He Said/She Said: Are TV critics important?

Join Greg and Diane every Monday as we debate what’s on our minds. This week: with the proliferation of places for everyone and anyone to talk about TV online, is there still value to television critics?

She said:

It seems unlikely that this would be a place to find an argument against critics, and sure enough I can’t do it. I’m a strong believer in a strong critical community for any category of art or entertainment. Without it, the art form itself appears weak. If Canadian TV can’t withstand criticism, what does that say to potential viewers?

Silence is not golden when it comes to criticism. Damning with faint praise sometimes feels like a cliché made forCanadian  TV. Liking everything is akin to liking nothing. Easy to say, but the industry should rejoice when critics are critical. Or at least mutter to themselves. Critics are just part of what influences people to decide to watch a show, and likely not even the most important part, but the connection to a mass audience is still significant. 

The rise of social media hasn’t changed my opinion that professional critics are necessary and good, making the incredible shrinking Canadian TV critic community something we should all be rallying against. Especially when the modicum of diversity of critical voices that used to exist is shrinking right along with it.

There is a difference between professional critics the armchair critics who posts their thoughts on Twitter, or the fans who post their excitement on Tumblr. Assuming a critic is actually critical — not as in negative, but as in forming opinions and writing about them with a high degree of awareness of how plot, character, tone, structure and execution intersect to create those opinions — over time, readers can come to understand a critic’s taste and how it aligns with their own. Fans can also feel challenged to examine our own opinions and reasons for our reactions to the content.

Some like to deny it but there is still cache to having something discussed in print, in particular, but really anywhere the content has gone through the gatekeeping of an editorial process.

Newspapers also know a scary amount of information about their subscribers: age ranges, income brackets, and a host of other demographics and psychographics. Digital publications know the kind of content their readers click on and comment on most — two metrics that don’t correspond as much as you might think.

Knowledge is power, on both sides. Professional critics know who they’re talking to and over time, readers know who they’re listening to. If a critic is unfair, or the critique doesn’t substantiate a negative review, there’s also a power in the audience fighting back. When the industry does it? Weak.

He said:

I am, of course, biased in my opinion that television critics are still important because I am one. And, in the ever-changing world where we’re seeing movie and TV critics being let go by newspapers and websites, they’re even more important.

I view the role of the television critic as this: watch a television show, comment on it, celebrate it or be critical of it. Have an opinion. If you think something is good, outline why. Hate it? Explain why. I’ve been ripped on for not being too critical of television shows or the industry in general, but I choose to find the overall good in things rather than focus on the things that aren’t working. I’m not afraid to point out shortcomings, but when I do it’s with a suggestion on how to make things better. Being miserable and mean just for the sake of it is, in my opinion, lazy.

I view my thoughts as being the starting point for a discussion. It’s something I’ve enjoyed for the last 15 years. There is nothing more fun than to have someone approach me and ask my thoughts on a TV show. Before I know it, I’m running through the programs on my DVR, the person I’m talking to is giving me their list and we’re talking. You may not agree with me—or me you—but man it’s fun.

Critics are never more important than they are now. With more of them in this industry being silenced due to job cuts, there is nothing to counter the noise coming from websites owned by cable companies touting their homegrown shows. I’m sorry to tell those folks, but not all of your shows are great no matter how much you tell me they are and how many behind-the-scenes exclusives you get.

You need someone to call bullshit, and that’s my job.


11 thoughts on “He Said/She Said: Are TV critics important?”

  1. They may be, but I am still waiting for “the Golden Age” of TV criticism in Canada. We had it for a while with John Hasslett Cuff but he’s be gone for years…

  2. Tom Shales was a famously dyspeptic TV critic with strong opinions. But he was careful to put his criticism in context, and didn’t get things factually wrong. Much.

    There are plenty of critics who occupy a continuum of “slightly better informed fan of television” to “opiner about how this fits into the sociology of the day, or the current zeitgeist.”

    That scale in the USA — despite the number of jobs being cut, slides from a Todd Vanderwerff in Vox to Moryan at HuffPo to Sepinwall at Hitfix (interesting how those three all moved from Dead Tree Media) and on the sociological end you have people like Emily Nussbaum.

    But when there are so few voices, there should at least be rigor. Point of view is fine. But arbitrary click baiting, and styling yourself a crusader while shoveling opinions fed to you by the same three people you talk to all the time is not a platform on which to build glory. Punching down, or pandering to your audience whether it’s Buzzfeed-esque or high-falutin, doesn’t elevate the culture or help anyone.

    And it means that rather than Diane being able to say cleanly, “you’re whiners, industry people…stop whining!” which I would normally agree with…if you get a bad review, suck it up buttercup…

    …but when all that’s there is a lazy, false narrative that could be expanded and corrected with two phone calls? Nope, sorry. That’s not “criticism” that makes the case for the continued health of the genre.

