Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Thanks to, Your Television Is No Longer the Only Place to Find Your Favorite Shows

[NOTE: The following article will also appear as my regular television column for WILDsound.]

Here is what I’ve watched today so far: A second-season episode of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” (Mary gets involved with a governor’s aide who keeps canceling their dates), a third-season classic from “NewsRadio” (the staff goes wild with a new complaint box), the second ever “Dana Carvey Show” (the short-lived sketch extravaganza’s ensemble featured Steve Carell and Stephen Colbert) and last week’s installment of “How I Met Your Mother, ” as well as parts of episodes of “Ironside,” “I Dream of Jeannie,” “The Bob Newhart Show” and “WKRP in Cincinnati.” I also watched a home video taping of a table read for this season’s debut episode of “Scrubs.” Later, I might try and watch “The Girl Next Door,” “The Big Lebowski,” and/or “Some Like It Hot.” All of this viewing cost me absolutely nothing, and I never made use of my TiVo, nor even my television. Nor did I visit The Paley Center for Media. How did I do it? If you know the answer to my question, then you are no doubt as excited as I am about the answer:

The name might sound like the site for a Hawaiian restaurant, Voodoo spell-caster or bathroom guide, but is actually a joint venture between NBC and Fox that is a vast depository of current and classic television shows, including full episodes, clips, and special features, as well as a small selection of full-length movies. While NBC and Fox shows dominate, also links to programs available via other network sites.

The idea of watching any of the shows the site offers on demand is pretty powerful. is YouTube, but with the content provided by networks instead of idiots with access to a camera, an Internet connection and a sleeping cat. Okay, I know that YouTube has a lot of great stuff, but when using, you are immediately struck by the quality of the material and the presentation. The user experience is vastly more consistent and satisfying than what one experiences on YouTube (or any other video site I’ve visited). Although the phrase has been used to death, it’s accurate to say that is a truly groundbreaking site. Considering the vast array of programs and movies available, you would be hard pressed to ever run out of things to watch. And, over time, even more shows and episodes will be added.

I think of the site as Web quicksand. Once you step in, it’s impossible to leave. There is so much to grab your attention, from classic shows to successful guilty pleasures to modern hits to short-running curiosities. The picture is sharper than most Web viewing, and the commercial breaks are far less frequent (once or twice a half hour) than on broadcast television and consist of only one ad. You can also jump around (although that often means watching a commercial first), and there are even ways to cut, save and send clips, but to do so, you need a more adventurous spirit and more patience than I possess.

The special features are the cherry on the video sundae. The “Scrubs” table read was a gem for devotees of the fanatically loved comedy. The cast sits around someone’s home (a dog wanders into frame at one point), scripts in hand, and reads through the material, all captured by a single hand-held video camera. It was interesting to see the performers laughing at the jokes, and to watch the interactions between the actors. It seemed like these people truly enjoyed the process of making us laugh. We got an insight into the world of the creative process, with such anomalous sites as Zach Braff wedged on the couch next to Ken Jenkins, the two of them all chummy, something you’d never see their characters (goofball resident J.D. Dorian and chief of medicine Bob Kelso) ever do.

But to me, nothing sums up what is great about more than this: I clicked on the second episode of “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip” to watch the great last few minutes (a sketch on the show-within-the-show that is a riff on Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Major-General’s Song,” only with lines like “We hope that you won’t mind that our producer was caught doing blow”), but before I knew it, I was sucked into Aaron Sorkin’s smart, sharp, funny and moving patter and the stellar cast, and I ended up watching the whole show. I was paralyzed. I had this column to write, I had a trip to prepare for, and yet I was watching Matthew Perry, Bradley Whitford, et al bantering instead. So, what’s the big deal about that? Well, I’m fully aware that most people found “Studio 60” precious, self-involved, smug and preachy, and that the ratings plummeted from 13 million viewers for the premiere to seven million stragglers the week before it was shelved.

In other words, “Studio 60” didn’t attract enough loyal fans to stay on the air, but it did make an impression on a sizable niche, and as a proud member of that niche, it is satisfying to me to have a place to go to watch the 22 episodes that were produced. Short of convincing somebody to pony up the millions of dollars per week needed to crank out another season (so it can go ignored again by the audience at large, I’m sure), is the best option I can imagine. I can watch any of the existing episodes whenever I want (assuming I’m near a computer with a high-speed Internet connection). And for every weirdo like me who misses “Studio 60,” there is someone equally devoted to “Firefly,” “Andy Barker P.I.,” “Dream On” or one of the other under-the-radar shows that can be found on the site.

So if you haven’t heard of, or if you haven’t visited the site yet, I heartily recommend you do so. Only don’t blame me if you find yourself four hours later in the same position in front of your computer, with all of your responsibilities still unattended to. It’s a small price to pay for the chance to enjoy many of your favorite shows on demand. Just be careful. You don’t want to walk around your office singing Gilbert and Sullivan tunes with drug references. Bosses may frown on that kind of behavior.