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Quest for youth blurs search for standards

AS A POLICY I don’t tip my hand regarding reviews, but when a publicist recently inquired about my reaction to an upcoming TV movie, an inadvertent groan betrayed where I stood. She then proceeded to crack wise about the film more tartly than anything I had dreamt up.

While this perhaps represented a breach of flackery etiquette, the admission bought her a significant measure of credibility, since these days people seem increasingly clueless regarding quality, cheerfully asking “Did you like it?” without the foggiest notion of what to expect.

Part of this can be traced to an assembly-line approach, where publicists process the widgets rolling by without much thought to what’s in the box. It’s as if some of these harried folk either don’t familiarize themselves what they’re promoting or don’t care enough to form their own opinion.

Another element clouding matters surely involves the pseudo-critic shills who happily provide breathless review quotes for ads. While taste is obviously subjective, as Variety‘s Tim Gray regularly notes, it’s a tad suspicious when the same guy labels three comedies “The laugh-out-loud romp of the year!” in February.

Yet the biggest underlying cause, I’d argue, is a growing disconnect between those making and marketing movies and TV shows and the intended audience. That’s because thanks to the pervasive emphasis on youth culture, the industry’s product increasingly aims at a viewer who is worrying about the SAT exam, not holding down a full-time job.

AS A CONSEQUENCE, it’s not unusual for PR and production execs to actually fly blind regarding how the press will respond, since they don’t relate well enough to what they’re pitching to have a clear sense of it.

It’s harder to imagine this happening with the same frequency in the past. After all, it was easy to see “It Happened One Night” or “The Best Years of Our Lives” and ascertain that the studio had a pretty good movie there, whether the public showed up or not.

By contrast, the crystal ball becomes blurrier when the finished product is, say, an unscripted program like the WB’s “BMOC” or “The Starlet” — two examples of trainwreck TV, though the latter possesses a certain kitsch-y charm that can be the difference between “good bad” and “bad bad.” Broad sitcoms can prove equally confounding, leaving adults to guess how those concepts will play with the target demographic.

Critics, of course, can feel somewhat vindicated as the TV season draws toward its official close, having overwhelmingly lauded “Lost” and “Desperate Housewives,” which both became major hits. That at least partially dispels the popular notion that critical praise spells commercial doom, lately known as “Arrested Development” syndrome.

Nevertheless, the overlap between what reigns at the box office or tops the Nielsen charts and what earns top awards remains marginal. So the next time someone involved with a production blithely asks a critic, “Did you like it?,” they should first consider their answer to the same question, along with the follow-up, “And if you didn’t, how much do I care?”

* * *

SPEAKING OF THE TYRANNY of youth and eroding standards, TV news witnessed a disheartening if telling juxtaposition when Ted Koppel announced his pending departure from “Nightline” the day that Terri Schiavo died. In a way, that marked the perfect baton pass from sobriety to insanity, as the unsavory stage show “Schiavo-Mania” continued its cable/talkradio tour.

News in general, in fact, is undergoing a midlife crisis, dolling itself up with a bad comb-over to woo that elusive younger audience, as former “Nightline” exec producer Leroy Sievers pointed out in a Los Angeles Times op-ed.

This tension was also addressed during a USC seminar Saturday on the state of news, where ABC News’ Judy Muller acknowledged, “The newest trend is to go ‘live’ when it makes no sense.” Time magazine senior editorial adviser Richard Stolley, meanwhile, cited the 50-plus median age of newspaper and evening news patrons in warning, “We have got to figure out a way to get young people interested in what’s happening in the world,” or risk becoming “a dumb country.”

There’s no disputing the financial imperatives behind coveting younger demos, and with the old anchor guard changing, the brakes impeding that pursuit have worn thin. Add this thought, however, to the “unintended consequences” file: Is it really an accident that the more intently the press chases youth, the more disdainful the public becomes toward the media?

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