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Desperate Mobsters

So the ratings for the March 12 season première of HBO's "Sopranos" were the lowest they've been since the drama's second season première in the year 2000. Some culture commentators might be eager to present this as a war for the soul of Sunday night: a battle between pop-frothy soap opera, courtesy of the ladies of Wisteria Lane on "Desperate Housewives" and the centerpiece of the self-proclaimed "we're not TV" network that has produced the critically beloved shows that have dominated the Emmys the past few years. Head to head at nine o'clock, we'd finally see what's what.

Perhaps these commentators are missing the point, for two simple reasons. Reason #1: I like "The Sopranos" very much, and think it's one of the best shows ever produced on television. Reason #2: I didn't think, for a moment, about watching it on Sunday night.

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Not that everyone thinks exactly like me. But look at the options I had, if I were choosing between HBO and ABC.

1. I could have watched "The Sopranos" numerous other times during the week. The exorbitant amount of cash I fork over to my cable provider each month (and that's another story) allows me to have several different HBOs, some number of which seem almost solely dedicated to showing this week's episode of whatever new HBO shows have premiered. Compare this to "Desperate Housewives," which airs only once, and it's difficult to determine when this precise episode would be shown as a rerun.

2. In case those options weren't enough for me, HBO also helpfully provides me with an on-demand option, so I can watch that episode whenever I want - whether it's after midnight on Sunday or Thursday morning while I'm working out. At least as of now, there's no ABC on-demand on my TV, and even if the episodes are or become available for download on video iPod, I bridle at the thought of paying for an episode I can see for nothing. (Or, more precisely, for no more than the exorbitant amount I already pay my cable company - see No. 1, above.)

3. I could have used my digital video recorder to record it while watching "Desperate Housewives," or basketball, or nothing at all.

4. I could wait for the DVD, which, for many homes not getting HBO, either because they don't want to pay for the network or don't have cable, is a fairly common way of enjoying these shows. An added benefit here - or, at least, something that might be a benefit - is the fact that you don't have to wait a week for the next episode, but just press a few buttons on the remote control. I've heard, anecdotally, about lots of people for whom this is the only way they're willing to watch a series like 24 - they claim that they wouldn't be capable of waiting, or willing to wait, the week between episodes to find out how the cliffhanger episodes are resolved. Though I'm not sure that there isn't something a little disappointing about this - proof of the triumph of a culture of instant gratification? The inability to spend a period of time deliciously waiting and wondering and worrying? But that's not precisely the subject of this column.

Options 3 and 4 are, of course, also available to watchers of "Desperate Housewives" (though, of course, pretty much every household that has television has the option of watching ABC, which is not the case with HBO). But you can see why the concern over low ratings for this "Sopranos" première - measured against premières from years when many of these options were far less widely adopted, and some may not have even existed - doesn't mean much. Again, this isn't to say that I ever had the intention of not watching "The Sopranos." In fact, if all these options didn't exist, I'm sure I would have watched "The Sopranos." But the options do exist. And I imagine that, as time goes on, the numbers of people watching at the time appointed by the networks and the media will get even smaller, and the ratings system - if it still essentially measures the number of people who show up at a certain time to watch a certain program - will have very little connection to the popularity of any given show.

Ah, but you might say, what about the water-cooler aspect? If you watch it whenever you want, what are you going to say Monday morning when someone's talking about the latest exploits of Tony and his gang? And what if you read coverage of the season that gives away all the twists and turns, because you're waiting for the DVD? What about our shared culture of reference?

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I think, paradoxically, that because there's so much culture out there, we're all playing catch-up a little bit; with important new must-see shows and movies and books and op-eds and magazine pieces and blogs and so on and so forth trumpeted three times a day, that no one has the time to keep up - and, as a result, we seem to be giving ourselves a little bit more time to learn about the newest thing. Or, to put it another way: if you haven't seen the "Sopranos" season première on March 13, that's OK; if you haven't seen a single episode of "Desperate Housewives" yet after a year and a half, that's pretty bad, in terms of pop cultural literacy. So you've got some breathing room - room to take advantage of all these other lovely technological opportunities.

And as for learning the shows' twists and turns in advance? In an age where previews are the whole movie in miniature and websites are filled with spoilers, it's not surprise that matters - it's the craft of the show that leads up to the surprise that's valuable. Did I know what was going to happen to Tony Soprano, thanks to the media, before I watched the show? Yes. Did I enjoy it less? Maybe a little, but surprise isn't everything; I still like watching action movies, even though I'm pretty sure that Tom Cruise is going to make it through OK.

So what did I, actually, do on Sunday night? With all this freedom HBO gives me, did I watch "Desperate Housewives"? Of course not; I taped it and then went to the movies. But that's another story.


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