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COVER STORY: The Disappearing TV Critic

The World of Television Choices -- What to Watch and How to Watch It -- Keeps Growing. But No Matter: As the Newspaper Industry Continues to Shrink, TV Critics Are the Ones Getting Squeezed Out. 4/06/2008 06:04:00 PM Eastern

The fraternity of the nation’s television critics at daily newspapers was once a thriving milieu, dominated by a great diversity of committed voices. The critics’ opinions were sought, revered -- in many cases, even feared -- and blurbed in network on-air promos.

disappearing TV critics

That reality has changed drastically of late as the ranks of critics have grown noticeably leaner. Caught in the financial turmoil roiling the newspaper industry, they have become a beleaguered lot, a growing part of the collateral damage of the digital revolution.

In the past two years, more than one-dozen longtime critics at major-market dailies -- including the Dallas Morning News, Seattle-Post Intelligencer, New York Newsday, New York Daily News and Houston Chronicle -- have been either let go, shunted to different beats or been forced to take the ubiquitous buyout proffered by bean-counting corporate bosses.

“The fact that newspapers are giving up this role as navigators over this most pervasive of mediums, it’s totally weird to me,” said Dave Walker, president of the Television Critics Association and critic at the New Orleans Times-Picayune.

“If you’re in the foxhole and the bodies are falling all around you,” lamented a mid-market television critic who still has a job, “you can’t help but flirt with the idea that somewhere out there, there’s a bullet with your name on it.”

The fate of the nation’s television critics mirrors that of arts and entertainment critics in general. One might have been forgiven for thinking that TV critics would be, if not impervious to the Darwinian forces of a contracting landscape, at least less likely to go the way of Betamax. But in the rapacious environment of publicly traded media companies -- Tribune, McClatchy, Gannett -- where Wall Street demands ever-increasing returns, arts staffs are deemed expendable.

Total print advertising revenue declined 9.4% to $42 billion from 2006 to 2007, according to the Newspaper Association of America, representing the steepest such decline since 1950. Internet ad revenue, which accounted for less than 8% of total newspaper ad revenue in 2007, increased 18.8% last year to $3.2 billion compared with more than 31% the previous two years. As advertising has decreased, the news hole -- the amount of space allocated for actual articles -- has followed.

Several major-market dailies have jettisoned their weekly print guides in favor of online listings. “Newspapers are not our primary business anymore,” said Jay Fehnel, vice president of entertainment products at Tribune Media Services. The listings giant has seen its interactive online and on-screen guides for satellite-TV providers and digital-video-recorder service TiVo surpass its print business.

A GRADUAL DECLINE

This is only the latest spate of declining statistics in a newspaper industry that has been hemorrhaging jobs for nearly two decades. Since 1990, one-quarter of the newspaper work force has disappeared, according the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The downward spiral is projected to continue.

The decline of the TV critic comes at a time when the television landscape is more divergent than ever, with thousands of niche cable and satellite channels. The proliferation of online and portable devices notwithstanding, Americans are actually watching more television, not less. According to Nielsen Media Research, we spend four hours and 47 minutes a day in front of our sets, up from four-and-one-half hours a year ago.

“There are very few people who don’t watch television,” said Quentin Schaffer, executive VP of corporate communications at HBO. “I don’t know how a newspaper makes the argument that critics aren’t pulling their weight.”

Many HBO programs, including The Wire and Tell Me You Love Me, which have not drawn large audiences, have nevertheless been the recipient of much praise from critics. For HBO, Schaffer added, “people probably would have missed some of this stuff. So for us, reviews are really an important way to get the word out.”

The relationship between the nation’s TV critics and the networks whose product they critique has been long symbiotic, if not always harmonious. But networks nevertheless rely on critics to create awareness and remind viewers that a show is premiering. And with the majority of critics now also serving as reporters and bloggers, there would seem to be an even greater desire to tap into their skills.

“It does change the landscape to lose key reporters who have knowledge and perspective about the way the business works,” said Rebecca Marks, executive VP of publicity at NBC Universal.

For public-relations executives at networks whose relationships with many critics stretch back decades, knowing where to put their marketing energy has always been priceless. “Every reporter has a certain passion,” Marks added.

While there are myriad options for viewers looking for television commentary online in the form of fan sites and community forums, the anonymous nature of many blogs and the inherent snarkiness of the genre make some in the industry uneasy. Many network executives, who may have once questioned the motives of some reviewers, are even more concerned about the blogosphere.

“There’s no accountability,” one said. “That’s the difference between some, not all, bloggers and a seasoned journalist. The blogging community has no rules.”

But networks are increasingly reaching out to Web sites and a small cadre of bloggers. And many companies have hired publicists whose specialty is navigating the blogosphere.

“Television publicity these days is much more about finding ways to spread messages virally,” said Chris Ender, senior VP of communications at CBS.

