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Showroulette: Or, How to Make Old TV Shows Fun — and Profitable — on the Web

The following essay by Tim Carmody originally appeared on Snarkmarket, of which he is one of the editors; we thought it was really neat, so we are reprinting it here in its entirety with his permission. You can check out his other writing there, at, and on Twitter.

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  • Instead of endlessly moaning about the supposed lack of serendipity on the Internet, why can’t we try new ways to automate it?


  • When I started college, you could watch Simpsons reruns for 90 min­utes straight. The dorms picked up two different Fox channels that syn­dicated the show; one played it at 6 and 7, the other at 6 and 6:30. So if you were watching at 6, you could also pick which episode you wanted to watch. Some times, if both weren’t that interesting, or if you’d seen them recently, we’d just cut out for dinner and pick up the later episode. Usually, that wasn’t a problem; The Simpsons had been on for nine seasons, and nearly every episode was a classic.
  • If The Simpsons didn’t work, you could watch Law & Order on A&E. Or Bravo. Or TNT. Or Lifetime. I may be misre membering all of the channels the show was on at once, but there’s a reason why people (like, say, writers on The Simp sons) would joke about watching 14 straight hours of Law & Order on basic cable. The show was on a lot. And again, it hadn’t been on for twenty years with mul ti ple spin offs yet. Not every episode was great, but every episode was classic Law & Order, usually better casual dramatic entertainment than 90% of what was on then, let alone now.
  • If neither The Simpsons nor Law & Order were available, you could always watch The Shawshank Redemption. ALWAYS. I’ve seen this movie at least fifty times; I’ve probably seen it from-the-beginning, not-edited-for-TV once or twice.
  • Have you ever noticed what PBS does during pledge season, at least every other year? They play Ken Burns’s The Civil War. Or some other crazy-ass, awesome, twenty-year-old documentary or costume drama series. And I watch it. Randomly, in pieces, over and over again.


  • When people talk about serendipity, they’re not always talking about discovering some thing that’s totally brand-new. In fact, I’d hazard that they’re USUALLY talking about randomly unearthing some thing that’s comforting and familiar.
  • This is ten times more true with television.
  • But it’s true in other media, too. People like being able to browse through their own physcal book and music collections, because you never know what might suddenly force itself upon you. The real anti-serendipitous edge to social networks like Facebook isn’t that they don’t introduce us to any one new; it’s that they eliminate the unex­pected meeting-up with a friend or former class mate. You don’t get to catch up because you’ve never fully lost touch.


  • You actually can’t watch really old episodes of The Simpsons or Law & Order online. They have the new shows on Hulu and and what not, but the syndication is a completely different deal. This sad­dens me.
  • Watching a syndicated Simpsons or Law & Order rerun isn’t actually random. It’s chance, which is different. Why not make it actually random?
  • This is Showroulette. You pick a show — let’s say that every show’s gotta have enough episodes to be in syndication, and only the backlist shows are available. Save the new ones for your running-show web site — and you get a random episode.
  • This is the genius part, at least for me. Say you don’t like the episode you got. (I mean, some times Law & Order kinda stunk.) You can change it out for a different show, also picked at random. But every time you switch, you’ve got to watch an ad.
  • There are ads for the act breaks, too. Here, though, you can switch to a different episode without starting over — kinda like flipping the channel.

Come on! Tell me you wouldn’t try this! Tell me that 10% of you wouldn’t become obsessed with it.

Tell me there’s a better way to sell ads for older shows in syndication. Tell me there’s a bet ter way to make a little more money off of long-running TV series without cannibalizing DVD sales. Tell me why this wouldn’t actually be better for most casual TV-watching (i.e., 90% of TV-watching) than any other online TV.

Tell me it wouldn’t be better to spin to a random episode of Soap or Hill Street Blues or Star Trek or The Bernie Mac Show than some random dude or chick or cat who might not even want to chat with you.

But mostly I want you to tell me ways to make this idea better. Or bigger. Or, just, more.

Tim Carmody is a postdoctoral fellow in the Critical Writing Program at the University of Pennsylvania, where he also received his PhD in Comparative Literature and Literary Theory. He is the creator of and one of the editors of Snarkmarket, where you can check out his other writings.

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