    Jay Scott, may he rest in peace, used to be able to get you to smile and laugh and think reading reviews for movies you’d never go to see. Writing the same column every three weeks, and sneering at anyone who corrects you is not, in fact, top crit.

    And it sure aint golden. Especially when it tarnishes people in the same publication who are trying day in and day out to write with perspicacity about the same subject.

    1. Hmm, somehow I think you guys are thinking of a specific critic here. (whistles) My fight is more for criticism in general to be valued and funded and given column inches — actual analysis of a kind that leaves you thinking, hmm, he hates that show but from how he describes it, it might be up my alley. Or wow, she’s so passionate about that, maybe I should check it out. We have some of that in Canada but it’s shrinking by the month, and it’s drowned out by discussion of whether Canadian TV is this or that or the other thing, plus the PR-generated pieces that don’t require an opinion.

      I bit my fingers to keep myself from comparisons to the US market, which would have made this post way too long and I had so many other digressions I could have explored, but it’s interesting in Canada that there’s still a huge disparity between perceptions of Dead Tree Media and online. I’m a firm believer that both have to be strong for a critical community to be strong, that they should complement rather than compete, etc. But the way PR/networks/media treat online-only critics here is still very often as lesser-than. In the US you can have a Mo Ryan and Alan Sepinwall who are in the major leagues of TV criticism, and here … there’s still a lot of overlooking. Brioux straddles both worlds (and might be the only one who does very well) but his “in” is at least partly because he writes for newspapers.

      Doyle takes his potshots at online criticism in general and he’s taken some directly at us but I see that as coming from fear. Is the online world killing criticism? Or is it what’s going to save it? My position is it’s neither: we need both. And more criticism that treats our shows as if they’re worthy of analysis, and less of the constant analysis about the industry (and since I tend to do the latter myself, yes I’m the pot or kettle or whatever).

      And as I tend to say, the complaining from the industry toward critics is often unseemly, fair or not. If it’s not fans who are expressing the outrage, to the average audience member it’s the industry losing credibility, not the critic.

      1. Agree Diane. But how is it possible to have a fulsome discussion when you have an article — let’s leave himself out of it for a moment — but take that Yakabuski article.

        How can it be unseemly to point out that a journalist writing a piece that’s pitched as news analysis and contains glaring factual errors? How does that help *your* dream?

        I hate people who carp at critics for a review they don’t like. I really do. But the discussion such as it is does not proceed from a factual place. And if that’s the case, then really, what is the alternative. Be good, Canadian, stay silent and let the misinformation fly? Who else is expected to do that?

        You think honestly that Kate Taylor or Simon Houpt looks at stuff like that in the same paper and thinks, “I love what this does to my credibility writing in the same paper?”

          1. Sometime if you’d like I would only be to happy to tell you about specific conversations of that nature I am privy to that were extended to certain critics directly, and dismissive, sarcastic and sexist reaction that followed.

      2. More criticism would be better for Canadian shows to actually make them mainstream. To be honest, I don’t read any of the national newspapers–for me its all online news or the CBC news channel or my local news. The other day I did a news search on Google for X Company reviews to see what people were saying about it and the only 2 to review it (according to the search results) were TV Eh and Huffington Post Canada. The thing is that at all the U.S. tv sites there are just as many Canadians or more than Americans so Canadian tv viewers have a huge online presence. Last year when both TV Eh and TV Guide Canada folded, there were some dark days with really no sites except for Huffington even doing reviews of Canadian shows. It was such a relief to see the return of TV Eh and the arrival of TheTVJunkies. Both sites are getting a lot of traffic I think because of their reviews. When you search on Google or another search engine for a tv show, often a review from either site shows up and that’s great.

  3. I think tv critics are useful for the industry, so long as they are reviewing shows that are their type. By this I mean that someone who doesn’t like sci-fi, shouldn’t critique a sci-fi series, someone who has never liked the romantic comedy genre should not review a romantic comedy, and a 61-year-old man shouldn’t critique a series about 20-something women unless any of them can actually do it objectively and empathetically. Too often I’ve seen a terrific show being ripped to shreds in a review, only because the critic has no interest in the genre and can’t or won’t try to connect to it. Sci-fi shows seem to get the worst of it and when you go to fan sites and such, you hear about it, especially around awards season where it’s almost like critics look down on the genre.

    As a sidenote, I would like to commend Greg for his reviews of Heartland this season. As a “family show” the characters and stories can’t go to places where it would get critical acclaim, because to keep the show in its genre, it needs to slightly soften the dialogue and storylines. Many critics just stay away from critiquing the show, dismissing it as a family show and leaving it at that. However, Greg reviews episodes from the angle of someone who likes family shows, even if it isn’t necessarily the type of show he’d gravitate towards.

    1. Thanks Alicia! I’ve had a blast reviewing Heartland this season. I think it’s important to watch a variety of genres if you’re going to be an effective critic.

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