“You can virtually get to the audience,” another network executive added. “It used to be that everybody would read [a review] in the local paper. But there are just so many outlets now with the Internet and fewer and fewer people are reading papers. So the question becomes, how many people are actually getting their information from critics?”

To that end, CBS organized a New Adventures of Old Christine junket for mommy bloggers and writers at parenting sites. ABC also targeted those groups when introducing pregnancy dramedy Notes from the Underbelly. HBO focused on political sites including The Huffington Post and Instapundit.com when launching its seven-part John Adams miniseries and expects even more interest from political bloggers for Recount, its upcoming film about the 2000 presidential election.

Criticism by community -- or the “triumph of the amateurs,” as one TV critic describes the proliferation of online user reviews -- is a function of both the technology that allows anyone to get in on the critic act and a medium where quick bites of information are favored. The popularity of criticism in the form of the episode recap, where brevity and attitude are highly prized, only underscores the trend away from criticism as intellectual deconstruction. And why give an expert assessment when a simple “A” grade will do?

“One reason our site has been so successful is that we’re not quote-unquote critics,” said Dan Manu, site director of TelevisionWithoutPity.com. “We’re not talking about TV from an academic point of view.”

Started in 2002 by Tara Ariano and Sarah D. Bunting, who’d met in a Beverly Hills 90210 chat room, TWoP quickly established itself as a go-to destination for the TV-obsessed and last year was snapped up by Bravo. (Neither Ariano nor Bunting remains affiliated with TWoP.)

While traditional media titles -- from TV Guide and People to Entertainment Weekly and Tribune-owned Zap2it -- have well accommodated their products for the Web, such transitional success remains elusive for many newspapers. Some papers, including the Arizona Republic and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, have opted for the Tower of Babel approach, aggregating reader opinions in lieu of authoritative criticism.

For the most part, traditional media companies are doing their best to adapt. But print is simply not as nimble as purely digital competitors. And it may be something in the collective DNA, but many old-school journalists seem to lack the snark gene that has propelled Gawker-level bloggers to high-gloss infamy.

OLD VS. NEW

Nowhere is the clash of old and new media more apparent than at the semi-annual TCA conference in Los Angeles, a three-week media tour where networks trot out stars, writers and producers and critics dutifully record the publicity spiel.

The January meeting was canceled due to the Writers Guild of America strike. The July session is proceeding as scheduled and, so far, attendance is on par with previous tours. And while the number of members representing newspapers has declined, Web-based journalists, though still a fraction of the TCA membership, are on the rise.

“We’ve credentialed more online-only outlets over the years and get swamped by applicants who don’t get in,” Walker said.

At dozens of press sessions in cavernous hotel ballrooms where the air conditioning is set at meat-locker temperatures, the dwindling pool of traditional critics has been supplemented by young TV and celebrity bloggers. Network executives and critics observe that the bloggers don’t participate in the question-and-answer sessions.

“They think it’s beneath them,” a veteran newspaper critic complained. “If we weren’t sitting there asking questions, what would they write about?”

Blogs -- whether about TV, politics or fashion -- are niche-oriented. Navigating a universe of 500 channels, not to mention the burgeoning terrain of mobile and broadband content, to answer the daily refrain of “What’s on?” becomes potentially that much more difficult without those who are paid to watch everything (or as much as humanly possible) and separate the wheat from the chaff.

“I feel like newspapers have lost a lot of their personality, especially with the departure over the years of some high-profile critics,” Ender said.

Newspaper executives like to stress “localism” as the key to survival. But many in the industry expect the pool of critics to continue to narrow until there are only a handful of nationally syndicated columnists left.

“There is nothing more local than television,” Walker said. “I suppose three or four reviewers could handle the critiquing duties for the whole country. But what that surrenders is localizing all of that national [content]. Television is one of the fields that newspapers have traditionally covered that transcends the demographic caricature of newspaper readers,” he added, citing the barrage of coverage of Disney Channel’s High School Musical franchise.

“I would bet that story that day in a lot of newspapers was not only the best-read by total numbers of readers, but probably the only thing read by 15-year-olds,” Walker said. “Most people who have done this job at newspapers have had to answer to an incredibly broad audience.”

As newspapers continue to squeeze out the voices that make their product distinctive, ultimately it is the viewing public that is left in the dark.

(Editor’s note: B&C reporter Marisa Guthrie is a member of the TCA.)

THE CRITICS TALK BACK

I had been the TV critic for the Dallas Morning News since June 1980. Writing about the stuff piped into America’s living rooms -- and now onto their cell phones -- proved to be loads of fun.

But covering the local-TV-news operations was even more satisfying and also hit considerably closer to home. That part of the beat ended in February 2000 when Belo, parent company of the News, decided to ban commentary or enterprise reporting on the locals. The corporation, longtime owner of ABC affiliate WFAA Dallas, suddenly came to the conclusion that its “synergistic” cross-planning alliance with the station presented a conflict of interest.

