See No Evil

September 23, 2008
A thought by James Berardinelli

[Note: As promised, in-text and pop-under ads have been removed from the site. The deletion of the pop-unders represents a leap of faith since they generated approximately 10% of my income. My hope is that the goodwill resulting from their removal will translate into more click-throughs on the Google ads. If that happens, the loss from the pop-unders will be covered.]

The new television season has begun, albeit with less fanfare than usual. It's hard to pinpoint why there's less excitement this year, but I can suggest at least three possible causes: the continually changing viewing habits of the average TV viewer, a greater interest in politics, and spiking concern about the economy. The more subjects people have to attract their attention beyond the TV set, the less interest there will be in what's new.

Sometime in the spring, I resolved to stop watching commercial television, although I am "grandfathering" in shows I have been watching for a number of years. So, during the 2008-09 season, I will be viewing only four commercial TV shows: House, 24, Pushing Daisies, and Battlestar Galactica. There may be some great programs among this year's Freshman roster, but I won' t be seeing them during their initial run. The reason: ratings trumping quality.

Last year, I began watching a show called Journeyman, about an individual who spontaneously travels through time. Admittedly, the first few episodes weren't promising. But, around episode four or five, things started getting better and, by the time December rolled around, the show was building a head of steam. Then, due to poor ratings, it was all over. Done. There was a finale of sorts, but nothing tremendously satisfying. The situation with Journeyman goes beyond one show. If you watch something and it doesn't get good ratings, it will be gone. With more and more shows becoming serialized, that opens the potential for a cliffhanger that will never be resolved. Why devote hours and hours to a show that ends up on a scrap heap? Who among us who religiously watched a certain TV show in the early '90s will forget these immortal words: "Where's Annie?"

The counterargument is that to ignore commercial TV as a whole runs the risk of missing something truly great. Once, this might have been true, but no more. DVD season sets are always available soon after the TV run is complete. If a show is highly regarded and survives its entire first season, I'll pick up the DVDs and give it a shot. In many ways, this is a preferable way to watch shows. I didn't catch an episode of The Wire when it aired on HBO, but I now own all five seasons on DVD. I haven't watched them yet, but my plan to start going through them (at a rate of 2-3 episodes per day) once I'm done with the fall's leaf raking. I like the idea of having access to everything and being able to program it myself.

Of course, all this delayed watching brings up the question of when a spoiler is no longer a spoiler. Is it fair to talk openly about a show the night after it has aired? My belief: yes, as long as the forum/locale where it is being discussed makes it clear what the subject matter will be. Readers have to use discretion when approaching discussions of television shows, especially when there are first-run lags. (U.S. viewers who wanted to remain unspoiled about the fourth season of Dr. Who had to be vigilant, since the BBC was broadcasting episodes three weeks ahead of Sci-Fi. )

My personal rule of thumb for spoilers is the "six month rule." Once something has been available for home consumption for six months or more (whether it's a movie on DVD or a television show after its broadcast), spoiler warnings are no longer mandatory. Admittedly, six months is an arbitrary date, but so is a year or ten years or longer. I was recently chastised by someone for revealing the identity of Laura Palmer's killer, even though that particular episode of Twin Peaks aired some 17 years ago. Is it a spoiler to reveal what Rosebud is?

But this column isn't about spoilers; it's about how my approach to television has changed. I watch House because of Hugh Laurie, not because of the tediously repetitive medical mystery formula. 24 crashed and burned in 2007. One hopes that the two-year layoff will provide a new jolt of creative energy. If not, 24/7 will be the last rock around the clock for me. Pushing Daisies is quirky enough that it's impossible to determine whether it has a future beyond Season #2. But, as long as it maintains its offbeat, whimsical tone, I'll keep watching. Battlestar Galactica will be done whenever Sci-Fi decides to air the remaining episodes. Never has the demise of a television series been so prolonged. Once these four series die, commercial TV will be all-DVD for me. That doesn't mean I plan to cancel my cable. I have no compunctions about watching HBO and Showtime programs (not subject to ratings in the same way the commercial TV programs are), and I watch my share of sports, news, and documentaries. But the concept of "the new season" will lose all meaning. Then again, one could argue that it already has done so.