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The Disappearing TV Critic

The fraternity of the nation's television critics at daily newspapers was once a thriving milieu, dominated by a great diversity of committed voices. The critics' opinions were sought, revered—in many cases, even feared—and blurbed in network on-air promos.

That reality has changed drastically of late as the ranks of critics have grown noticeably leaner. Caught in the financial turmoil roiling the newspaper industry, they have become a beleaguered lot, a growing part of the collateral damage of the digital revolution.

In the past two years more than a 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 fact that newspapers are giving up this role as navigators over this most pervasive of mediums, it's totally weird to me,” says Dave Walker, president of the Television Critics Association and critic at the New Orleans Times-Picayune.

“If you're in the foxhole and the bodies are falling all around you,” lamented a mid-market television critic who still has a job, “you can't help but flirt with the idea that somewhere out there, there's a bullet with your name on it.”

The fate of the nation's television critics mirrors that of arts and entertainment critics in general. One might have been forgiven for thinking that TV critics would be, if not impervious to the Darwinian forces of a contracting landscape, at least less likely to go the way of Betamax. But in the rapacious environment of publicly traded media companies—Tribune, The McClatchy Co., Gannett—where Wall Street demands ever-increasing returns, arts staffs are deemed expendable.

Total print advertising revenue declined 9.4% to $42 billion from 2006 to 2007, according to the Newspaper Association of America, representing the steepest such decline since 1950. Internet ad revenue, which accounted for less than 8% of total newspaper ad revenue in 2007, increased 18.8% last year to $3.2 billion, compared to more than 31% the previous two years. As advertising has decreased, the news hole—the amount of space allocated for actual articles—has followed.

Several major-market dailies have jettisoned their weekly print guides in favor of online listings. “Newspapers are not our primary business anymore,” notes Jay Fehnel, VP of entertainment products at Tribune Media Services. The listings giant has seen its interactive online and on-screen guides for satellite TV providers such as TiVo surpass its print business.

A Gradual Decline

This is only the latest spate of declining statistics in a newspaper industry that has been hemorrhaging jobs for nearly two decades. Since 1990, a quarter of the newspaper work force has disappeared, according the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The downward spiral is projected to continue.

The decline of the TV critic comes at a time when the television landscape is more divergent than ever, with thousands of niche cable and satellite channels. The proliferation of online and portable devices notwithstanding, Americans are actually watching more television, not less. According to Nielsen Media Research, we spend 4 hours 47 minutes a day in front of our sets, up from 4 ½ hours a year ago.

“There are very few people who don't watch television,” says Quentin Schaffer, executive VP of corporate communications at HBO. “I don't know how a newspaper makes the argument that critics aren't pulling their weight.”

Many HBO programs, including The Wire and Tell Me You Love Me, which have not drawn large audiences, have nevertheless been the recipient of much praise from critics. For HBO, adds Schaffer, “people probably would have missed some of this stuff. So for us, reviews are really an important way to get the word out.”

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. And with the majority of critics now also serving as reporters and bloggers, there would seem to be an even greater desire to tap into their skills.

“It does change the landscape to lose key reporters who have knowledge and perspective about the way the business works,” says Rebecca Marks, executive VP of publicity at NBC Universal.

For public relations executives at networks whose relationships with many critics stretch back decades, knowing where to put their marketing energy has always been priceless. “Every reporter has a certain passion,” adds Marks.

While there are myriad options for viewers looking for television commentary online in the form of fan sites and community forums, the anonymous nature of many blogs and the inherent snarkiness of the genre make some in the industry uneasy. Many network executives, who may have once questioned the motives of some reviewers, are even more concerned about the blogosphere.

“There's no accountability,” says one. “That's the difference between some, not all, bloggers and a seasoned journalist. The blogging community has no rules.”

But networks are increasingly reaching out to Websites and a small cadre of bloggers. And many companies have hired publicists whose specialty is navigating the blogosphere.

