Thursday, June 12, 2008

The PTC And The “Disappearing” TV Critic

A couple of weeks ago the PTC's TV Trends column began looking at the "disappearing" TV critic. I don't agree with much of what they say in these articles and not because I regard myself as true TV critic. I am not. What I am is a consumer both of television and television criticism.

It never surprises me when the PTC observes a trend and not only puts its own spin on it but does so in such a way that is not just totally illogical but is based on no actual facts beyond what the writer of the piece decides is "the truth." Take for instance this week's TV Trends Column (which is actually the first part of a two parter). I won't give you the title just yet, because it needs some set-up from the original source material. That was a cover article in Broadcast & Cable called The Disappearing TV Critic. Specifically it looks into the recent drop in the number of TV critics including critics from major newspapers. As the article points out, "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 article then goes on to look at the reasons for this trend. They specifically focus on money, and the profitability of media companies and newspapers. As the article points out, arts staffs in major media companies like Tribune, McClatchy, and Gannett arts staffs are deemed expendable if by getting rid of them the corporate bottom line gets fatter. Critics and arts staff can be replaced by wire service copy and features. People around here are well aware of this sort of thing. Few can forget what happened a few days after the dailies in Saskatoon and Regina were sold to Conrad Black; something like 200 employees of the newspapers including some highly respected names in the local arts reporting were told that their services were no longer required. The bottom line – and the amount of debt that Black, and later CanWest went into to buy newspapers – mandated cost cutting measures and the easiest costs to cut are often people. The Broadcast & Cable article discusses the symbiotic relationship between the expanding television industry and critics who are used to build awareness of programs. Critics of course have used the "bully pulpit" of newspapers to promote projects and producers that they regard as being "worthy." With the decline in the number of newspaper critics, bloggers (like me, but in most cases better if only because they have at least a veneer of professionalism) have risen. But, as an unnamed network executive told Broadcast & Cable "There's no accountability. That's the difference between some, not all, bloggers and a seasoned journalist. The blogging community has no rules." The Broadcast & Cable article points out that, "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?" While I don't think that I'm guilty of "criticism in the form of the episode recap" I readily admit to the rest. The technology makes this blog possible, and it allows this amateur – for I have never claimed to be anything but an enthusiastic amateur (it even says so in the masthead of this blog) – to write about the medium which I enjoy and which alternately fascinates me and infuriates me.

Okay, that's the long preamble to the PTC's TV Trends article, the title of which is Public Tuning Out TV Critics which ran in two parts. They acknowledge the entire point of the Broadcast & Cable in one sentence and then proceeds to throw it out. According to the PTC, "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." In other words, according to the TV Trends writer, TV critics are being let go because by recommending shows that the public finds "repugnant" their influence is reduced. Now before I go further into this, let me just say that I've never heard of anyone who has stopped subscribing to a newspaper because they didn't like the TV critic, and that is the only way that what a TV critic writes might have "value to their employers."

The writer of the article then actually cites one of his own columns which claimed that there is an "overwhelming demand for family-friendly TV programming safe for children." Of course this is an overwhelming demand that was not sufficient to support a family friendly show – Life Is Wild on The CW – which didn't even draw as many viewers in the recently completed season as the PTC claims to have members. Yet according to the TV Trends writer, "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." Of course he offers no proof of his assertion that this supposed "identical mind-set" doesn't agree with people in the local area.

The TV Trends writer artfully pulls quotes made by critics for the Broadcast & Cable article – often out of context – and then turns them back on the writer. Dave Walker, critic for the New Orleans Times-Picayune who told the Broadcast & Cable writer, "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]." The TV Trends writer responds that, "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." Again, there's no proof of the statement in parentheses. Taking part of a quote from Dianne Werts of Newsday, and (the part that the PTC cut out is in square parentheses): "[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." He then states, "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." In other words critics who don't agree with the PTC's position – which the PTC seems to be claiming is all of them – don't offer a local perspective but are part of some sinister hive mind determined to undermine America's families in service of their Hollywood masters.

As a topping for this mass of opinions is the claim that critics are elitist: "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." And I'm sure that he'll support this with material from the same source that back up his claim that TV critics are being let go not because of an economic quest for savings (and profits) but because they are detached from the sense and sensibilities of their readers. Start with the assertion that the public is abandoning TV critics because critics fail to reflect the sensibilities of the public. There's no proof offered. Then there's the statement that critics subject advocates of family fare to "endless calumny" while claiming that the same critics "rather than responding to the obvious wishes and desires of their readers, persist in celebrating only the most disturbing programs on TV."

