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It's not TV! It's HBO, USA, FX....

THINGS USED TO BE EASY. There only were three television networks, and the shows they put on, you watched. Along came cable and satellite and hundreds of stations from which to choose, but that was too much trouble, as well as too expensive. So, most people stuck with the three networks, viewing prime-time TV when it happened. Then TiVo arrived and, suddenly, where or when a program appeared did not much matter anymore. Five networks and a host of other independent stations put on programs that TiVo made easy to find--you simply put in a title and it was recorded to watch at your convenience.

This concept has revolutionized the way the public watches television, making it possible for consumers to be their own programmers, to see any show on any channel whenever they want to--morning, noon, or night. TiVo's "Season Pass" records a favorite program whenever it airs and stores it in a "What's Playing" list to be sampled (usually without commercials) whenever the consumer wants. Indeed, some of the best shows on television appear on what used to be obscure channels that never would have found an audience before. The Home & Garden Network, for example, has a core of dedicated viewers who would rather watch "Landscape Solutions" or "Gardening by the Yard" than anything on prime-time commercial TV. A series of ESPN channels has captured the hardcore sports fan, a chorus of news and information channels captivate news junkies, and a host of other specialized networks--such as the Sci-Fi channel, Encore Westerns, Oxygen, or MTV--cater to specific audiences that want a targeted type of programming.

So, it is not surprising that some of the most innovative television programs can be found on non-network TV. These shows are original not because they have the freedom to use the English language in all of its variations, including obscenity-laced, but because they dare to go where few network shows ever go--to the realm of adult drama usually reserved for the theatrical stage and movie art houses. True, some viewers have been turned off by the profanity used in "Deadwood" and "Rome," two extraordinary HBO series that treat the audience as thinking adults. In truth, however, the language, especially in "Deadwood," can rise to the level of Shakespearean dialogue. The characters jump off the screen and grab you by the throat. HBO started it all with "The Sopranos," a ruthless portrayal of Italian mobsters in New Jersey that rivaled "The Godfather" trilogy in high drama, violence, verbal pornography, and tragedy. "Brotherhood," on Showtime, deals with the same subject, but this time the family is Irish and lives in Rhode Island. Both offer authentic characterizations and individual scenes that stick in the memory.

FX, meanwhile, features another Irish family in "Rescue Me," a drama about a New York City firefighter that explodes whenever the central character (played by Dennis Leary) appears on screen. The program focuses on the firehouse and the personal lives of these individuals who face extreme pressure on the job (the firefighting sequences are realistic and frightening) and at home (the death of a son destroys what remains of a complex marriage).

USA Network has a reputation for bringing entertaining network-type programming to this new TV landscape. Its formula is as old as the first successful shows seen 50 years ago--get first-rate actors and put them in an interesting concept. "Monk" features Tony Shalhoub as an obsessive-compulsive detective whose mannerisms are far more interesting than the routine cases he solves as a police consultant. Only the superior acting talents of Shalhoub make this "Murder She Wrote-Columbo" knockoff superior to its commercial TV counterparts. More like network TV, "Psyche" is an amusing follow-up featuring what some critics are calling "a junior Monk," a policeman's son whose uncanny ability to investigate a crime scene enables him to pretend he's a psychic. "The 4400" and "The Dead Zone," two sci-fi programs, not only are beautifully shot, but are as fascinating to watch as "The X-Files" and "The Twilight Zone" used to be on commercial TV.

A failure as a network series, "Battlestar Galactica" has been resurrected by the Sci-Fi channel and turned into a sharply focused picture of humans trying to survive in a hostile future. Less successful are Sci-Fi's "Eureka" and a reality show called "Who Wants To Be a Superhero?" (salvaged by the presence of an earnest Stan Lee, the outstanding graphic artist who makes you believe that 11 losers could indeed be superheroes). Shows like "Huff" (a Los Angeles psychiatrist who is clueless when it comes to analyzing his family and friends) and "Weeds" (a widow who makes ends meet by selling marijuana), both on Showtime, offer some of the finest acting on the small screen. The finale of "Six Feet Under," on HBO, brought the story of a family-run funeral home to a devastatingly logical conclusion. Occasionally, 30-minute comedies such as "Curb Your Enthusiasm" and "Entourage"--both on HBO, and the kind of comedies network TV never could put on the air--become the type of shows you simply do not want to miss.

What this signifies for the future of network television is up for speculation. The doomsayers who say network TV will not survive are probably as wrong as the optimists who say network TV always will be around making gobs of money. What it metals to the consumer right now is a cornucopia of drama and comedy that arguably makes this the golden age of television. Add in such network treats as "Grey's Anatomy," the "CSI" and "Law & Order" franchises, "Desperate Housewives," "House," and a handful of others, and ... well ... anyone who says there is nothing to watch on TV simply has not been looking hard enough. Buy them a TiVo for Christmas.

Joe Saltzman, Associate Mass Media Editor of USA Today: associate dean and professor of journalism, University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communication, Los Angeles: and director of the Image of the Journalist in Popular Culture, a project of the Norman Lear Center, is the author of Frank Capra and the Image of the Journalist in American Film.
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Title Annotation:television networks
Author:Saltzman, Joe
Publication:USA Today (Magazine)
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 1, 2006
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