If I had to sum up why I still have, and will probably always have, some kind of paid subscription TV service, whether cable or satellite, it would be this: channel surfing.
I like flipping to the last half of a Rizzoli & Isles or the first half of an original recipe Law & Order and not even having to intentionally pick a show to watch.
So perhaps I could edit down "channel surfing" to simply "laziness."
The joy of this was brought home to me recently, when a one-two punch of winter cooties had me sick in bed for several days. I caught a few hours of a Miss Congeniality marathon (WE TV, I believe) and a few hours of an Elf loop (Starz, maybe). I enjoyed reruns of Frasier (Lifetime) and Roseanne (WE again). And this odd soup of shows and stations I never watch but enjoyed when I needed them got me thinking about all the parts of the cable package (Comcast, in my case) that I pay for but don't use. My regulars probably make up a couple dozen stations. So what else am I paying for?
I tend to think of "OnDemand" as the place I find the most recent The Walking Dead but there is, of course, more going on.
• TV shows: Here's a navigation trick for catching up on popular series: you can skip a few steps in the search for, say, the latest The Good Wife by clicking on "Just Aired" and series aired in the last day or two will appear there.
• It's not TV, it's HBO (or Showtime or ...): Premium networks tend to give you entire seasons or even entire series on OnDemand. You can also get a taste of premium shows on networks you don't have subscriptions to under the "premium free sample" category. You can check out the first episode of Ray Donovan or White Queen and see if their corresponding networks (Showtime and Starz, respectively) are worth the addition to your bill.
• Movies: In addition to the new-to-DVD movies — movies that came out in theaters six months (give or take) ago, a big convenience of OnDemand is that you can find a mix of recent releases and older movies in the "movie collections" category, which recently included collections such as "Fast & Furious" and "Yuletide Comedies." Under "Indies & Foreign," films are also presented by studio, allowing you to see what Focus Features or The Weinstein Company has available.
• In theaters now: OnDemand offers a few movies (69 at this writing) labeled "In Theaters." These are indie movies — often films that wouldn't appear at any theater anywhere near you. Current offerings include Hours (a movie released in late October starring Paul Walker), Open Grave (a just released horror film starring Sharlto Copley) and Only God Forgives (Kristin Scott Thomas and Ryan Gosling, released in late May).
• Trailers: Under the "Trailers & Reviews" section, you can find trailers of movies in theaters now (and, helpfully, some of the indies in the "in theaters" section) and upcoming movies.
• Ratings advice: Also under the "Trailers & Reviews" section is "Reviews for Parents," an offering of quick but helpful video clips (about three minutes each) reviewing movies in theaters. The content is provided by Commonsense.org and the reviews for movies I've seen were, I felt, pretty on the money: Anchorman 2 was said to be iffy for kids aged 14 and under; Ender's Game was rated OK for kids 12 and up, and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire was rated iffy for under 13. The reviews explain the reasoning for this and are actually way more helpful than the blanket "rated PG-13 for language and violence" that the MPAA offers.
• Government & schools: I'm probably one of the first people to ever click on the "Searchlight" section. Here, you'll find curiosities such as three-minute explainer segments called "Your Vote" that take subjects like exit polls or primaries. There is also a section called "Schools on Demand" that offers short videos touring a variety of colleges and universities (local schools, like Dartmouth, Emerson and Boston colleges, as well as schools from across the country).
• International programing: In addition to a pretty wide selection of Spanish language TV shows and movies, there are a variety of Asian TV shows and movies (a category that includes American movies with Asian actors, such as A Very Harold & Kumar Christmas), Eurocinema, BBC World News programs and news programs from Al Jazeera America.
And now, the remote
Venture beyond the regulars and there's a lot of interesting programming to be found in the lineup's 100+ channels as well.
• Tout est possible: We all know about Telemundo and Univision, but did you know about "Tele," which offers French Canadian programming? This station, CKSH-9 officially, airs on channel 95 on my lineup (it varies by town; check Comcast.com for your town's lineup) and features French language shows.
• News from around the world: In addition to the standard 24-hour news network — Fox News, MSNBC and, for people who don't like to pick sides, CNN — there is BBC World (190), which offers 24 hours of news and news programming with a fancy accent. The aforementioned Al Jazeera takes over Current TV's slot (254) and there are three C-SPANs to choose from, including C-SPAN 3, which becomes American History TV on weekends.
• Kids TV: I was aware of the Nickelodeon/Disney/PBS outlets for children's programming, but look deep into the wilds of cable and you find Nicktoons (220), The Hub (221), Disney XD (222), Nick Jr. (223), Teen Nick (224) and Baby's First TV America, where, one recent afternoon, I watched a few minutes of a Spanish-language-teaching show called Hola Bebe (there was a song about hands; if you're looking to feel good about the little you remember from high school Spanish, head to channel 193).
• History! No, actual history: Ever since History, the network, became more about Swamp People and Pawn Stars, people have had to look elsewhere for their random hour-long documentaries about World War II and John F. Kennedy. Enter Smithsonian Channel (193), where a recent lineup included "The Teacher Who Defied Hitler," "Kennedy's Suicide Bomber," "America's Yellowstone, " and "Space Voyages: The Moon and Beyond."
• Remember the '80s and '90s: Channels that appear to be devoted to movies also prove to be a conduit for 20- and 30-year-old TV. Thusly, I found: Murder, She Wrote and Matlock (Hallmark Movie Channel); Magnum P.I. and Murphy Brown (Encore Love); Living Single and A Different World (TV One); Roseanne and Will & Grace (WE TV), and The Golden Girls and Home Improvement (Hallmark Channel).
• Movies, of varying subjects and quality: On some of those same channels (and channels surrounding them), there were movies slotted for, within the 24 hours of my search: Philadelphia (Sundance Channel), Guilty As Sin (a 1993 Sidney Lumet movie starring Don Johnson; Flix), Spartacus (the 1960 movie, Encore Action); Starship Troopers (Encore Suspense), An Education (indieplex); Hairspray (the 1988 original, retroplex) and Have Gun, Will Travel (Encore Westerns).
• Cable farm teams: Food Network, HGTV and History also have little sister stations — Cooking Channel (239), DIY (240) and H2 (242), respectively. There are also of course assorted Discovery-s (Discovery Fit and Health, 230) and A&E (bio, for example, 243) off-shoots.
• Music: If you're old enough to have ever complained about MTV not running music videos, your might want to check out MTV Hits, VH1 Soul and CMT Pure Country, all of which are all videos (or mostly videos) all the time. VH1 Classic mixes in some Saturday Night Live reruns and some music documentaries; MTV2 has a fair amount of non-music programming including reruns of Saved by the Bell and The Wayans Brothers.
• Even more music: Like satellite radio, the 500s offer stations featuring a pretty wide aray of musical subgenres (Throwback Jamz, Toddler Tunes, Soundscapes). If you're over 30 and want to feel old, turn to Classic Alternative (517) and hear music you'd swear just came out five years ago (put a "1" in front of that "5" and you're still about 4 years off).
• Weather at 10 p.m.: On my line-up, WMUR's MeTV is at 292, where you can find TV from the 1950s and 1960s and a nightly 30-minute news broadcast at 10 p.m.
As seen in the January 9th, 2014 issue of The Hippo