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Public Tuning Out TV Critics

Part 1 of 2



TV critics have been a staple of journalism since television became a prominent part of America’s cultural landscape. In that time, they have come to consider themselves the “gate-keepers” of American popular culture. TV critics’ reviews are greatly influential in determining which programs receive awards like the Emmys. Their words influence which programs viewers watch. Their articles and reviews give prominence and credibility to the programs they like, and mock ones they do not. And when critics ignore programs which do not meet their own standards of “artistic” achievement, many viewers miss out on programs they might enjoy, simply because a critic has chosen not to inform them about it.  In all this, TV critics have wielded a huge influence over the entertainment industry and the average viewer at home. But this influence is increasingly diminishing, and may be coming to an end.


A recent article in Broadcasting & Cable magazine, the weekly “bible” of the electronic media, laments that recently “the ranks of critics have grown noticeably leaner…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.”


One reason for this change is simple economics. As newspapers find it increasingly difficult to compete with “new media” like the Internet, they are forced to divest themselves of assets – including personnel. Another reason is the Internet itself. While some “hard news” functions are arguably performed more efficiently by traditional outlets like newspapers, in areas like film and television criticism the Internet offers a far wider selection of options from a much broader variety of viewpoints, while simultaneously making possible more specialized commentary. For specialized interests, the Internet provides specifically targeted criticism: a reader interested only in the horror films of Val Lewton, Turkish adventure movies or Japanese animation produced from 1965-1970 can be assured that there are websites devoted exclusively to such interests. And in an era when literally anyone with an Internet connection has the capability to contribute their opinion to an existing bulletin board or blog, or even begin their own, the utility of professional “critics” is dubious…particularly when such critics’ sensibilities so often ill accord with those of the viewing public they address and supposedly represent.


For while it was not mentioned in Broadcasting & Cable‘s article, one other factor suggests itself as a reason for the rapid erosion of TV critics’ prominence: the critics’ failure to reflect the sensibility of most Americans who watch TV. When, time after time, viewers and parents follow a critic’s advice and turn on a program, only to find it offensive and repugnant, in very short order such viewers will stop listening…and the critics’ influence, importance, and value to their employers will correspondingly diminish.

This column has previously discussed the overwhelming demand for family-friendly TV programming safe for children. Yet those who dare to suggest that television ought to feature more family fare are subjected to endless calumny by TV’s supposed critics --   “supposed” because, while the word “critic” implies critical faculties, these individuals rarely exhibit such, instead heaping praise on the most extreme examples of graphic and gratuitous gore, sex and profanity. Yet these critics, rather than responding to the obvious wishes and desires of their readers, persist in celebrating only the most disturbing programs on TV. And despite the fact that such critics work for outlets across the country, they share a nearly identical mind-set…one which rarely agrees with that of the viewers and readers in their local area.


“There is nothing more local than television. 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],” says Dave Walker, TV critic for the New Orleans Times-Picayune and President of the Television Critics Association, in the B&C article. Yet the same critics who make this argument are generally the first ones to rail against the notion of “community standards,” which broadcast stations are supposed to take into account when considering whether network programs are appropriate for audiences in their local area. Enraptured by the very programs they are supposed to be analyzing, most TV critics apparently believe that if a program is all the rage in Manhattan, that it therefore must (or should) be one in Toledo, Salt Lake City, Minneapolis and Mobile.  They angrily condemn local stations which opt not to air such shows, and condemn all who object to offensive programming as “Puritans” out to trample “First Amendment rights” by “censoring” programming which the critics (and often, only the critics) enjoy. 


Naturally, the critics themselves do not see things this way. TV critics “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,” claims Diane Werts, a TV critic who writes for Newsday, TelevisionWithoutPity.com and TVWorthWatching.com, in the B&C article.


This statement is so ludicrous as to be laughable. Far from representing “different sensibilities,” or demonstrating a “diversity of cultural perspectives and social values,” the overwhelming majority of TV critics consistently march in mental lockstep with the very entertainment industry they are supposedly paid to critique. The values of the entertainment industry are those of most TV critics, who rather than informing the public about the threat posed to their children by today’s entertainment, and advocating on behalf of their readers’ preferences, instead willingly act as shills for Hollywood. “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,” notes Broadcasting & Cable.  


Most likely, this happens because critics enjoy considering themselves superior to the supposedly ignorant masses. Look again at Diane Werts’ assessment: according to Werts, TV critics know “what’s fresh, smart, [and] ground-breaking.”  Implicit in this is the assumption that the average member of the public does not.


That such an assumption is ill-founded – and that professional critics, in their negativity and desire for Hollywood’s approval, poorly serve the average Americans who make up their audience – will be demonstrated in the next TV Trends.


"Critics are academic types who want to prove how smart they are…[and who] tend to be social misfits with extraordinary powers of observation. Being misfits, they tend to bash sentimental movies because [those movies] remind them of a loving, nurturing world to which they do not belong." -- Tom O'Neil, movie columnist for theenvelope.com (Washington Times, August 22, 2007)


TV Trends: This column was compiled from reports by the Parents Television Council’s Analysis staff.


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