The second part of the article tries to prove the elitist nature of the professional newspaper critic while at the same time dealing with Broadcast & Cable's assertion that "Many old-school journalists seem to lack the snark gene that has propelled Gawker-level bloggers to high-gloss infamy," which is part of the reason for the disappearance of the newspaper critic. Absurd says the PTC: "Hilariously, the entertainment industry trade publication Broadcasting & Cable claims that TV critics are at a disadvantage when faced with the attitude-laden writing of the Internet's amateur bloggers.... [The above quote from the B&C article is inserted here.] One can only conclude that the author of the B&C article is unfamiliar with the constant sneering arrogance with which family-friendly programs have invariably been described by the nation's TV critics."

They then set out to "prove" this by offering quotes from reviews of Three Wishes. Three Wishes, which was hosted by Christian singer Amy Grant (and which the PTC mistakenly claims ran from "September 2005 to January 2007"; in fact it ran for ten episodes between September 2005 and December 2005), visited a town and granted three wishes. It might be a new baseball field for a town, or it might be a reward (in the form of a new truck) for the adoptive father of a young boy. According to the PTC, "Most Americans applauded so well-meaning a show [this is questionable but typical of the PTC; the show had 8.7 million viewers in its first episode, and usually won its time slot before NBC cancelled it as being "too expensive" – still 8.7 million is scarcely "most Americans"], and enjoyed its heartwarming premise. But America's critics unleashed an unparalleled tidal wave of vitriol against the sweet program; and notably, most condemned not the program's production methods or even the star, but attacked the very premise of the show itself." They then proceed to offer a number of quotes – out of context of course – from various critics. Just as an example of pulling quotes without context, here's what the PTC says that Boston Globe critic Matthew Gilbert said about the show: "Condescension, fraudulence, and manipulation…every single scene is ruthlessly choreographed to put a lump in our throats." And here is the full sentence that Gilbert wrote (courtesy of Metacritic): "It's hard to quibble with such a philanthropic series, even while its motives are, of course, Nielsen-based. But it's easy to quibble with the condescension, fraudulence, and manipulation of ''Three Wishes," as every single scene is ruthlessly choreographed to put a lump in our throats." To my mind at least that isn't the sneering arrogance that one sees from Internet based reviewers. But an even worse example is the quote the pull from Gillian Flynn of Entertainment Weekly. Flynn's example of "constant sneering arrogance" is this: "Will leave your heartstrings over-fondled." Except that this was classified by Metacritic as a generally positive review. So I decided to see what Ms. Flynn actually said. The Entertainment Weekly review is available online for free (which is more than can be said for two other reviews they cite, from the Chicago Tribune and the Miami Herald). Here's the full closing paragraph of Gillian Flynn's review, with the words that the PTC pulled in bold: So, yeah, Three Wishes will leave your heartstrings feeling over-fondled. But if you can get past that (and there are worse crimes), it's also one of the most interactive TV shows around. Maybe I'm going soft, but when's the last time you found yourself bawling and beaming about the basic goodness of humankind? And now I must go help an old lady cross the street." Quite a difference huh.

Then, to prove how out of touch the mainstream professional critics are, they cited Dexter and Nip/Tuck. The writer suggests that his readers might think that the reaction to Three Wishes was simply a dislike of all new programs. If he really thought that of course it would be an example of him treating his readership as children, but I have to say that is not always out of character for a writer from the PTC. This is when he brings up Dexter: "For contrast, consider the critical response to Dexter, a program with a ruthless, psychotic serial killer as its hero. This program featured graphic dismemberment, blood, and torture and showed a brutal murderer evading the law, yet painted that killer as charming and even likeable. Originally shown on premium cable, Dexter was shown in prime time by CBS. Given the vicious verbal flogging they granted the wholesome Three Wishes, one would think that surely the critics – with their allegedly superior sensibilities – would condemn a program which graphically glorified serial murder!" But of course the evil elitist critics liked – even loved – this evil program. As the writer puts it, "Instead, the nation's so-called 'critics' sang unquestioning hosannas to the deranged drama. Apparently thinking identical thoughts, sometimes even using nearly identical wording, the critics united in praising Dexter. I won't go into the details of the quotes that the PTC pulls from the critics they cite. I will however point out that they're not as right as they think. The critics were not as "united in praising Dexter" as the PTC would like. Admittedly, of twenty-seven critics mentioned by Metacritic on their page for the show, twenty-four were rated as positive reviews, there were also quotes from critics who disliked the show or even hated it: "Dexter is too chilly to be chilling, too affected to be affecting." (Robert Abele; LA Weekly); "If brilliant, psychotic lunatics are your bag, by all means, climb aboard." (Brian Lowry; Variety); "The grotesqueries of Dexter are not something that can easily be dismissed with the old 'you don't have to watch' line. We don't have to watch. We do have to live among the viewers who will be desensitized, or aroused, by this show." (Nancy DeWolf Smith; Wall Street Journal).

