TV critics remain important to how shows find viewers


When the poorly reviewed "Wild Hogs" from Buena Vista and "Norbit" from Paramount became boxoffice blockbusters this year, the success prompted media columnists to grouse about the relevance of film critics in the 21st century. After all, if critics pan a film and consumers choose to see it anyway, what does that say about the validity and importance of reviews?

The same argument pops up about TV reviewers at least once a season, but critics and TV producers say that the circumstances are entirely different, in large part because TV critics provide a different kind of service than their counterparts in film. In the movie business, preventing critics from screening a trashy genre film in advance makes some sense because it gives a movie a chance to bank a substantial opening weekend before bad word of mouth spreads. But according to Rob Owen, critic for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and president of the Television Critics Assn., "In TV, there's greater competition for eyeballs because there are so many more outlets." With hundreds of channels and thousands of programs clogging the airwaves, TV producers need critics to help get the word out.

Owen says that if the networks were going to start treating TV critics as disdainfully as studios have been treating movie critics, "They'd have to stop sending us screeners. Instead, the opposite is happening. I'm getting more screeners than ever. I think CBS even sent out 'Armed and Famous.'"

As for TV producers, many insist that they crave the feedback -- positive and negative -- that informed TV critics can give them. Bertram Van Munster, whose "The Amazing Race" on CBS is the rare reality series that wins acclaim and awards along with good ratings, says, "When you're in the creative genre that we operate in, yeah, you think about your audience. But the main thing is you want to do something that you think is really, really cool. And if the audience and the critics on top of it love it, we're incredibly thrilled."

Howard Gordon, producer of Fox's "24," has his own special interactions with critics, who seem to pick over his show week after week and year after year, raving about it when it's on a high and groaning loudly when it's on a low. "I listen to the criticism," Gordon says. "I take it seriously, and obviously I love it when it's good, but I listen even when it's bad. We all do. And it does have an impact on our approach to the show. It's sometimes maddening, but it is a relationship. And it doesn't only span a single season. I think critics often cite other seasons in the same review, so it becomes a long-term relationship. And when you disappoint people you're in a long-term relationship with, you feel disappointed."

Matt Roush, veteran critic for TV Guide, says that the long-term relationship between critics and shows is part of what makes his job different from what other critics do because "our opinions can change along with the creative arc of a show." And because most TV critics have the advantage of a multiple-times-a-week column, they can draw in readers with coverage of hit shows and then, Roush says, "focus attention on shows that are sometimes better than their ratings."

Dave Walker of the New Orleans Times-Picayune (and TCA vp) takes it even further, saying that if critics have a favorite show that needs some love, they can use their position to tout the show's merits. "Over time, I think critics may have a little more influence in pushing a show along," Walker says. "It's the repetition of writers, over and over going, 'Wow, if you miss this, you're really missing something.'"

On the flip side, critics have just as much power to kill a show, Roush says, citing NBC's "The Black Donnellys" and "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip" as examples from this past season. "If a show has low ratings and bad reviews, that combined is certainly a killer," he says. "Audience indifference combined with critical derision helped seal 'The Black Donnellys" pretty quick doom." As for saving a show, Roush says, "This season, the litmus test for whether a TV critic still has relevance (was) the fate of 'Friday Night Lights.' The show has such puny ratings, but the critics have spun rhapsodies on it. I got a sense that as the season progressed, the industry began to take notice. One would love to think that we could do for 'Friday Night Lights' what critics back in the '80s did for 'Cheers' and 'Hill Street Blues.'"

But Walker says there are limits. "There are times when critical favorites fail so thoroughly that there's just no saving them," he notes. "It's happened again and again to Andy Richter."

Walker recalls a TCA session during which former Fox TV chairman Sandy Grushow was grilled by a critic who said that a person could build a whole network out of the really good shows that Fox had canceled. According to Walker, Grushow scoffed, "It would be a very poorly rated network."

If the critics can't save a show, sometimes Emmy nominations -- and wins -- can. And there might well be a correlation between the amount of ink a show gets from writers and how much attention the primetime TV academy, the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, and its daytime counterpart, the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, pay. "24's" Gordon says that persistent raves can "ignite the buzz around a show and keep it lit. Maybe for some shows that's less so, but for us, that's very much the case," he notes.

But Roush disagrees. "The Emmys are just kind of hopeless sometimes," he says. "They really do pitch it like it's a popularity contest because it's so hard to crack into the club." Roush points to the fact that the Emmys often get locked into awarding the same shows and the same actors year after year, ignoring the one or two that everyone in the media is talking about. "It's as if the breakthrough show of that given year just didn't exist," Roush says.

Owen says the problem might be that critics -- and audiences for that matter -- watch shows for entire seasons, while the two academies only watch the episodes that are submitted by the networks for awards consideration. "It's an odd way to do it," Owen says, "because it seems out of step with how people watch television -- particularly television since 'Hill Street Blues,' when episodes aren't as self-contained. Sometimes, you need to see everything preceding an episode in order to appreciate what you're watching."

Gordon, however, has a theory that positive notices and good ratings can't help but have some effect, citing a recent study that indicated that when random listeners were asked to assess songs they were told were in the top 10 versus those that weren't, they nearly always felt more favorably toward the songs they thought were popular.

Brent Stanton, executive director for the Daytime Emmy Awards, says of his voters, "I'm sure they're aware of the programs up for awards." But he holds to the party line when asked about whether good reviews turn Emmy-voting heads. "The voters should be thinking about the submission," he insists, "rather than its popularity or acclaim."

So, to the question of whether TV critics are still relevant, the answer appears to be, "Yes, kind of." Walker says that what sets TV critics apart from movie critics is that "TV is easier to sample than movies. I think the audience makes up its mind by watching. The real fun in this job is helping people find the 10 hours a week of TV that aren't crap," he says.

And that still means something to the people who try to produce noncrap television. When asked if he'd be bothered if he had a hit show with lousy reviews, "Amazing Race's" Van Munster says, "I probably would. You can always say, 'Oh, we got the ratings, and we got the money, and we got the this and the that.' Yeah, it's great if an audience likes it. But if I can be liked by all, I prefer that."