A subsequent decision by the newspaper to use mostly wire copy for national TV coverage convinced me that my future prospects were dimming fast. Ergo, the birth of UncleBarky.com, a “reinvention” in the minds of some but really a return to the basics of independent reporting and criticism.

-- Ed Bark

Bark founded and writes for UncleBarky.com.

Let them read wire.

That feels like the attitude of many large daily newspapers these days, where TV critics have been laid off, bought out or have otherwise exited the beat (including, last week, me -- going free-lance from New York’s Newsday).

The critic’s immediate replacement, in many newspapers’ frantic rush to cut costs, seems to be reviews/features picked up from a wire service. The immediate result for readers? One fewer consistent opinion to trust, one fewer familiar byline to look forward to -- and, most important, one fewer point of connection between the newspaper and its community.

Just as the television medium mushrooms, newspapers are dispensing with a trained-eye filter to alert readers to what’s fresh, smart, ground-breaking or just plain strange enough to be engaging. And each critic brings a different sensibility, lending the TV Zeitgeist a diversity of cultural perspectives and social values, along with aesthetic appreciation.

Wire services, on the other hand, need to fill a national middle-ground, writing mostly about shows people have already heard of, in the most mainstream way.

-- Diane Werts

Werts is a freelance writer for Newsday, TelevisionWithoutPity.com and TVWorthWatching.com.

I left my paper at the end of January. The fact that I jumped out ahead of the bullet and landed a job with a reputable Internet company makes me feel incredibly fortunate and hopeful for others leaving the beat, whether by choice or by force.

Some were shocked at my decision, but whenever a paper decides to tighten its belt, critics are among the first to feel the pinch. Newspaper management appears to think of critics as gaudy accessories -- in their view, and in the view of some readers, they get paid to watch and write about TV.

An ever-expanding universe of television content means readers need seasoned critics -- people who are equal parts fan, historian and gimlet-eyed cynic -- more than ever. Think about where TV is going, and now imagine Metacritic.com, and the wide range of reviews and opinion available even a month or two ago, reduced to five voices. This is the direction in which we’re heading.

-- Melanie McFarland

McFarland is the former TV critic for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

With year-round schedules and ever-expanding channel rosters, one would think the need for television coverage in newspapers would similarly expand, not contract.

But TV critics are among the endangered species as papers decline in a death spiral swirling faster than anyone expected. Even if the industry navigates its last-minute shift to online services, there still will be a need to get its content from somewhere.

I survived the latest round of buyouts and layoffs at the Hartford Courant this year. I knew the things were coming and was even tempted by the offer, but decisions had to be made too quickly -- there wasn’t exactly another newspaper expanding its staff elsewhere. Besides my own lack of imagination to reinvent a career (online fortunetelling was considered and scotched), there were the readers to think of. No really, I'm not being sarcastic. I was raised at a time when you were supposed to consider such things. Not stockholders; readers. Makes me sound like I also await the return of vaudeville.

I decided to stay.

But nobody’s guaranteed security even if they decline the generous offers to leave. Too many of my TV colleagues, including the most respected names in the field, have been reassigned to more nebulous “pop-culture” beats or worse, far-flung local news bureaus where they often began their careers.

TV writers lucky enough to remain at their beat must also deal with the growing minefield of covering local stations owned by same conglomerate that signs our checks, causing publishers to be a much more intrusive in coverage than they had been. But how do such things even look to readers?

And what happens to TV coverage? Can it all be outsourced to wire services? Will there just be one prevailing opinion on quality of TV shows? Or should we just rely on network flaks to provide the blurbs?

-- Roger Catlin

Catlin is the television critic at the Hartford Courant.

If this business of newspapers coldly jettisoning veteran critics is indeed as recent and widespread as it seems, the canary in the coal mine -- among TV critics, at least -- was Ed Bark of the Dallas Morning News. He was the first nationally respected, institutionally tenured television critic to part ways with his paper on less than enviable terms, and the first to bounce back by launching his own journalistically and critically credible Web site.

Not long after, Bark returned to the TCA press tour, representing his new self-started, self-titled Web site. At a PBS press conference for a Sting music special, critics were asked to identify themselves and their affiliation before asking their question. Bark, in memorably sheepish tones, complied by saying, “Ed Bark, UncleBarky.com.” Even Sting smiled at that one -- and I remember thinking, “If that ever happens to me, and I start a Web site, don’t call it UncleDavey.com.”

Well, surprise, surprise. It did happen to me -- the end of my 14-year association with the New York Daily News under terms I characterize as a “reverse Godfather” (they made me an offer I couldn’t accept). And even more surprisingly, I did indeed find myself trying to prolong my TV critic career by launching a Web site: TVWorthWatching.com.

David Bianculli is the founder of TVWorthWatching.com and lead blogger on
Broadcasting & Cable’s
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