Social networking conversations make for fuzzy boundaries

In a recent Twitter exchange, “The Big Bang Theory” showrunner Bill Prady wrote, “Picking the kid up from preschool and no, that’s not code for anything.”

You can’t be too careful these days when social networking. Twitter and Facebook have opened the door to unfiltered and largely uncontrolled conversations between showrunners and the people who cover television. The waters can get increasingly murkier when TV critics mix with the people whose shows they are reviewing.

Early on in his Twitter life, “Bones” showrunner Hart Hanson discovered a group of TV critics tweeting about a certain show and he put out this question: Do you think by discussing the show online first before writing the review you risk homogenizing your views?

“They were annoyed that I had even asked the question, and I thought, ‘Oh my God, I’ve just alienated the people who hold my life in their sweaty palms,’?” Hanson says, “but they forgave me quickly.”

Engaging through social networks can be a risky business for all concerned.

Kurt Sutter says he reacted online after his series “Sons of Anarchy” was given what he considered to be a harsh review in season one.

“I had an absolutely adverse reaction and brutally leveled the guy in my blog,” he recalls. “Yet he took it in stride. We had an exchange of e-mails, and eventually went to lunch. It sort of enlightened me in how critics review shows, that it ultimately comes down to taste and opinion and that this show just wasn’t his cup of tea.”

Such confrontations make networks uneasy.

“I generally make networks nervous because I act first and think later,” Sutter says, adding that it’s easy to react quickly with a tweet. “I’ve learned to be more cautious about what I tweet. A showrunner isn’t just representing himself, but a studio and network, and I think it’s legitimate for them to get a little nervous about what we say online.”

Social networking has also opened the door to potential friendships between critics, who strive to remain impartial, and the people involved in the shows they cover.

TV critic Alan Sepinwall of Hitfix.com says having a social networking relationship might not change a reviewer’s opinion of the show, but it could have an impact.

“It might have taken some of the viciousness out, and that might not be a bad thing,” he says. “You can be harsh without being cruel. It may be part age and part knowing the people, but I’ve learned being cruel in a review is not necessary.”

Constructive criticism still has a positive effect. Sepinwall says there have been many times when his critiques have led to changes in a show. Last season he wrote an extended blog entry on the way showrunner Dan Harmon approached the character played by Chevy Chase in NBC’s “Community.”

“(Sepinwall) put it in simple language that Chevy is a soloist, and I realized I mishandled the character in thinking of him as an ensemble character,” Harmon says. “If you are writing a sitcom and want people to have a laugh, you have to pay attention to what people you respect have to say.”

While frequent tweeter Neal Baer of “Law & Order: SVU” appreciates cogent reviews of TV shows, he says he believes there should be a wall between critics and showrunners.

“It’s important to have someone trained in literary criticism to comment on your work, but with (social network platforms) we’ve seen an overabundance of exuberance about shows that don’t merit it,” Baer says. “The hyperbole seems to have occurred because of the all the blogs, websites and tweets.”

As Sepinwall concludes, social networking between critics and showrunners can be a tricky thing.

“You have 140 characters to express yourself, then you get a direct message saying ‘Dude. That was harsh,’?” Sepinwall says. “There’s no filter, no control and Twitter makes it obvious, but the genie is out of the bottle and you can’t get it back in.”

“There’s more of an opportunity to know each other better,” says Shawn Ryan, who is shepherding Fox’s upcoming series “Ride-Along.” “I assume they are professionals who wouldn’t allow that to impact their reviews, but does it unconsciously filter their opinions?” “I know in life when you know someone well, you tend to sympathize and root for them.”

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