What time is prime time?
Watching yesterday's television programs today.
Have you heard the news? The Boston Red Sox finally won the World Series! And there's this new thing – much better than a Walkman – which'll hold hundreds of CDs worth of music; it's called an iPod, and it's absolutely amazing! And you'll never have to watch commercials again, because they just came out with this new device that lets you zip right through them – Hivo? Sivo? Something like that; anyway, you're not going to believe it when you see it.
No, no need to check your browser to see if you've accidentally clicked on the "archives" section of the website; we're in October 2006, and if anyone said these kind of things to you in a serious article or on the street, you'd either toss it away in disgust or back slowly away, wondering how anyone could be that incredibly behind the times.
Except, of course, when it comes to television programs.
I can't tell you how many times in the last few months that dear friends, relatives, acquaintances, and the woman who comes to read my gas meter have told me, with a light in their eyes and a catch in their breath, about their brand new discovery: this show called "24." Or "Arrested Development." Or "Veronica Mars." Or "Deadwood." Or "The Wire." Great shows that have been on the air for years, often on ratings life support or even cancelled because they couldn't attract an audience. It turns out, though, that they could attract an audience after all. It just took that audience a while to get there. Lots of viewers are partying like it's 2004, eagerly discussing the ins and outs of Jack Bauer's next-to-next-to-next-to-latest adventures as if they aired yesterday.
This is, as you can imagine, incredibly frustrating to the small groups of people who watched the shows when they came out, by which, really, I mean me. I'm constantly trying to remember fuzzy details of jokes I heard one evening three seasons ago, not to mention the constant anxiety about spoiling a show's future developments for my friends. As a result, I'm in the conversations but not of them; it's like I've got a bad case of jet lag – except that, ostensibly, they're the ones who are off cycle.
Lest I face social ostracism for the rest of my natural life, let me hasten to point out that my friends - brilliant, charitable, and incredibly handsome to a one - are behaving quite reasonably in watching these shows this way: DVD packages provide a season's worth of entertainment without worrying about recording a show every week, waiting to watch the next episode, and, of course, watching the commercials (though again, that new invention makes the last a little more optional). And with the busy, fascinating lives that all my utterly enchanting acquaintances and family members lead, why not wait a few years for the deluge of new product to winnow itself down to a few unquestionable home runs before dipping their toes in the batting box, if I may mix a metaphor or two?
The one problem – which is a pretty big one - is that, with extremely rare exceptions, the folks who decide about making more episodes and ordering more seasons are still pretty hung up on the ratings of a show in the year it comes out – and here, by "year," I mean "first two or three weeks." As of this writing, the new CBS drama "Smith," for example, has apparently been cancelled after just a few episodes. I kind of liked "Smith," and I'm pretty sure that a good number of those aforementioned friends and family members (have I mentioned how wonderful they are?) would have loved the show when they watched it on DVD in 2008. But now we'll never know, since no show, no DVD.
Is there a way out of this? Making a few seasons of a strong but low-rated show in the hope that my friends will catch up to it in a few years on DVD seems pretty much like anathema to networks who still depend largely on advertising for their profits (the exception in this, as in so much else, is HBO, of course); and now that so much programming has become – and will continue to become – available on DVD, I can't see why my friends would change the way they watch television.
So those of us who are watching television in real time are going to be constantly biting our nails when we see something great, hoping that just enough people manage to find their way to "Friday Night Lights", for example, that NBC sticks with it. It's a wonderful show; and I'm going to get all my friends together to talk about it after they've seen a few episodes.
We're meeting in 2010.