the pulse

Everyone's a critic, but few making money at it

When I tell someone that I'm a television critic, they tend to get a befuddled expression on their face and offer something along the lines of, "You get paid ... to watch TV?" My reply is generally, "Yes, in fact I do. I have to say that it beats shoveling coal." About half seem to instantly take the attitude that I've just told them I make my living through breathing oxygen.

The truth is, my ilk are fast disappearing. Blink, and we could soon be gone entirely. Depending on one's outlook, this may or may not be a good thing.

I was reminded of the precarious spot in which we critics now find ourselves after reading a blog item this week from my esteemed Hollywood Reporter colleague Steven Zeitchik on his essential Risky Biz Blog (www.riskybusinessblog.com). His post detailed how newspapers the land o'er are dumping film critics from their staffs as easily disposable, coinciding with the slow slide of print journalism under the crushing weight of the Internet.

If movie critics are seen as unnecessary, we TV types have to believe our day of reckoning is even closer at hand. Film critique, after all, is designed to help steer a night out; TV reviews point folks to the equivalent of a five-second investment on the remote. This is why my MO always has been to render the reviews entertaining in and of themselves, on the theory that if it isn't an interesting read, who's going to care enough to make it all the way through? As long as the "good" or "bad" is in there someplace.

That said, the function provided by film/TV/stage critics has always seemed to me a curious one. We're telling you what to see or not see — or, after the fact, what was superior or lousy — based on our own subjective criteria as plugged-in professionals. Usually, we're white and male, generally middle-aged, almost always crotchety and self-important. The overall message: "Listen to us and your lives will be appreciably better, for we know what's good for you even if we're light-years removed from your orientation, demographic and sensibility."

Our purpose tends to be somewhat different here at the trades, writing as we do for the industry rather than the consumer. It's more about predicting success or failure, assessing the technical as well as creative aspects and steering potential employers toward some writers, directors, actors and below-the-line types — and away from others.

How much power do we wield in determining Hollywood success or failure? Probably minimal, particularly when it comes to TV assessment. We can help build buzz and momentum for your show or film or special and shine a light on someone who may be underappreciated. But we don't have the collective influence to blacklist anyone (nor should we) or to save a series whose ratings are in the sewer (see: "Arrested Development"). Our raves can fuel a stay of execution, not much more.

This naturally leads to the question: Do critics deserve to be saved? If I am supplying "just one schmuck's opinion" (as I've oft been told during 22 years at this gig), what's the point of providing that baseline view in the first place?

Well, we poison pen types have, in fact, always been a non-essential indulgence. And it isn't as if critics are disappearing from the ether entirely. We're already seeing them morph and proliferate all over the Internet. So don't cry for us, Hollywood. Even if guys like me go away for good, critique will abound — though I imagine it will never really be quite the same.
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