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Critics’ clout crumbling as acclaimed shows fade

IF TELEVISION CRITICS seem a bit nervous at this month’s twice-annual dog-and-pony show with the various networks, they have reason to be.

Critics, while still functioning in part as the industry’s conscience, have seen their ability to act as opinion leaders continue to fade in recent years, with a number of alarming developments making popular criticism of TV seem all the more ineffectual. In particular:

n The failure of “Brooklyn Bridge” and “I’ll Fly Away,” as well as to a lesser degree shows like “Civil Wars” and “Homefront,” have prompted repeated questions at the current press tour about the future of quality (i.e., shows critics like) on television. Their demise follows a fatal period for critical favorites that also included shows like “Twin Peaks” and “China Beach,” and the realization that critics can’t lead the public horse to water or make it drink.

  • The success of critically panned series and movies, most recently CBS’ “Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman.”

  • Huge viewership for the Amy Fisher movies, which has critics moaning about the future of the entire genre sliding into the primal ooze. Any sense that the press fed the frenzy by writing endlessly about the Fisher triad, of course, is offset by noting that the commentary was so negative one might have hoped it would have chased some viewers away.

  • Syndicated news magazines and reality series continue to do quite nicely, over the occasional cry that shows like “Geraldo,””Hard Copy” and “A Current Affair” signal the end of modern civilization. Indeed, for all the writing over the years about local news, the three O&O’s are now virtually indistinguishable, and criticism of that reality feels more and more like tilting at windmills.

Newspapers, like television, are an advertiser-dependent medium and suffer during recessionary times. With the print media seeking ways to run leaner and meaner, no one, no matter how esoterically inclined, wants to appear to be operating on the edge of obsolescence. The only people paying critics any attention, it seems, are Roseanne and Tom Arnold. Heck, even he quipped to critics Sunday that his fondness for them had gotten him into trouble at home.

THE UNDERLYING SENSE OF IRRELEVANCE at the critics tour is intriguing in the context of some data presented over the weekend by ABC senior VP of marketing and research services Alan Wurtzel, who generally brings common-sense lifestyle references to the sterile world of number-crunching.

First, the numbers: Wurtzel cited a recent study that says 41% of households now have three or more TV sets, 67% receive 20 or more channels, 77% have VCRs and 86% use remote controls. Because of that explosion of program options, Wurtzel suggested that the role of the critic could become more important in helping viewers decide what to watch.

Yet among cable subscribers, 68% of those polled in a Frank Magid Associates survey felt they currently have enough channels, and another 7% say they have too many channels. Turning to compression technology that could dramatically increase the number of available channels, Wurtzel observed that marketers of 100- or 500-channel systems would clearly face a tough sell.

He also pointed to what he called the “car-radio phenomenon,” where listeners have dozens of stations to choose from but tend to listen to a handful of them. According to Nielsen analysis, the same holds true in cable homes, with viewers watching only about a third of the channels they receive.

Wurtzel joked about a phone book-sized TV Guide in a 500-channel environment, adding, “One of the questions I think that we all have to answer at some point is, ‘How much work do people want to engage in when they watch television?’ ”

Just think about how many of the channels you watch with any regularity, and those instances when you come home and pop on the set without consulting listings–flipping around the dial aimlessly, checking movies on pay or basic services before settling (if you settle at all) on what to watch. Even if viewers are generally purposeful in their viewing habits, a vast number of people undoubtedly turn on the set and then figure out what it is they’re going to watch.

One can draw various conclusions from all this, but it’s hard to rule out the possibility of viewer fatigue, a condition brought about by the number of channels available, resulting in reluctance to put much effort into making educated viewing choices.

There’s a lot of food for thought there, and where Wurtzel’s presentation leaves critics specifically is anybody’s guess. In retrospect, however, when those nasty faxes from Roseanne show up, perhaps critics should just be happy someone’s taking them seriously.

GOLLY, THERE’S JUST NOTHIN’ more annoying than Dan Rather when he tries to be folksy. The anchor provided an ample supply of down-home homilies during the critics tour on Monday and–similar to his national election coverage–ended up looking self-conscious, as if he were auditioning for a job that he has already won.

Foremost, Rather, in seeking to act like the critics’ buddy and a regular guy , came off about as well as his old sparring partner, George Bush, when he used to talk about his penchant for pork rinds in an effort to capture the “Bubba vote.”

CBS correspondent Bob Simon, who spent time in captivity during the Persian Gulf War, would “fight a rattlesnake and give him a two-bite head start,” Rather told press, later demonstrating his CBS team spirit by observing, “You can’t pull a cross-cut saw by yourself.” Whatever, but something sharp was needed to cut through all that bull.

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