Disappearing TV Critics Talk Back

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 BC Review.