In Depth

Critics Have Harsh Words for Networks

TVWeek Poll Solicited Advice for Executives, and Got Plenty

The people who get paid to watch TV probably would prefer to pretend the last four months never happened.

Always a surly lot, the nation’s TV critics—whose semiannual press tour kicks into high gear this week in Los Angeles—are disappointed, if not downright angry, over what many believe to be one of the most lackluster autumn launches in memory.

And while much of their ire seems directed at NBC—Ben Silverman, you’ve been warned—all the networks took hits from the approximately four dozen writers who participated in TelevisionWeek’s twice-yearly Critics Poll.

“This was easily the worst fall season I’ve seen in over 10 years of doing this,” said Anne Louise Bannon, who writes for the Web site YourFamilyViewer.com. “Even the shows that weren’t horrible didn’t interest me. Not one of the new shows made it onto our DVR.”

Ms. Bannon was the most blunt—and broad—in her indictment of the first half of the 2008-09 season. But the critical malaise was evident in numerous responses to a series of questions TVWeek posed.

“Don’t take your viewers for granted,” said Pittsburgh Post-Gazette TV editor Rob Owen, responding to our request to offer up a New Year’s resolution for the networks. “Just because ABC execs don’t like ‘Boston Legal’ and only renewed it to get ‘Life on Mars’ away from David E. Kelley isn’t good enough justification for canceling ‘Boston Legal.’”

“Stop relying on the easy way out with reality nonsense and line up more scripted shows with intelligent scripts and trained actors,” urged Jacqueline Carter of Tribune Media Services.

And Dave Lake, senior producer for MSN TV, issued yet another plea for networks to “take more risks.”

“Don’t we have enough procedurals? Enough lawyer shows? Enough cop shows? Don’t chase last season’s successes, come up with something new. When ‘90210’ hits, don’t remake ‘Melrose Place,’ develop something that appeals to the same demo but that isn’t a retread,” he said.

With budget cuts becoming annual affairs at most networks, critics decried the impact of shrinking spending on the quality of shows.

Michael Maloney, a contributing editor for Soaps in Depth magazine, said daytime has been particularly hard-hit. His advice to networks in all dayparts: “Spend money to make money.

Cutting corners on productions makes them less watchable,” he said. “One soap has (reduced its budget to the point that) it’s unwatchable.”

As Zap2It.com’s Rick Porter noted, “Audiences care more about the quality of the material on screen rather than whether you’re maximizing its revenue potential.”

In addition to general gripes, critics also had plenty of specific advice for executives. One of their biggest notes: Enough with the imports already!

TV Guide senior critic Matt Roush urged networks to “look within the creative community for your next big thing—not from overseas concepts, however tempting. They rarely translate well, and it’s an awfully lazy way to do business.”

Melanie McFarland of IMDb.com framed the import craze as a foreign-policy issue.

“Haven’t we caused enough pain to other countries over the past eight years in this department?” she asked. “Perhaps we should lay off of the Americanized imports a little. We’re supposedly embarking on a new era of better international relations, and perhaps part of that should include a temporary moratorium on regurgitating foreign formats that have been sent through the digestive tract of ‘American sensibility.’ Let’s give it a rest for a bit.”

'Skins' Is In

Of course, not every critic had a problem with remakes. When asked to suggest a show that could be translated for American audiences, many nominated Britain’s “Skins,” which currently airs on BBC America. “This show is instantly addictive and peopled with far more quirky and believably conflicted young characters than the slick and silly ‘Gossip Girl,’” raved John Crook of Tribune Media Services.

Not surprisingly, critics also remain unhappy with the sorry state of sitcoms.

“Find better comedies. Yesterday,” begged Eric Deggans of the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times.
Ken Tucker of Entertainment Weekly seconded that emotion: “Figure out how to do comedy again on the major networks, willya?”

