When I wrote about The (Non) Influence of the TV Critic, I was relaying a panel discussion about whether critics have the power to make or break a show, and whether they even should. As far as my opinion went, I was questioning their focus, not their existence.
On Thursday, Variety printed an article about the diminishing ranks of TV critics at newspapers across the United States. Out with the old, in with... nobody: Newspapers phasing out veteran critics enumerates the TV reporters and critics who have been phased out, replaced by wire service copy or nothing at all.
Time's James Poniewozik hesitantly picked up on the Variety article and points out there hasn't been much discussion, maybe because of the awkwardness of critics writing about the threat to their jobs. There's no way for them to do it without being self-serving and therefore not terribly credible. But I'm a blogger, one of the mass of amateur voices accused of helping to supplant professional critics, so I've got nothing at stake when I say it's shortsighted at best for newspapers to eliminate local TV critics.
I think we're further down that road in Canada than the Americans are. We have national TV columnists at the Globe and Mail, the National Post, and Macleans magazine, and unique voices at the Toronto Star, with Vinay Menon, Jim Bawden, and Rob Salem covering the TV beat, and at the Vancouver Province with Dana Gee, whose online columns are, unfortunately, generally behind a subscription firewall.
But CanWest News Services, Sun Media and the Canadian Press supply the majority of television coverage here, which means I can pick up the Vancouver Sun and get the same coverage as I'd get in the Calgary Herald or the Edmonton Journal. Alex Strachan is a fine writer, but he's one man with one opinion on any given topic. I didn't even realize he was based in Vancouver until I looked up that hyperlink.
Besides that, most of what I can find in my local papers -- Gee usually excepted -- I can find online, along with much, much more of the same, of varying qualities and varying opinions but all filling the same role, because it's all meant for a mass audience.
Even our niche papers, the alternative arts and entertainment weeklies like the Georgia Straight, don't cover TV with anywhere near the same frequency or devotion as they cover film, music, theatre, visual arts, dance, food, books, fashion, politics, good grief, even crafts and sex shops get more coverage. I might as well call them the "arts and entertainment except television" papers.
John Doyle, essentially Canada's premiere TV critic, writing for the Globe and Mail, recently left his Toronto confines and wrote a series of columns from Vancouver, where he interviewed the people behind shows such as Intelligence, Robson Arms, Sanctuary, and the upcoming JPod and About a Girl. I loved those articles. Loved them. Partly, it was because I'd met some of the people he talked to. Mostly, it was because this was insight into television from my hometown perspective: what's filming here, who the players are, and how the city makes it onscreen in subtle and obvious ways.
He focused on shows filming here, but you only need to look to someone like the Chicago Tribune's Maureen Ryan or New Jersey's Alan Sepinwall to see how their hometown perspective often seeps into their coverage of what they're watching.
Besides the fact that John Doyles don't grow on trees, why don't I read articles like that regularly in the Vancouver Sun or the Georgia Straight? Why would I go to the Vancouver Sun for TV coverage when I can read its generic content in a hundred different places?
Newspapers are facing an uncertain future, partly from competition with the Internet's free-flowing information, where everyone's a critic and every critic is answerable to their readers. The solution from the news divisions is often to find ways to steal a page, so to speak, from the Internet -- to interact more with their readers, create a sense of community and two-way conversation, and above all, to fill a local niche. (Interactive journalism professor Jeff Jarvis talks a lot about this kind of thing on BuzzMachine.)
And yet newspapers are doing the opposite with their television coverage, despite the immense reach of television and fans' seemingly insatiable appetite for discussion of TV. Instead of creating community around TV coverage, they're diluting it. Instead of finding a local niche, they're outsourcing and genericizing it.
Matt Roush of TV Guide sums it up in the Variety article:
"It seems to me a newspaper with the resources to nurture local voices and personalities can't afford to be without someone who is interpreting both the local and national TV scene," he says. "The idea you can have the same impact just by picking up wire copy and replacing your local columnist with those stories diminishes the role of the local newspaper in my eyes."