Network Programmer: Home Edition

November 26, 2006
A thought by James Berardinelli

When I was a child, the concept of "television" was a simple one. Certain programs were linked to certain nights, and that was it. If you liked a show, you tried to see it. If you loved a show, you made sure you were available. There were no second chances. If you weren't in front of your television at the appointed time, you missed out. There was always the chance to catch it during the re-run season, but that was six months away. For me at about age eight, Sunday night was The Six Million Dollar Man, Tuesday was Happy Days, and Wednesday was The Bionic Woman. A few years later, my TV appointments included Masterpiece Theater on Sundays, Magnum P.I. on Thursdays, and Dallas on Fridays.

This was all pre-VCR (at least for those families whose heads of household were not CEOs). Dallas in particular amassed huge audiences because of its serial nature and the realization that if you missed an episode, you might be left out of the watercooler conversation the next Monday. Looking back is like staring through a portal into another era, and today's kids can't relate. Progress has meant many things, but one of the best has been liberating TV-holics from being held prisoner by what was once called the "boob tube." I am not a number, I am a free man!

The VCR started it, but it was an imperfect solution. For the most part, VCRs permitted the luxury of seeing something if we couldn't be around to watch it "live." (Or, for collectors, we could "save" a beloved program to be re-watched repeatedly. If you were a Trekkie or a Trekker, you know what I'm talking about.) For the most part, however, viewers still made appointments with their TVs. If they were home when Hill Street Blues or Saint Elsewhere aired, they watched it rather than recording it to see later. The VCR was a nice device, but it was inconvenient. Tape shuffling, lengthy fast-forwards and rewinds, confusing programming (how to set the damn clock!), compromised audio/video when recording in SLP/EP... VHS was a stopgap, not a solution. Still, it seemed revlolutionary at the time. (I can remember the thrill I felt when I opened a birthday gift in September 1985 and realized it was a VCR. I may never have been so excited about a present in my entire life.)

Two recent developoments caused a seismic shift in the way we watch television: DVRs and DVDs. Five years ago, not many households had TiVos. Now, their generic offspring are becoming increasingly popular (due in large part to cable providers making them available for reasonable monthly fees). One needs only spend a few minutes to initially set things up and the DVR will regularly record the show(s) of your preference. You can watch those programs in broadcast quality (even HDTV, depending on the DVR and television) any time with the added bonus of being able to skip through the commercials with no effort. This is an amazing time-saver. Hour-long TV shows now require only a 45 minute investment. For those who sit in front of the TV three hours a night seven nights a week, that's an astounding 5 1/4 hours recovered per week.

I almost never watch "live" TV except when I'm viewing something to provide background noise while eating dinner or falling asleep. (For some reason, I do better dozing off with the TV on while on the sofa than in the quiet of my bedroom. 2:00 am couch-to-bed transistions are not uncommmon.) Often, I don't watch TV shows on the nights they air - I get to them when I feel like it, whether it's House, Prison Break, or the soon-to-return 24. The exception is Battlestar Galactica, which I like watching on Fridays. However, by starting at 9:15 using the DVR, I can finish at 10:00 (when the "live" broadcast ends) and save those precious 15 minutes - enough time to write half a ReelThoughts entry.

The other side of the coin is the TV season DVD box set. For those who are patient and don't have to see every episode as it airs, this is the ultimate solution. When the first season of 24 aired, I tried to record it weekly with the objective of watching the whole thing at some point. But I forgot to set the VCR on several occasions, so I had a partial collection of episodes with a lot of holes (including a missing Hour 24). However, before the second season started, the first 24 hours were released on DVD. I went through that set in about three days. Since then I have been hooked. Now, for those who can't deal with the weekly waiting period, nothing could be better. For old shows, the DVDs are excellent sources of nostalgia. For new shows, it's a way of catching up. I intend to buy the box set of Heroes after this season and mow through the episodes at my leisure - not at the pace set by the networks. (It's a mark of the consistency with which season sets are released that I don't question whether a first-season Heroes collection will be available between June and September. It's unthinkable that such a thing would not be released.)

One can argue whether the quality of TV is at an all-time low - many "experts" think this is the case. However, when it comes to the tools technology has provided with which to watch the programming, we're at an all-time high.