Some other words of advice to the networks:

—“Please lighten up,” said Terry Morrow of the Knoxville (Tenn.) News Sentinel. “This preoccupation with being dark and gloomy doesn’t translate to being taken seriously. Pick a series that runs on optimism. Don’t sell good news or positivity short. Being stark and dire isn’t what we need now.”

—John Griffiths of US Magazine, however, wants less sunshine. “Put on some shows that speak to the working class, and what’s really going on out there,” he advised. “Even the news is glossy.”

—“Embrace a new series model,” suggested Daniel Fienberg of HitFix.com. “The limited-run series—13 episodes or even fewer—works overseas. It works on cable. Why can’t it work on network TV? Networks try to treat every show like it’s a CBS procedural, easily reproducible and churned out and marketed to the same audiences in the same ways. Broadcasting is on life-support, so embrace the possibilities of narrowcasting.”

—Matt Webb Mitovich of TVGuide.com longs for the networks to “start programming Saturdays properly again. There’s no reason Monday should be so ridiculously overpopulated.”

—Similarly, Detroit News critic Mekeisha Madden Toby is praying for a return to better programming on Friday nights. “Once upon a time, shows such as ‘Dallas’ and the family-friendly comedies from ABC’s TGIFriday lineup made Friday night TV fun,” she said. “Do it again.”

—“Kill reality TV,” requested Alan Pergament of the Buffalo (N.Y.) News.

TVWeek also asked critics to name one show that should be immediately killed. While NBC’s “Kath and Kim” and “Knight Rider” led the balloting, several nominations were surprising.

Fox’s “American Idol” has its share of haters, for example. “It’s evil,” declared Mr. Tucker of Entertainment Weekly.

Time’s James Poniewozik would like to see “Meet the Press” go away. His advice: “Declare that it bowed out with Russert [and] give over the hour to actual coverage of governance issues instead of four years of pre-election politicking.”

Mr. Roush is in the camp of critics who can’t stand “Criminal Minds,” the CBS procedural. “Now and forever, [it’s] one undistinguished and unpleasant CBS crime drama too many,” he said.

'Grey's' Cloud

And while many writers expressed frustration with NBC’s once-mighty “Heroes,” those who’ve turned against ABC’s “Grey’s Anatomy”—which once landed among the 10 best shows in the Critics Poll—were particularly upset about that show’s perceived decline.

“The more you watch, the more ridiculous it gets,” complained Joanne Ostrow of the Denver Post.

Maureen Ryan of the Chicago Tribune was even more blunt: “Never has so much potential been squandered so heedlessly,” she said. “Make the pain stop!”

For the most part, critics kept their complaints broad, decrying trends or shows rather than specific networks or executives. Except, that is, when it came to NBC.

As previously reported (TelevisionWeek, Jan. 5), NBC claimed four out of five spots on the Critics Poll list of the worst shows on television. But rather than simply get snarky about bad shows, many scribes took the opportunity as an excuse to vent their frustrations with what they perceive to be declining quality—and poor management—at NBC.

TV Guide’s Mr. Roush, for example, described NBC’s “Knight Rider” and “My Own Worst Enemy” as “two witless junkers that got the network more jazzed over automotive product placement than creative coherence, of which there was none.”

NBC's Fall

The Chicago Tribune’s Ms. Ryan, meanwhile, was one of many critics who said NBC had the worst fall launch of any network. “No matter what platform they were on, the shows stunk,” she said.

And a number of critics bemoaned NBC’s decision to produce a number of series without first shooting a pilot. “If the fruits of this experiment are any indication (i.e., pretty much all NBC’s crappy new shows), the old system may not have been so flawed after all,” opined Brent Furdyk of TVWeek Canada.

Some critics also seem to feel a bit of personal animus toward NBC’s Mr. Silverman. He was the only executive mentioned by name by any of the Critics Poll respondents—and the comments weren’t favorable.

“He has reduced NBC and broadcast TV in general to the equivalent of a dollar store,” said Tom Jicha of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. “His statement that he’s in the margins business, not the ratings business, evokes bastardization of a famous saying. ‘He who surrenders ratings for margins soon will have neither.’”