Why TV critics still matter

Tue Aug 3, 2010 2:55am EDT
 
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By Randee Dawn

LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - Hey, TV critics: Bill Lawrence has your number.

Back when the "Cougar Town" executive producer was overseeing "Scrubs," he enjoyed critical acclaim for at least the first five years. But when "Scrubs" became a bit too fantasy sequence-heavy, the worm turned and critics were suddenly on his case.

"The ones who'd rallied around the show early on started to say it was becoming too broad and silly. I listened to those critics," Lawrence says. "I went to press tour the next year and said they were right, and that I'd go back to the way it used to be. They were surprised I admitted I'd dropped the ball."

To hear that is music to television critics' ears. But recent reductions and repurposing of the traditional newspaper/magazine television critic, plus a burgeoning amateur-critic culture on the Internet, have provided very little melody as of late.

According to the American Society for News Editors, there has been about a 20% reduction in full-time news professionals since 2008. That shrinking pool of full-time writers is arguably muting the discussions necessary to keep TV creatives on their toes and audiences well-informed.

"The television critic cuts through the massive amount of programing that's available," says Susan Young, president of the TCA, of which this reporter is a member. "The other role is to say, 'Give this show you watched one time another shot.' Neither 'Mad Men' nor 'Breaking Bad' would have gotten a second look if not for TV critics."

The good news is that much of the job shrinkage among TV critics is anecdotal; there are no official studies that document the loss of TV critics. TCA membership in fact has held relatively steady at 213, compared with an average in past years of 220. Of that total, 44 are online-exclusive writers and 22 are freelancers, record highs for both subcategories.

"There's a perception that newspapers no longer employ TV critics, which is wrong," Young says. "A shift has been happening, but it's slighter than you would think. Four years before the big consolidations and layoffs, (writers from) daily newspapers were only about 50%-55% of our membership. Now they represent about 45%-50%."   Continued...