Joel's office. Maggie believes she is having Harling's dreams and so she thinks that Joel can analyse Harling through her. Joel cannot accept this. From what he says it appears that he will not accept it because it does not fit into his medical and scientific view of the world. I believe that it will affect Joel and I wonder how he will develop in relation to it.

Why do I think it will affect Joel?

Joel refutes it so strongly that, in relation to my belief in the concept, I think he will experience it and that this will prove him wrong. From this I think he will learn and develop as a character. Again this is formed in relation to my understanding of how stories work in developing characters through experience (the process that I am actually describing of myself). But it is also given meaning in the wider context of meanings I have formed about the series.

Although I did not begin watching the series from the first episode I understand the underlying theme. Joel is a Jewish doctor from New York who is under contract to the State of Alaska for three years. It is an involuntary post - he has to pay back his medical college fees - and I see him as the 'outsider' to the community. He does not fit in and he does not want to.

As an 'educated' man from the western hemisphere my dominating cultural context could be seen to involve the importance of rational thought. I see Joel as representing this - he says of Chris' idea that it is "not physiologically possible" - and he seems to only believe in that which can be proven scientifically. He only fully believes in the reality of things that can be measured.

He is from the big city and I see him as representative of the conventions of our modern 'civilised' life (he is stereotypical as a Jewish Doctor). I assume he does not normally experience such strange natural phenomena as the Aurora Borealis and to me this symbolises his conventional and rational view engaging with a more unconventional and mystical view. These phenomena represent the effects on him of the unconventional community he finds himself in.

The meaning that I make from the series is that it is his 'Northern Exposure'. Through this 'exposure' he develops as a character in the way that he slowly loosens his 'rigid', logical views. From this I assume the 'Northern Lights' in this episode will act in the same way.

But why do I make meanings on this level? I could equally be interested in making other meanings dependant on different contexts. I might for instance have a particular interest in Alaska and watch mainly to see the landscapes.

The meanings I make are not totally subjective. I am aware of the concept of communication and I understand that something is being expressed. Although I form the meanings myself, I look for those meanings which I believe the writers may be trying to communicate. I try to find meanings which represent a consensual reality, between the writers and myself.

This is also related to the social context in which I watch, both in terms of who I watch with and who I talk to about the programme. The programme has its form broken by advertisements in which myself and my fellow viewers can discuss the meanings we are making. In this way we also try to consensualise concepts of meaning between us.

I personally look for a symbolic level of meaning in relation to my experience of 'fiction' both in books and on television. From the interplay between this and my view of mainstream American culture - the culture that the writers are a part of - as materialist, I believe that the above meanings are those which the writers may intend me to make.

I do not just make these meanings for the sake of it. I enjoy the programme. Having made these meanings, I can perhaps give an insight into why I enjoy watching. For my interest and enjoyment are not received passively. I make my enjoyment by relating the meanings I am making to the framework of meanings which I enjoy.

I identify with Joel - I see aspects of his personality which are similar to mine. Although I do not enjoy it, I too am often anxious when I do not know something and I sometimes feel myself trying to 'fix' reality.

Through his process of development I can play out the issues which are relevant to myself and in doing so, I too can learn. Consequently I am interested in how the 'Northern Lights' will affect him.

But I am also spiritually and artistically minded and enjoy the 'offbeat' side of life. I believe that our society should be more inclined towards these magical and imaginative realities.

Through the interplay between this context of my personality and that of my previous experience of the programme, I have 'idealised' the town (I often feel that i would like to live there). I identify with all the characters in various ways and, although the characters have vastly different personalities, they all have a place and are accepted for who they are. Again this is placed in the context of my views of the type of society I would like to live in.

In a sense then I want Joel to develop towards the acceptance of the unconventional for this would act as an affirmation of my beliefs. In making this meaning I am relating what I see to the context of my personal needs. But it is also related to the context of my notion of expectation.

An important part of the active process of making meaning lies in setting up expectations which I can confirm. I like to guess at what comes next and in a way I am testing and trying to affirm what I already know. Again it is in relation to various held contexts that we do this. For instance:

A man is attempting to persuade a woman to try on some shoes. The next shot we see Maurice's friend waking up in bed. Another dream.

In the context of my belief that people are swapping dreams I wonder who's dream concerns a fettish for ladies' shoes. I scan my mind for clues:

Maurice has got tickets for his friends to go to a show in Anchorage but refuses to go with them because he doesn't want to "validate their lifestyle choice".

I know that they are gay and that Maurice is always uncomfortable about it. I also have a feeling, from my experience with stories, that any character who takes up a position of great height usually has a fall. This dream would be very embarassing for Maurice for it would go against his macho persona. From these contexts I may assume that the dream is indeed Maurice's.

The setting is a party. I know that it is the shoe-dreamer (from the style of setting) and when the dreamer stands at the mirror I see that it is Maurice.

This does not only confirm that the dream is Maurice's. It also confirms that dreams are being swapped as it is Maurice's friend who is dreaming.

I was pleased with my correct guess but the process does not always deliver such accurate results. If everything was so easily predictable I would be omnipotent. I learn through both affirming my expectations (which still involves a subtle evolution of my context of meaning) and by seeing how they are different to what I experience.

Much of my interest in Northern Exposure lies in how things often turn out differently to how I expected them to. For instance i expected Joel in the episode to be changed by the 'Northern Lights'. Instead it happens indirectly. His development comes from how Harling is affected with relation to Joel's problem with personal feelings.

Because I enjoy what I am watching my enjoyment acts as another framework. My purpose for watching lies both in entertainment and in looking for the meanings which are relevant to me.

A good example of this falls in the opening sequence:

A moose walks across the screen while music plays and the titles come up. The moose is walking through town. He looks up and the next frame is of moose antlers. Back to the moose - he looks a different way - again we see antlers - he is looking at his 'ancestors'

I made this meaning in relation to my understanding of the use of cuts. But also I noticed this meaning because I have a certain affection for the moose. My fellow fans (Bill and Mirella) had not noticed it until I pointed it out. Now that I have seen it I wonder what it means.

I watch the programme because whilst watching I think about the concepts that I like to think about. My use of the framework is formed itself by the inter-relation of factors within it. In a way then I am active in deciding my level of activity from within my frames of viewing.

The active process of watching television is in making meaning. To do this we compare what we see to what we already understand and to what we expect. Although we can never be passive while living, we are perhaps more aware of the process when what we see does not assimilate easily with what we already understand. Even if it does, we are always learning through our very subtle construction of meanings.

But are we trapped within this process? Perhaps the awareness of the process lies outside it. But then that is another essay.

15th November 1995