Monday, December 17, 2007

The day the free TV preview died

Dexter is dead. Big Love has been ripped from my arms.

For a brief, shining moment -- 3 months worth of moments, apparently -- I had been receiving every TV station known to man in a free preview courtesy Shaw Cable. Well, actually courtesy me splurging on a Shaw PVR and them wanting to hook me and then upsell me on a more expensive cable package.

For three months, I was getting the movie channels, Eastern time zone Canadian channels, and a whole lot of channels I quickly flipped through even when they didn't only broadcast the ominous black screen of "Subscription service - For ordering information, press info." Tonight they're gone, and I had to decide if I was hooked enough to be upsold.

I'd started watching Dexter on DVD over the summer, but hadn't finished the first season when I started catching second season episodes on my free preview channels. Jumping ahead like that kind of ruined the end of last season for me, but whatever, I'd already deduced who the Ice Truck Killer was and am still eager to see how it plays out. I caught a few episodes of Big Love and was surprised by how much I enjoyed it, enough so that I intend to rent the DVDs ... some day, when I've caught up with The Wire DVDs I finally bought because it was too excruciating waiting for each individual DVD to be returned to the video store.

What appealed to me particularly about the free preview channels was that they aired movies I've seen a million times and love to watch bits of as comfort food, or movies I kinda thought I'd like and could now tell if I wanted to invest the time when I had the time, or these cable shows I could drift in and out of, knowing I'd want just a taste to decide if I wanted to get the DVDs so I could watch them at my own pace.

So when I came home from a shorter-than-average workday today, still burned out from the way-longer-than-average workweeks lately, with my salmon lasagna (homemade - in someone else's home) and my TV, Eh updating to do and emails to return, I was disappointed to turn to Dexter for background viewing and find he wasn't there. That's when I wondered, do I order the channel, knowing that there's at least two series I want to see, and little else on for the foreseeable future thanks to a writers strike?

I knew what they were doing, I was wary of it, I was prepared for it, and yet they did it - they hooked me on my free preview channels. It had become a habit, to turn to the movie channels and see what cable shows I'd been missing out on.

And that's when I realized: my PVR is 63% full of shows I haven't watched yet. And if I didn't think I wanted the pay channels in a good year, why would I want them in a strike year?

I know, I know, people are looking for shows that are new to them to fill in the strike gaps, but I've never had that kind of relationship with TV. Though I prefer to have one, and have never gotten rid of it on principal, just circumstance, I have happily lived without a television set. I start each fall wanting to catch any pilots that sound good to me in case I miss out on the next House, but I don't have a quota to fill. I'm happy when I have one or two must-watch shows in a year, but with much more than that, we're talking about wallpaper viewing, so they can't be too demanding on my time or attention.

Lately, I have only been watching wallpaper TV, things I can half watch while doing other things. The writers strike doesn't have me wondering how I can fill my time; it has me deciding to look at no more House or Pushing Daisies as a gift of time.

Lee-Anne Goodman of the Canadian Press, one of the few reporters to integrate Canadian television into her TV coverage as if it's not living in a ghetto, has an article about the strike today. It raises the question of whether the prolonged absence of scripted television will drive viewers to the Internet, fragmenting the audience permanently. The article is interesting in many ways, but one is that I think some of her interviewees are answering the wrong question.

I don't think people will turn to the Internet to look for the next Lost. I think people will look to the Internet for the kind of content the Internet does best, like YouTube and Facebook and MySpace and whatever the next big thing will be. I think people will continue to watch TV, but they will watch the filler reality shows and find they are not all cut from the same cloth and appeal to a wider range of demographics than those of us who scoff at them will admit. I think people will turn to cable shows and DVDs of shows they haven't yet seen, and some of that will supplant their network viewing.

People are not going to abandon television in droves because of the writers strike. If it goes on too long, their television watching habits will change, and some of that change will be damaging to the traditional television industry. But TV isn't going anywhere, not even when it becomes a screen in your living room indistinguishable from the screen that pumps YouTube and Facebook and MySpace into your living room.

To painfully tie my threads together, the strike is kind of like a free preview of our future entertainment. When it's over, some will choose to continue with more channels and more choice. Some will find the reality strike fare is their new comfort food. Some will discover they prefer the pace of watching TV on DVD or downloads. Some will continue to sit down on the couch after work with their laptop or PlayStation instead of their remote.

Because what few will do while they're waiting for television to return to normal is to just wait. And once you get a new habit, it's hard to break it.

So once I've cleared off the PVR, and finished The Wire, you bet I'm renting Dexter and Big Love. But my moment of temptation is over - farewell, free preview channels.