In defense of my peeps at TCA

Jul 29, 2002  •  Post A Comment

Perhaps it’s actually encouraging that network executives lashed out at TV critics during the recent semiannual press tour. Whenever those gabby grandstanders start braying that they don’t give a damn what critics say, it’s a pretty good sign that the critics are getting under their pampered and in most cases pasty-white skins.
“We the critics, in Pasadena assembled … ”
Actually, I wasn’t there. But I certainly got the flavor of things from the reports filed by my distinguished and flinty Washington Post colleague, Lisa de Moraes, who wrote that it was ABC programmer Susan Lyne’s turn to haul out the old bromide, “We don’t program for critics, we program for real people.” That’s a paraphrase. Actual phrases Lyne used included “groundbreaking and provocative” and “overly complex and overly demanding”-examples, she said, of what critics want but what normal God-fearing Americans don’t. What a complete crock.
The stupid remarks hark back to the long-ago days of onetime ABC chieftain Tony Thomopoulos, who canceled “Police Squad,” he explained, because the show unfairly demanded that the audience pay attention to it. Apparently, ABC executives think Americans use television strictly as a surrogate aquarium or ant farm. They don’t watch it, they just have it on and glance at it now and then.
A big helping of bunk
Never mind that, as is painfully obvious, the public has deserted ABC’s miserably lackluster lineup of programming just as surely as the critics have. On second thought, do mind it. It’s a good point. So is the fact that in any given week many of the shows in Nielsen’s top 20, often a majority, are critics’ favorites too. What Lyne was serving up was a big helping of bunk, and she’s probably smart enough to know it.
Certainly, it’s a bad way to preface a new TV season, by bragging that you aren’t going to be doing anything innovative or startling. Critics don’t always demand that, anyway, at least not the more sensible ones. They demand something that succeeds on its own terms. A good critic can appreciate “SpongeBob SquarePants” as readily as “The West Wing.” Personally, I’d take the former over the latter any day of the week, including Wednesday. “SpongeBob” is so much wittier than “West Wing” is. And the central character more believable.
Jordan Levin and Brad Turell of The WB complained that critics and columnists refer to “the Big 4 networks,” which is the Big 3 plus Fox, when it should be “the Big 5,” which is the Big 4 plus, guess who, The WB. But then they also revived a tattered and discredited old argument about critics: that they’re older than the demographically desirable 18- to 34-year-olds at whom the shows are aimed and thus are out of touch. As de Moraes pointed out, most network executives are older too. And what a cheap, sleazy argument that is in the first place.
Chances are if newspapers all rushed out to hire 19-year-old TV critics, the youth brigade would be just as hostile if not more so to tired and mediocre programming. The remedy is not younger critics. It’s for the networks to try the prescription Simon Cowell gave one of the lousiest contestants on “American Idol” last week: “Do better.”
In the Los Angeles Times, the ever-astute Brian Lowry lent credence to the HBO slogan “It’s not TV, it’s HBO,” because, he said, HBO openly courts critics and prizes the critical acclaim it gets, whereas the broadcast networks try to pretend that critics have no effect on ratings or anything else. Really, the press tours are becoming slugfests, aren’t they? It probably correlates to the continuing decline of the aggregate network share and to such sobering items-sobering to network executives, anyway-as the fact that they now sometimes get their butts battered by an HBO spectacular or even a basic-cable movie.
Much of what they’ve got, the public isn’t buying.
A few years ago, CBS led the networks in the offensive against critics. Executives and public relations people would fire broadsides meant to denounce, discredit or dismiss us. It wasn’t that way in the old days, when CBS aspired to be “the Tiffany’s of television” and often succeeded. Network boss Les Moonves meanwhile revealed what occupies his fertile brain these days: Figure out how to work product placements into dramatic shows and sitcoms as frequently and shamelessly as they are inserted into reality junk like “Big Brother 3,” the latest and saltiest edition of the CBS Sexcapades.
NBC has perhaps since taken the lead among the Big 3, Big 4, Big 5 or Big 51/2 in going out of its way to trash critics. Of course I would say, me in particular. This goes back a few years, but NBC once took out an ad in the Washington Post to denounce my negative review of soap-operatic magazine show “Dateline.” The ad tried to make it appear that I had bashed “60 Minutes” when it premiered, which is slanderous because I’m not old enough to have reviewed the premiere. What they quoted was what we in Newspaperland euphemistically call a “think piece,” written during the period when “60 Minutes” was being criticized for too many pouncing ambush interviews-a practice Don Hewitt himself subsequently all but banned from the show.
When I sarcastically wrote of a terrible network show that, “NBC did it again,” they pulled the quote out of context to make it look like I’d said it as praise. I guess it’s personal with them. It isn’t personal with me except to say I am truly disappointed in the seeming moral decline of former “Today” producer now NBC programming boss Jeff Zucker. If anybody in television looks like they’ve sold their soul outright, it’s him. He’s putting on crap that would make even Fred Silverman nauseous, or echo a famous line from Mel Brooks’ movie “The Producers”: “Talk about bad taste!”
Shame, shame on Conan O’Brien, normally a man of integrity, for playing NBC shill and going out to comically calm the waters for Zucker, who may imagine he himself is as funny and sharp-witted as the great Brandon Tartikoff. There’ll never be another Brandon, dammit.
Viewers know junk when they see it
When networks start beating up on critics, or mewling about how mean and wicked critics are (de Moraes said “WB” stood for “Whiny Boys”), it just makes them look desperate and sad, and they should grow up and realize that. The audience does want better television and often responds to it, even if meretricious swill like “Fear Factor” also draws a crowd. People know junk that insults them from excellence that enriches them, but they also know they have to take a lot of bitter to get to the less plentiful sweet.
Critics don’t insist on 24 hours a day of brilliance so dazzling that viewers need sunglasses or protective goggles to watch it. Their demands are really rather modest-in the case of some critics, sinfully so. Why don’t the crabby carpers echo the sentiments of a Tartikoff or a Grant Tinker: that critics and executives really want the same thing, which is better television and hits with honor.
Three years ago or so I was extolling ABC as my favorite network for the bold steps it took and the breakthrough programming it aired. That was perhaps before massive, infectious Disneyfication took over, before they did things like trotting “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” around the track so many times it became a dead horse-which they then dutifully proceeded to kick.
Fox was this critic’s fave when the 2001-02 season began, with its stylish slate of fresh and clever fare: “24” (since overpraised to bits), “The Bernie Mac Show,” “Undeclared” and even “The Tick.” Two of those will be back in the fall. But Fox, of the Big Whatever, seems to place the least value on critical approval, perhaps because it’s so unaccustomed to getting any.
Lowry cast doubt, as he has in the past, on the efficacy and logic of continuing to hold these press tours, especially if they’re going to degenerate into mud wrestling-or mud-slinging at least. But chances are the press tours will go on, if only because they give network executives a chance to make fools of themselves by trashing hard-w
orking and underpaid journalists-people who are, incidentally, far more representative of the “average American” than any of them could ever hope to be.
Not that they would ever hope to be.