The ways we watch TV -- Mark Harris explores the different viewing habits of audiences

The ways we watch TV

Do the people who run the TV networks know how most of us watch their shows? By ”how we watch,” I don’t mean to question their awareness of streaming video, full-season DVDs, on-demand channels, DVR time shifting, and the rest of the media that the writers fought over as the strike drove a steamroller through the middle of this season. I mean this: Do they know how little attention we’re paying?

These days, there are two kinds of television series: Eye TV and Ear TV. Eye TV is intense: You care about it so much that not only do you know when it’s on, you actually watch it when it’s on. And you really watch it — forks down, phones away, laptops idle, iPods off — because you’re worried that if you don’t, your friends will tell you what happened or you’ll stumble upon spoilers or plot discussions on the Internet and you will be behind.

Eye TV isn’t classified by the ratings it gets but by the unquantifiable intensity and devotion of its fan base. The Wire, currently in its farewell lap and being scrupulously dissected by its devotees in Monday-morning colloquies, is Eye TV. So, despite its tiny if fiercely loyal audience, is HBO’s In Treatment. And so is something as frivolous as the visual, design-driven, close-attention-must-be-paid Project Runway, in which looking away could mean missing an important discussion about a kick pleat or an unfinished hem. Lost is Eye TV; I don’t watch, but I deeply respect the religious devotion of those who do. After each episode, those viewers practically shine a flashlight behind the TV to make sure they haven’t missed anything. 30 Rock and The Office are Eye TV because good comedy is unbelievably rare on the networks these days and because their Thursday-night time slots grab you at that perfect moment of blind optimism when you’re feeling happy about everything you could do during the coming weekend (and probably won’t, but might).

Most television, however, is Ear TV. It’s what you have on in the background while you’re surfing the Internet or answering e-mail or cleaning up or trying to figure out how your credit-card bill got so big or reading this column. Ear TV is background noise, the semi-pleasant drone of Patricia Arquette murmuring ”I sense a presence” or David Caruso picking up a charred toe or Jennifer Love Hewitt concentrating very hard on something. Ear TV was completely unaffected by the strike in the sense that it never matters if it’s a repeat or not.

Which is why I’m surprised at the networks’ poststrike plans. ABC has announced that it will keep Dirty Sexy Money and Private Practice off the air until next season, and NBC is doing the same thing with Life, at which point they will all be relaunched by not-especially-popular demand. Do you remember these shows? Dirty Sexy Money was the one with the guy from Six Feet Under that wasn’t quite clicking. Private Practice was the Grey’s Anatomy spin-off about sad, kvetchy women doctors that played like a movie version of The View. And Life? Life was about a nerd in an electronics store who downloads spy secrets into his brain…no, a time-traveling married guy…no, the ginger-haired Cop With Quirks. Honestly, were you left hanging on the edge of a cliff by any of these shows? Do you think you’ll be able to soldier on for six or seven more months without them? Me too. Possibly even forever.

The same is true for Eye TV shows that don’t seem to know they’ve been downgraded to Ear TV. Remember Heroes? Fun first season, wet-firecracker end to first season, nosedive into an empty swimming pool throughout second season. If it’s very lucky, it gets one more chance to right itself — and that means one more episode, not one more season. Same with 24, which went from good (Eye TV) to good-but-politically-reprehensible (Ear TV) to not-good-and-still-reprehensible (Half-an-Ear TV) to not really on anymore. It’ll reappear in January 2009, after a year and a half off the air. That’s not a return — it’s a reunion special. Suddenly, I don’t much care if Jack Bauer gets to the next nuclear suitcase/dirty bomb/vial of poison/tree full of kittens in time or not.

Do the networks honestly think that viewers will wait faithfully for Ear TV? ”The fight is over,” Jon Stewart announced on the Oscars, talking about the strike’s end. ”Welcome to the makeup sex!” It’s a good analogy, since viewers have relationships with TV series all the time (we fall in love, they disappoint us, we dump them, they die — in short, it works out well for everyone). But make-up sex? I’m not feeling it. Like many TV viewers, I look at the shows that are now planning to bang on my door next winter pleading Baby, take me back! and I think, I’m just not that into you.