If, like me, you're not a Sky customer, the fact that you didn't have access to Sky Atlantic never used to be an issue. Yes, it's home to Game of Thrones and Mad Men, but those are shows best hoovered up in weekend-long, box-set binges, not dripped out one measly episode at a time. And what else does the channel have to offer? Not much, unless you have such a preoccupation with Ann Widdecombe that you'd happily pay to see her present a gameshow called Cleverdicks. For those of us with Virgin, BT or Freeview, the lack of Sky Atlantic wasn't exactly a big deal.

But that might be changing. By debuting Kathy Burke's Walking and Talking, Armando Iannucci's Veep and a brand new Alan Partridge special all on the same night this week, it's clear the channel has begun to flex its muscles. For possibly the first time since its launch, people without Sky Atlantic are starting to grumble.

A lot of this grumbling, it's fair to say, occurred beneath the Guardian's review of Alan Partridge: Welcome to the Places of My Life. Commenters found themselves pitched into a running battle about the increasingly two-tier state of television, with yeastinfection summing up the general mood: "I am really pissed off that I didn't get to see Veep, or Partridge. I couldn't care less if Coogan/Iannucci are hypocrites for selling out to Murdoch – I am angry that they have sold out their fans. Who the fuck has Sky Atlantic?"

The truth is that, because it comes bundled free with every basic Sky package, around 10 million households have Sky Atlantic. Not that you'd necessarily know that from its viewing figures. For all the hype, Alan Partridge's Places of My Life was only seen by 216,000 people on Monday night – almost 20 times fewer than those who watched ITV's dreadful documentary Strictly Kosher at the same time. Less than half of Partridge's audience stuck around for Veep, and half again for Kathy Burke's show, which followed. On Sky Atlantic, Mad Men gets less than a third of the viewers it had on BBC4. They might be high-profile, but these shows aren't really watercooler television.

Still, the channel's increasingly enviable lineup puts us poor saps without a subscription in a quandary. We want to watch all the premium American drama and exclusive British comedy it has to offer but, for whatever reason – maybe price, maybe principle – we don't want to pay. What are we to do?

Well, Virgin customers should brace themselves, because Sky1 is repeating Partridge on Friday. But this won't happen often, nor does it help anyone with Freeview. Then there is illegal streaming to consider, which should be ruled out on the lines of basic morality. This leaves us with two options: wait until the inevitable DVD release, or just pretend the channel doesn't exist.

The latter is only going to get more difficult. Soon there will be Aaron Sorkin's The Newsroom (OK, it got panned; but you'd still like a look at episode one), the acclaimed Girls, Awake (Jason Isaacs as a detective living in two parallel realities), House of Lies, season two of The Borgias and a raft of new British commissions. These last will be the real test, including as they do Russell Brand's new topical comedy show, Jack Dee's new entertainment show, Julia Davis's new black comedy and Adam Buxton's TV version of Bug. The fact that people are seriously considering purchasing a subscription just to watch Bug, in which a bearded man essentially reads out a succession of misspelled YouTube comments in a funny voice for half an hour, says a lot about the state of comedy elsewhere. In our darkest moments, we can all admit to looking at Sky Atlantic's lineup and feeling our resolve slip.

But no. We must be strong. We must not bow to temptation this easily. We might not have Sky Atlantic, but we're better people for it. And it's not as if Freeview doesn't have highlights. Sure, you've got Alan Partridge – but we've got World's Wildest Police Videos. And we're much less likely to be ambushed by an on-screen Ann Widdecombe, so who's the real winner?

• This article was amended on 29 June 2012 because the original said around 10 million people have Sky Atlantic, rather than around 10 million households. This has been corrected.


Stuart Heritage

The GuardianTramp

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