“Television publicity these days is much more about finding ways to spread messages virally,” says Chris Ender, senior VP of communications at CBS.

“You can virtually get to the audience,” adds another network executive. “It used to be everybody would read [a review] in the local paper. But there are just so many outlets now with the Internet and fewer and fewer people are reading papers. So the question becomes, how many people are actually getting their information from critics?”

To that end, CBS organized a New Adventures of Old Christine junket for mommy bloggers and writers at parenting sites. ABC also targeted those groups when introducing the pregnancy dramedy Notes from the Underbelly. HBO focused on political sites including The Huffington Post and when launching its seven-part John Adams miniseries and expects even more interest from political bloggers for Recount, its upcoming film about the 2000 presidential election.

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?

“One reason our site has been so successful is that we're not quote-unquote critics,” says Dan Manu, site director of Television Without Pity. “We're not talking about TV from an academic point of view.”

Started in 2002 by Tara Ariano and Sarah D. Bunting, who'd met in a Beverly Hills 90210 chat room, TWoP quickly established itself as a go-to destination for the TV-obsessed and last year was snapped up by Bravo. (Neither Ariano nor Bunting remains affiliated with TWoP.)

While traditional media titles, from TV Guide and People, to Entertainment Weekly and Tribune-owned Zap2it, have well accommodated their products for the Web, such transitional success remains elusive for many newspapers. Some papers, including the Arizona Republic and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, have opted for the Tower of Babel approach, aggregating reader opinions in lieu of authoritative criticism.

For the most part, traditional media companies are doing their best to adapt. But print is simply not as nimble as purely digital competitors. And it may be something in the collective DNA, but many old-school journalists seem to lack the snark gene that has propelled Gawker-level bloggers to high-gloss infamy.

Old vs. New

Nowhere is the clash of old and new media more apparent than at the semi-annual TCA conference in Los Angeles, a three-week media tour where networks trot out stars, writers and producers, and critics dutifully record the publicity spiel.

The January meeting was cancelled due to the WGA strike. The July session is proceeding as scheduled and so far attendance is on par with previous tours. And while the number of members representing newspapers has declined, Web-based journalists, though still a fraction of the TCA membership, are on the rise.

“We've credentialed more online-only outlets over the years and get swamped by applicants who don't get in,” says TCA president Walker.

At dozens of press sessions in cavernous hotel ballrooms where the air conditioning is set at meat-locker temperatures, the dwindling pool of traditional critics has been supplemented by young TV and celebrity bloggers. Network executives and critics observe that the bloggers don't participate in the Q-and-A sessions.

“They think it's beneath them,” complains a veteran newspaper critic. “If we weren't sitting there asking questions, what would they write about?”

Blogs, whether about TV, politics or fashion, are niche-oriented. Navigating a universe of 500 channels, not to mention the burgeoning terrain of mobile and broadband content, to answer the daily refrain of “What's on?” becomes potentially that much more difficult without those who are paid to watch everything (or as much as humanly possible) and separate the wheat from the chaff.

“I feel like newspapers have lost a lot of their personality, especially with the departure over the years of some high-profile critics,” says CBS' Ender.

Newspaper executives like to stress “localism” as the key to survival. But many in the industry expect the pool of critics to continue to narrow until there are only a handful of nationally syndicated columnists left.

“There is nothing more local than television,” Walker says. “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].

“Television is one of the fields that newspapers have traditionally covered that transcends the demographic caricature of newspaper readers,” he adds, citing the barrage of coverage of Disney Channel's High School Musical franchise. “I would bet that story that day in a lot of newspapers was not only the best-read by total numbers of readers, but probably the only thing read by 15-year-olds. Most people who have done this job at newspapers have had to answer to an incredibly broad audience.”

As newspapers continue to squeeze out the voices that make their product distinctive, ultimately it is the viewing public that is left in the dark.