I Resolve to Watch More

Shhhh...I'm far more boring and homely than I look on Fox: Evan "Joe Millionaire" Marriott

Once upon a time, in a decade not too far gone, people who watched television mostly hated January. This is because the turn of the calendar generally unfurled a TV wasteland littered with reruns, and while the occasional first-run episode or Super Bowl would pop into view like a shimmering oasis, it wasn't enough. After all, January is a long, cold, dark month. Even worse, it follows December, a time held hostage by holiday-themed programming and reruns that all but admonish viewers that they have better things to do before December 25 than sit through another 9:30 p.m. comedy on NBC.

Now, however, January is a fun-filled month, so densely packed with programmable goodness that I had to sit down with a calendar to figure out 1) how to handle the scheduling conflicts between The Shield and The Dead Zone (both airing new episodes at 10:00 p.m. on Tuesdays); 2) whether my Tivo's season pass to Oz--which returned for its final season in early January--would conflict with my Adult Swim viewing on the Cartoon Network (yes); and 3) how to manage watching both The Surreal Life and CSI. January is no longer the month in which people who resolved to stop watching so much TV in the New Year have it easy. For tube geeks, it has become another month in which Tivos, VCRs, and remote controls get no rest.

How did this happen? Blame--or thank--cable channels. Without cable, we wouldn't have HBO, which typically takes advantage of moribund broadcast months to roll out new series. The Sopranos debuted in the month of January; Sex and the City, Six Feet Under, and The Wire were all launched in June; and Oz totally bucked convention with a July debut. This gambit won the hearts of viewers like me who wanted to watch something, anything new. It helps that these shows are mostly good, but the point is, viewers had a choice between watching another X-Files rerun or trying something fresh. It's not that HBO invented this trick--one of the ways the SciFi channel built up a following for Farscape was to launch the series in March and run a lot of the episodes during the summer--but they've managed to jigger their schedule in such a way that nearly every Sunday of the year features a brand-new episode of something. It's hard not to love a channel that can offer that.

Aside from canny scheduling, however, it's important to acknowledge cable because without it, there's no MTV, and without MTV, there's no The Real World. And The Real World made the world safe for Survivor by proving that the number of people willing to embarrass themselves on television for little to no pay is surpassed only by the number willing to watch. After Survivor, le déluge of "reality" ensued, generating an enjoyable bounty on the broadcast portion of the dial--The Bachelorette, American Idol, Joe Millionaire, and The Surreal Life.

As far as viewers are concerned, reality shows are fun because they're guilty pleasures with excellent timing and built-in expiration dates. Not only does competitive elimination add a sense of drama to the goings-on; it also sensibly limits a show, ensuring that the entire thing goes out on top instead of dragging on past the point of no entertainment. There's a great deal of pleasure to be had in being able to watch a series unfold from beginning to end without interruption. We're not there yet with network dramas and sitcoms, but at least reality shows provide a cheap version of that satisfaction.

For the pricier version, there's always cable. The point is, thanks to reality shows and cable counterprogramming, there's no reason to hate January anymore. Now you can save it all up for December--and look forward to more fun viewing in the months ahead.

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