TCA Awards: The TV critics have their say

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Amy Sherman-Palladino, creator of "Gilmore Girls" and executive producer during its six years of life on the now-defunct WB Network, minces no words when assessing the positive impact that TV critics had on her show.

"I know for a fact that the critics kept 'Gilmore' on the air," Sherman-Palladino asserts. "When we originally got picked up, all the way through preproduction I got a weekly phone call telling me I was going to be fired. Then the reviews for the pilot came in, and (then-WB chief) Jordan Levin sent me flowers. The critics kept the focus on us when we were in our first season -- opposite (NBC's) 'Friends' and (CBS') 'Survivor' -- and that constant chiming in, and the urging for people to watch the show, validated the network's choice. It allowed them to focus less on firing me and more on building an audience, which they did beautifully."

With the 23rd annual Television Critics Association Awards poised to be handed out Saturday in a ceremony at the Beverly Hilton in Beverly Hills, Calif., the role that critics play in the life and death of primetime TV series in particular remains undeniably complex. While there is a general consensus that it's better to land good reviews than poor ones, the relative value of critical opinion to both networks and viewers appears to vary with the circumstance.

"If critics rally around something almost in unison, I think it really helps your show," says David Spade, whose CBS comedy, "Rules of Engagement," received a mixed reception from critics when it premiered to solid ratings last spring. "I'm not sure it does much one way or the other when they're split or thumbs-down."

To be sure, amid the clutter, confusion and narrowcasting of the current 500-channel universe, having critics weigh in with support for a show tends to build important buzz and supplies a key but hardly foolproof gauge in determining its future success (or if it has a future, period).

"TV critics' opinions are an invaluable bellwether to the viewing habits of the general public. Just ask the creators of 'Freaks and Geeks,' 'Arrested Development,' 'My So-Called Life' and 'Firefly,'" quips David Javerbaum, executive producer of Comedy Central's critical darling "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart."

Of course, nobody ever said critics should do all of the heavy lifting -- the audience has to do its part with the remote, too. The critical community's raves certainly helped the Fox comedy "Arrested Development" win Emmys and respect (and certainly a stay of execution), but in the end they couldn't convince enough people to watch to keep the show on the air. There always seem to be a couple of shows airing that the critics champion with ever-increasing fervor as the viewer levels stagnate. Sometimes their efforts are rewarded with a popularity surge, other times not.

Newly installed Fox Entertainment president Kevin Reilly, who resigned from his post as president of NBC Entertainment following NBC Universal's hiring of Ben Silverman to run the department, often emulated the legendary NBC programming chief Brandon Tartikoff in sticking with low-rated but critically praised shows such as "The Office" and, this past season, "Friday Night Lights" and "30 Rock." He finds that good reviews "are like 'nutritional value.' All things being equal you'd rather have it, but in and of itself it is not of primary concern to most consumers."

It is Reilly's belief that being in the corner of critics, while good for the ego of those involved, is a decidedly mixed bag in the bigger business picture. "If a show is knighted as 'brilliant' by critics but there are conceptual and/or stylistic barriers to embracing that show, critical praise will too often fall on deaf ears. I'm thinking of a show like (HBO's) 'The Wire.' Critics love it, as do I, but, man, you have to really work to follow the show's narrative, and therefore the breadth of the audience never matched the rave reviews."

A well-reviewed but low-rated series "can generate resentment within the companies financing the show," Reilly adds. "As it racks up a deficit, it creates a bit of a trap where it's hard to cancel for perceptual reasons but increasingly hard to believe you have a show that will ever return your investment. So there is always an internal Greek chorus who resent that critics' favorite and want to kill it."

TV critics themselves don't seem surprised that they carry a measure of clout, yet even among their ranks, there's some disagreement over just what their primary purpose is in the grand television scheme. Tim Goodman, chief TV critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, sees one of his main roles as saving viewers from the "endless amount of godforsaken awfulness out there.

"I always tell my readers I'm taking a bullet for them," he adds. "It's always positive to hear from grateful readers who are happy that you turned them on to something like 'The Wire' or (FX's) 'It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia' -- series they'd never find, sometimes on channels they don't even know they have. If they can sense your taste and share it, then you're definitely helping guide them through the crap."

At the same time, Goodman understands too well that there's no immediate connection between positive critical reviews and hit series, or the reverse. "But," he says, "the batting average is pretty decent as it relates to readers taking a cue from their local (or national) critic."

Dave Walker, chief TV critic for the New Orleans Times-Picayune and TCA vp, has no quibble with the idea that critics make a legitimate difference -- he notes that Goodman once raved that "Arrested Development" was the next "Seinfeld," and how that helped fuel then-Fox Entertainment president Gail Berman's support of the show through years of lean ratings.

But, Walker says, "as a critic, too often you're heartbroken to find shows that are good fail instead of succeed as viewers ignore them. It makes us ask ourselves all the time if we truly have much impact as critics. Some of us clearly have more impact than others. But sometimes I feel like the only guy watching a show."

Lauren Corrao, Comedy Central's executive vp original programming and development, is perhaps a bit more bullish about what critics can do for shows, having personally seen the results with such shows as her network's "South Park" and "The Daily Show."

"Whether or not TV critics give a show a good review matters less in the ratings than it does establishing a buzz," Corrao believes. "And even if they don't review something favorably, it creates an awareness. You're probably not human if you aren't personally affected by positive versus negative mentions. But especially for shows on the bubble, positive reviews from TV critics can only help."

Sherman-Palladino goes still further. "The fact that 'Friday Night Lights' is a true gem and it's been championed by the critics -- and it's getting another shot next season -- proves the kind of impact they can have. You have to believe they had a great deal to do with that 'Lights' renewal, and that right there is some pretty important sway."   

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Where to tune in for Saturday's TCA Awards

The 23rd annual Television Critics Association Awards

The Beverly Hilton, Beverly Hills, Calif.

July 21, 7 p.m.

No host, but the event will be introduced by Comedy Central's "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart" correspondent John Oliver.

"It's not your typical Hollywood awards show," says TCA president (at least until July 21, when a new name will be tapped) Rob Owen, of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "It's as unglamorous and un-Hollywood as you're likely to see; it's a fairly low-key affair, and it's quick, generally an hour ceremony followed by a reception afterwards. It just has a very loose feel."

Nevertheless, he believes that TCA's casual front disguises a more serious purpose in the TV realm. "Other industries have a plethora of awards shows," Owen says. "With TV, you've got the Emmys and half of the Golden Globes, and the TCA Awards. There aren't a lot of places where TV shows can go to get recognized."

-- Randee Dawn
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