How China is making me into a better person (sort of)

The Australian Open is underway right now; on TV I just watched Andy Roddick beat Mario Ancic in a dramatic five-set match.

In my US-based phases of life, my view on the Aussie Open was: who cares? I love tennis, but the matches happened while I was sleeping, and I can't see the point of watching even the greatest match on TV if I already know how it turned out. (Seeing top-tier tennis players perform in person is completely different. There's still the element of suspense, but that's a detail. Even watching Andre Agassi or Pete Sampras warm up, as I've done from the side of practice courts, is utterly riveting, as you see how their reflexes, power, speed, and concentration differ from those of normal human beings. As a teenager I sat a few yards away from Arthur Ashe as he played an exhibition match on my high school courts. I don't think I took my eyes off him.)

The newly-fascinating Australian Open made me realize: most of the reason to see anything on TV, at least for me, is the real-time uncertainty about what will happen next.

What, over the years, have I felt I had to see on TV? Big-deal live events: major speeches, high-pressure press conferences, high-stakes Congressional hearings, breaking news like the OJ Simpson verdict. One or two reality shows I have been suckered into, like the first-season Survivor. SNL and The Daily Show, before we had TiVo. And of course: sports.

Suppose a big match at Wimbledon is on -- or the US Open, the Olympics, the World Series, the Final Four, the NFL playoffs, even a dramatic final round of a sport I normally don't follow, like the Masters in golf.... in fact, any competition happening right now. When I know that such a contest is underway, I feel a powerful pull from the TV to stay and see how it all turns out. While it's happening, I am engrossed. What a shot! It's fourth and goal, what will they do? When it's over, I think: Hmm, where did that last hour go?

I rarely have to wonder any longer. The TV available to me in China offers essentially nothing I have the slightest desire to watch in real time. If I really loved soccer, it might be different -- or ping pong, or snooker, or badminton, or women's volleyball. Sports like that are constantly on. Last weekend 13 different soccer matches were available on one day, from (something like) Phillipines-v-Laos in the ASEAN cup to (something like) Wigan-v- Manchester United in England. Sometimes we get cricket too. But not the sports I was habituated early to care about watching -- NFL football, baseball, tennis, and so on, the Aussie Open being an exception. And the big-deal American events I was used to watching are either not broadcast at all or shown at 3am local time. (As for high-pressure press conferences or high-stakes hearings for the Chinese government -- come on.) So now I have all these new, "found" hours I can use more richly and productively. At least in theory.

For this gift of time, I must thank the programmers of Chinese TV. But tomorrow morning I'll check to see whether they're making good their promise to show the Colts-Patriots game, live.