Who needs critics?

Scott Collins, TV writer for the LA Times, reports that as newspapers are cutting their budgets, fewer and fewer are sending TV critics to the networks’ junkets.

At long last.

I had a nice chat with Collins about this on Friday and in his story, he’s right to say that I’m callously unsympathetic to the whining critics now on house arrest, far away from the press conferences and parties at the Ritz.

When I was a critic for People and TV Guide, I never went to the junkets. They seemed absurd: just press releases in 3-D. I believed it was the job of a critic to criticize. I said that the only that that separated me from the audience was that I got the tapes first, I couldn’t fast-forward through them, and I had to explain my opinion. It was not my job to buddy up to the stars and get insipid lockerroom quotes.

And today, as newspapers’ budgets shrink, as they close foreign bureaus, the last thing they need is more network flackery they can get from the PR Newswire instead.

Add to that the changing nature of TV; it’s not about three or even 30 or 300 networks anymore and it’s not about programmers’ schedules. It’s about an endless stream — a river, an ocean — of video of all kinds from all times and all sources. The old role of the critic, telling you what’s on TV tonight, is absurdly out-of-date.

And add to that the fact that everybody’s a critic today. This isn’t just about going to see the compiled opinions of the world converted into personalized data — ‘people who like Superman also like….’ It’s also about conversation. The Times reported last week that producers of shows are going to Television Without Pity to respond to debates among viewers about characters they love on shows they feel passionate about. They demonstrate that a show is not owned just by its authors but also by its audience. And these debates can (but don’t have to) influence those shows.

Art becomes interactive.

So I have little sympathy with the mewling critics who complain to Collins that they’re missing out on the expense-account trips with drinks and shwag. Philadelphia Inquirer critic Gail Shister blurbs even the junket: “TCA is the Super Bowl of television coverage. Anybody who’s anybody is there and accessible.” Oh, yes, and the White House pressroom is where real news happens. Wake up and smell the free lunch.

I have even less sympathy for Shister and other critics whining about having to do something other than just write their columns from on high:

She’s resisted bosses’ entreaties to write a blog because, she said, she’d prefer to focus on her print column, which runs four times a week. But the noise from the Internet is permeating even her hermetically sealed cubicle. “Technology has compressed the whole notion of journalistic time,” she lamented. “The day of a scoop being a scoop for 24 hours is long gone.”

The day of the scoop is over. And the day of investing in a platform for one critic’s ego is long gone, as well.

If critics want to get together, it would be a better use of their time — and perhaps their bosses’ T&E — to reimagine the role of the critic, a discussion that has started — and, unfortunately, stopped — on this Arts Journal blog and continues regularly in the visionary thinking of critic Terry Teachout and in the work of my future CUNY colleague András Szántó. Maybe we should play host to such a discussion at CUNY. Anybody game?

As in other, weightier realms of journalism, I say that critics will act more as moderators, helping us not only find the good stuff but also sparking discussion. Yes, the critics will have opinions about not only quality but also about meaning; they will set culture in context as the good ones always have. But they can’t watch it all anymore. And they’re not the only ones with opinions and perspective. Now the culture can speak as well. So the greater challenge is to create a structure for that discussion, to make sense of it.

And this changes not only criticism, it also changes the art.

No, I say we’re never going to get to the day — long predicted — when we’ll all want to make our own endings to novels and movies. There is, by God, a role for authorship. But then again, a TV series isn’t like a film or a book (at least until books become more fluid); a TV series continues, it lives. If a show is successful, it is because the people formerly known as its audience feel as if they, too, own it; it works when it comes to life and becomes part of their lives. And so perhaps it is wise to include them in the process of creation. I don’t mean to rule by focus group, poll, or galvanic skin response. But if you are open to the people who love what you do, if you let them contribute, they will. So in that sense, even creators become critics and moderators and even the audience becomes creative.

Yes, it is time to reimagine criticism in a future without network tote bags.

  • Except for the tote bags you get for donating to public television. They’ll be offering those from now until there is no public television.

    (I’m particularly fond of my 2000, Libertarian National Convention tote-bag, because it was sponsored by C-SPAN. In prior conventions only the press kit bags had the C-SPAN logo on them. I was jealous of the press for that. (Yeah, I know I’m weird.)

  • Jeff,

    A great post. My wife and I were talking about this very thing this morning. It came in the context of news about the great box office draw of Pirates of the Caribbean. She noted that many critics had panned the film.

    I said they didn’t matter anymore, and that more authentic voices could be found among bloggers who write about movies and Hollywood.

    Her response was: “I guess the real critics spoke this weekend.”

    I had to agree.

  • I agree with a lot of your thoughts on critics, but I think you’re criticsm of Gail Shister is a bit unfair. I’m from Philadelphia and read her column a lot in the Inquirer and I think her stuff is worthwhile for a local paper. She incorporates a lot local TV news into her columns, which I think of interest for people in the area. I should note that she’s less of a critic and more of a entertainment news columnist. As far as blogging, you’re probably right that she should get into it. She does do a weekly Q and A on their website that does engage readers more than something you would see in the paper. You’re right though that criticism is overdone generally though. What is the Inquirer’s film critic going to tell me about Pirates of the Carribean that Roger Ebert couldn’t (besides the fact that Roger Ebert is currently on the D.L.).

  • adslfan

    what happens to Roger Ebert – the movie review guy ?
    he still have a job at the newspaper a few years from now or do they
    let lay him off and get reviews from bloggers ?

  • Warren Bonesteel

    I’m definitely going to have to make Buzz Machine one of my regular stops.

    Jeff, I’m impressed…and I’m not easily impressed.

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  • Atleast L.A Times needs critics……………

    You cancelled? I bet they don’t stop sending the paper. OR taking you off their subscription roles.

    So you don’t pay them. That’s it.

    But you’ll spend 39-cents per stamp, and time on the telephone TELLING them you’re cancelled. Makes no difference. You’ll still get their paper delivered.

    That’s something happened with me.

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  • The media is always going to be the media and they get more money and still have a workable budget that won’t go away. Even if they move the TV and Newspaper (which I think they should with the paper anyway, for environmental resaons) Everyone at the network will just adapt into podcasts at 6:00 and 10:00 instead of TV>

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