If you’re like me and have to work on Sunday nights, don’t sweat it. You can still see whether those crazy housewives burn down any more houses every day of the week, thanks to a new policy that both ABC and NBC have instituted, loading the latest episodes of their hottest shows onto the web for anyone to access at any time. Conveniently programmed so that you don’t need any additional software or downloads to watch the episodes, each are commercial-free except for a few 30-second Internet advertisements.

For those of us unfortunate enough to live without the wonders of Tivo, this new feature is great for nights when you just can’t watch Matthew Perry spout off some more one-liners – either because we’re studying for exams, writing last-minute papers or just beer-ponging at the neighbor’s place.

If you simply can’t be there for must-see TV, clicking a few icons and watching the latest episode of your favorite TV show in the middle of that boring lecture is the best thing since television shows starting putting out DVDs.

So what does this mean for TV? Well, for one thing, it means that TV ratings aren’t limited to their real-time audiences anymore. It also means that TV shows on these major networks cursed with killer time slots might have a chance to put up a decent showing instead of falling victim to a TV audience unwilling to switch their bowling leagues simply to accommodate the crazy castaways of “Lost.” Cliff hangers aside, some viewers – maybe they work at night, or have conflicting show times in their households – now have the option of watching at their leisure. And it’s free. Did I mention that it’s free?

These new options that are springing up everywhere, like Pegasus out of Medusa’s sadly severed head, make it incredible easy for anyone to watch the most talked-about shows of the season without even owning a TV. Headphones? Access to the Fishbowl? Knock yourself out.

The Internet is bringing new test audiences to the studios every day – like “No One’s Watching,” a WB pilot once though doomed until a segment of it appeared on YouTube and was viewed hundreds of thousands of times by Web surfers.

Don’t think, though, that this new option is being offered or can be used as an alternative to buying the season DVDs. Those who desire their own copy will still have to purchase episodes for $1.99 from iTunes. NBC and ABC know enough about where their bread is being buttered to keep the feature limited to only the latest episodes, perfectly tailored to keep viewers craving that day-long marathon of all the episodes of “24.” But they’re also savvy enough to have subtly used the Internet to both broaden the audience that their shows are reaching and provide a quick go-to viewing that will help prevent their copyrighted material from appearing on video sites like YouTube. Both an offense and a defense all packaged together in a 48 minute peek into the lives of Wisteria Lane’s lovers.

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