overthinking the idiot box

June 5, 2006

Cable Rerun Marathons

A good way to get through the summer
by Gabi Toth

TV fans everywhere would agree that May 2006 has been especially hard on us. It's common knowledge that May of every year is a taxing time for TV fans, what with sweeps, the end of the season, and nothing but reality shows to look forward to. However, this past May has been especially emotional for us couch potatoes. The West Wing ushered in a new president and a series finale; Alias packed its last punch; once great comedies That 70's Show, Malcolm in the Middle, and Will & Grace slipped slowly into sitcom oblivion until they all finally bit the dust; and the beloved Everwood was replaced on the fledgling CW by an unnecessary 11th season of 7th Heaven. This summer, however, there may in fact be a small reprieve from the hours spent staring at the ceiling mourning the loss of the likes of Arrested Development, in the form of cable rerun marathons. Yes, you heard me. Rerun marathons. Now, I know what you're thinking. How is watching seven hours of Full House going to make us feel better about that ill-advised turn of events on Gilmore Girls? Well, just hear me out. First, I said SMALL reprieve. Second, think of it this way: maybe reliving our childhood on television, or even reliving the 'good old days' of a 'new classic' will give us hope for the season to come.

With so much synergy between cable and network television, gone are the days of paltry summer reruns, and shows we never thought we cared about can live in syndication forever on networks' sister cable channels. Case in point: Full House, which ran on ABC (which is owned by Disney) for eight seasons, has become an evergreen on sister cable network, ABCFamily. Cable networks like ABCFamily, Bravo, USA, FX, and TBS now have more to choose from, providing us with endless encores of shows we weren't even sure we wanted to relive. Look through the TV listings on any given weekend — holidays are even easier targets — and you'll find more and more marathon programming of everything from Law and Order to Gilmore Girls to The Brady Bunch. Even networks like TBS, which used to be reserved for baseball and infinite repeats of When Harry Met Sally, are cashing in on the trend, with primetime mini marathons of recently departed sitcoms like Friends, Sex and the City, and Everybody Loves Raymond.

You know you've been held captive by those holiday marathons of I Love the 80's on VH1, or those "catching up on what you've missed" Alias marathons on ABCFamily.
All of this block programming might seem useless, especially with so many TV shows available on DVD these days. But come on, admit it. You know you've been held captive by those holiday marathons of I Love the 80's on VH1, or those "catching up on what you've missed" Alias marathons on ABCFamily, or even, gasp, those 7th Heaven cheese-fests that seem to be on every weekend and don't even pretend to have a purpose anymore. Each of these is a slightly different form of rerun marathon, and requires a slightly different mindset in order to fully enjoy the experience. With competition from DVD sales, cable programmers need to be careful and at least pretend like they're being original with how they package their marathons.

The most common type of marathon is the 'I have this show on DVD, yet watching it on TV is so much more convenient' marathon. These are most commonly found on networks such as ABCFamily and Nick at Nite, and usually feature current or recently cancelled shows. For example, this past Mother's Day, ABCFamily ran nine episodes of Gilmore Girls. In a row. Now, I love Gilmore Girls more than anyone has ever loved any TV show. So why wouldn't I just watch the DVDs I own of every single season, so that I don't have to sit through commercials and the horrid editing out of words like "ass" and "stoned"? Because then I wouldn't be privy to ABCFamily's theme day, in which they chose, you guessed it, the best 'mother/daughter' episodes. (Which is, arguably, every episode of Gilmore Girls. but once you're sucked in to the basic cable marathon, you just have to go with it.)

The episodes spanned four seasons and something like six different story arcs, which was a good way to remind fans why we fell in love with the show in the first place. That type of marathon would be hard to accomplish if I had to get up to switch the DVD every 42 minutes. And this way, the decision is already made for you — how many times have you sat in front of your DVD collection, spending just as much as time as it takes to watch the episode, deciding which episode to watch? Plus, those interstitials where the actors say silly, irrelevant things about the episodes are so hard to resist.

Another type of marathon, though not as frequent as the others, is the 'catching up on what you missed' marathon. These often occur when a show is ending, or has been on hiatus for a long time, or is simply languishing in the ratings, and its parent network has some time on a cable affiliate to air the most recent episodes. For example, NBC-owned Bravo recently ran a weekend marathon of the last six episodes of The West Wing, probably hoping to drum up an audience for the upcoming series finale. These marathons are especially successful at luring the casual viewer into a show that is about to end, thus ensuring the continued rise in DVD sales.

It reminds us that even though they stopped coming around so often, people like the Barones, Carrie Bradshaw, and Ross and Rachel are still there for us — to help us through these trying times of CSI rip offs.
Related to the 'catching up on what you missed' marathon is the 'recently departed sitcoms' mini marathon. These are most commonly found on networks like TBS and Nick at Nite, and air during prime time. This type of marathon hopes to remind viewers that before the train wreck that is Joey, we always had our Friends. It reminds us that even though they stopped coming around so often, people like the Barones, Carrie Bradshaw, and Ross and Rachel are still there for us — to help us through these trying times of CSI rip offs. Plus, TBS helps alleviate that fear of the changing TV schedule that comes with every coming season — by letting us know that somewhere in TV Land, Friends is always on, Thursdays at 8.

Perhaps the most dangerously addicting type of marathon is the 'This show is so bad, why am I still watching it' variety. This species of marathon usually features holiday weekends filled with Full House, sleepless nights populated by the Fresh Prince, or Monday afternoons spent with those crazy Camdens. I still have painful memories of spending a Sunday in bed watching MTV, which they should now call 'The Laguna Beach Network'. Shudder. It seems as though the crappier the show, the easier it is to get sucked in to watching hours and hours of it. Perhaps it's because we grew up watching these shows, and therefore know every episode by heart, but would never spend money to buy the DVDs.

I have to admit, there's something comforting about watching hours on end of mediocre entertainment. Or maybe I'm simply too lazy to get up or to change the channel. Whatever the reason, that trip to the beach I had planned for a summer Saturday often gets forgotten about the second that god awful (excuse the pun) "sev-enth heav-en" theme song plays. This type of marathon always leaves me feeling slightly ill. They're like a McDonald's cheeseburger — thoroughly enjoyable while you're consuming it, but clearly a regrettable decision afterwards.

Marathon programming is abundant on basic cable these days, providing an outlet for every type of couch potato. I can plan to go to the beach all I want, but once I hear "the milkman, the paper boy, even TV," for the third time that morning, I know I'm not going anywhere. The TV gods have overtaken me once again, and I know there's no stopping it. Besides, let's face it: if I had really wanted to go outside, I wouldn't have turned on the TV in the first place. Once I'm sitting on the couch with the cushions squished just so, I can't think of a better place to be. Plus, think of it this way: after spending a summer watching Saved by the Bell (Saturdays, 7-10, channel 19 in LA, for those of you keeping track), a dramedy starring Anne Heche is going to start to look like television genius. Until then, though, please don't call me. I'll be watching six hours of Mad About You on Nick at Nice. That Murray is one funny dog.

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