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Why TV critics still matter

Critics helped keep struggling programs like "Friday Night Lights" on the air.

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TCA membership doesn't come easy
Key differences between TCA Awards and Emmy Awards

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 programming 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%."

Ben Elowitz, CEO of Web publisher Wetpaint, agrees that critical writing about television is undergoing a metamorphosis, but argues that it is not yet on the road to extinction.

"It used to be that you needed to affiliate with a major programmer to have any clout," he notes. "Now networks include independent bloggers on their publicity lists. The professional critic has to compete against all kinds of independents to stay relevant."

Staying relevant is a constant concern for TV showrunners, many of whom take extra special notice of amateur critics' online buzz.



Todd Lubin of "The Biggest Loser" says his team conducts considerable and ongoing blog research to monitor what the show's fan-critics are saying. " 'Loser' has a great online presence, a real community where people want to share their stories," he says. "I don't know how many of our viewers are actually reading (official) reviews of the show."

Sensing this trend, editors at traditional print publications are rethinking their downsizing strategies.

Eric Deggans, TV and media critic for the St. Petersburg Times, says his job is now twofold: writing reviews that are relevant to his local audience and writing other critical copy that can be syndicated widely and reprinted by criticless publications.

"The Biggest Loser"  

"For me it's a constant sense of, 'What will my audience respond to and (what will) make a difference for them, and what can I do that fits into the matrix of what my news organization has decided is important?' " Deggans says. "That's really different from even just three or five years ago."

Some see this new construct as an overall negative for TV critics. Relying too heavily on wire copy or nationally syndicated voices for entertainment stories, "cheats readers of a publication, who may not feel as engaged because it's not geared to them as a local reader," says Us Weekly TV critic John Griffiths. "That's when you see newspaper subscriptions decline."

Then again, he adds, maybe critics are not entirely blameless. "Maybe they have just covered national big shows or written too many columns about 'Lost.' Instead, (they) should be saying, 'How does this show apply to our city?' "

For now, professional TV critics, whether online or in newspaper and magazines, still hold sway. A swell of critics decrying the likes of a monster failure, like ABC's "Caveman" in 2007, can encourage a show's quick demise, or, by contrast, influence keeping underdogs on the air -- like their much beloved yet struggling "Friday Night Lights" on DirecTV/NBC.

"They are definitely influential and can steer public opinion," says Craig Zisk, executive producer of Showtime's "United States of Tara" -- who says he tries to avoid reading reviews "because no one wants to hear his kid is ugly." He adds, "At the end of each season you look at a lot of things, one being how the show is perceived. That perception is partly driven by critics."

"Cougar Town" was savaged by bad reviews when it first premiered last fall. Since then, the quirky sitcom has evolved into more of an ensemble comedy, something Lawrence was happy to see critics telegraphing to viewers throughout the season.

"People may think that critics aren't as important, now that there are 9,000 blogs out there," he says. "But they still have power."