There was a time when newspapers refused to run television listings, because they only saw the medium as competition. But from the 1970s on, newspapers began to take television criticism seriously. They recognized that the medium was transforming politics and culture. Newspapers suddenly cared, and TV criticism took a huge leap forward.
In 1973, Ron Powers of the Chicago Sun-Times became the first television critic to win the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism. Now that paper has no full-time critic. This week, Broadcasting & Cable reports on how many newspapers, big and small, are laying off or offering buyouts to television critics. Faced with declining circulation, plummeting advertising and an aging readership, newspaper publishers are swinging the ax all around.
The dilution of newspaper TV criticism is bad for the medium. It's bad for viewers who now may be without the distinct voice of their local critics, especially those critics who made it part of their job to do hard analysis of how stations in their market performed (or didn't). Newscasters who know a critic is watching them botch the big story of the day, or provide dunderheaded analysis of local election returns, cringe to imagine what the local paper will say. In the long run, that can affect viewership.
With a mushrooming universe of programming, and competition from the Interent, critics have a harder job than ever. Yet, in most cases, it's hard to assess how much influence they have. Theater and restaurant critics can do instant damage or create instant demand, and movie critics might dissuade you from blowing $10 on a bad movie. Television critics, at the very least, can save consumers something just as valuable: time. And because they do exist in a medium with some sense of standards, newspaper critics perform a role unlike some Internet bloggers who hit far below the belt or are unabashed sycophants.
We also suspect, from our visits to the annual Television Critics Association confabs with networks every summer, that many television executives should be grateful for the early warnings of impending doom they've received from critics.
Many series have been retooled based on bad—and sometimes vitriolic—early previews by critics. Just about every critic in the country could have told NBC in 2004 that Father of the Pride was going to be a bust, and that The Office was going to hit big, just the opposite of the way that network seemed to see things. Aaron Barnhart, the thoughtful television critic for The Kansas City Star, calls critics “honest brokers” who really have “intense interest, but no vested interest” in what's on TV. In the kiss-kiss showbiz environment, network executives don't run into people like that all the time. Those critics make a difference about what viewers see.
At the very best, critics with platforms as big as newspapers (and their Websites) still provide can convince readers to watch something they may have missed. Just as important, they can be relentless in castigating networks for inflicting programs like Moment of Truth on the public. There's more television than ever. Its critics are more necessary than ever.