But naturally there is more why critics like a show like Dexter than what a bunch of quotes culled and edited by a PTC writer wants his readers to know. The professional critics are willing to offer reasons why they like a show, reasons that are more complex than the "it's about a serial killer therefore it is evil and should not be seen" rote that the PTC trots out. Take for instance the reasons why Tim Goodman of the San Francisco Chronicle wrote "What makes the series work so well is twofold. Hall is magnificent; it's another sterling performance from him. But instead of being pent up yet emotionally explosive, like his David Fisher on "Six Feet Under," he's cool and calculated and entirely without compassion as Dexter. That makes him alluring, in a strange way.... The second element is humor. As Dexter's voice narrates the series, his inner world is revealed. He's dryly funny. He has a spot-on representation of himself – he knows he's "a monster." But he clings to Dad's teachings – his retribution killings are the only good way to handle his need for blood." Or this from Maureen Ryan of the Chicago Tribune: "What is a human being? Is it someone who feels a deep need to right wrongs? Dexter does that, often more effectively than the police officers around him or the overwhelmed court system, the failings of which he sees every day. There's plenty of irony in the idea that a serial killer feels more visceral anger in the face of brutal crime than most of the cops around him, who range from competent to infuriatingly self-serving." And maybe this, from Rob Owen of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: "Hall's performance is remarkable for its controlled nature. As Dexter, he erases memories of his last role – "Six Feet Under's" uptight, gay mortician, David Fisher – playing a character who believes he's so emotionally detached that he must fake all pleasant human interaction. It's a challenging, almost double role, requiring Hall to play to viewers who know Dexter's secret and those around him on screen who do not. Hall handles it with the necessarily subtle aplomb." In short the critics have reasons for liking the show – the irony, the performance of Michael C Hall in the lead role, and so on – that go beyond the simplistic "it makes a hero of a serial killer therefore it is an outrage that it is even on the air let alone on broadcast TV" position that the PTC takes.

And maybe that's the source of the PTC's problems with TV critics – they don't always like the stuff that the PTC likes and don't always hate the stuff the PTC hates. Certainly the PTC is not above quoting a TV critic...when that TV critic says something that they agree with. They quoted Tom Shales of the Washington Post when they were castigating My Name Is Earl. Shales didn't review Dexter, but his colleague at the post who did review the show (John Maynard) liked it. About Three Wishes, Shales wrote, "Each week a trio of do-gooders (a bit too braggy about the good they do) storms an American town and grants three wishes to folk in need.... It's shamelessly crammed with hugs and tears, even in the opening credits, but at least there aren't any monsters in it – unless you count Amy Grant, the sanctimonious singing host." (Yeah, I did some PTC style editing; here's what I left out: "On the premiere, that includes surgery for a little girl injured in a car accident, a new Ford (generously plugged) for a deputy sheriff and a new football field for the local high school.") Needless to say he probably wouldn't have made the PTC's cut for this.

Bizarrely, the second part of the PTC's indictment of newspaper TV critics ends with a quote from the late Jack Valenti on his retirement from the leadership of the Motion Picture Association of America. Valenti wrote: "This small band of Constant Whiners talk to each other, write for each other, opine with each other, and view with lacerating contempt the rubes who live Out There, west of Manhattan and east of the San Andreas Fault…Shouldn't everyone in the country glory in four-letter words ending in "k"? And why not? Since the C[onstant] W[hiner]s know what is right and real, then it is from them that the simpletons in Middle America should take their cues and their culture. In their zeal to brandish the notion that they are the custodians of creative rightness, they commit intellectual nihilism, the smashing of truth and reason, exalting a smallish and relentlessly ill-humored prism through which they all see the same lunacies." I find this to be bizarre because Valenti's statement has nothing at all to do with critics either of TV or the movies. Valenti was speaking about opponents of censorship, particularly those object to the MPAA's ratings system which forces cuts in movies like Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut lest they be branded with the NC-17 rating which can have a deadly effect in terms of theatrical bookings. There is very little similarity between what Valenti railed against (wrongly in my view but that's another argument) and what the PTC claims that TV critics are supporting. In the latter case I am convinced that the PTC overestimates its support in the United States as a whole.

Even if I am wrong about what the public wants in terms of TV shows, that doesn't make the views articulated by professional TV critics invalid. I am reminded of Edmund Burke's speech to the electors of Bristol: "Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgement; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion." A critic owes his reader his or her judgement and opinion, to attempt to widen the reader-viewer's tastes not to march in lock step to reflect them. Of course the PTC in its own way, by condemning shows which it does not approve of, is trying to do exactly the same thing. And in my opinion their position is probably just as elitist as the PTC claims that critics are; the PTC knows what's good for you even if you don't appreciate it. The difference between the TV critics and the PTC is that the critics are consistently able to articulate the reasons why they like or don't like a show in terms that go beyond "it has a serial killer as a hero so it's a bad show." Criticism needs to be more than "this is good" or "this is bad." There has to be a reason and that reason has to be more than "because we say so" or "because of the subject matter it depicts and the language the characters use." That's why I trust TV critics far more than I do anyone at the PTC.

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