When Roger Ebert announced last week that he had reluctantly put his TV series “Ebert Presents at the Movies” on hiatus, it may have marked the end of a genre that he helped create more than 35 years ago: the televised film-critic debate.
“It’s tough. Our problem was not viewers but financing,” Ebert explains in an email. Outside of a $25,000 grant, Ebert bankrolled the show himself.
“Our ratings pleased public television, and we would still be on the air had we found financing,” he adds, “but in this economy public television is suffering from a shortage of underwriting. I believe the time is here for PBS to consider more permissive guidelines for sponsorship.”
In 1975, Ebert, the Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times, and his cross-town rival Gene Siskel, of the Chicago Tribune, created “Sneak Previews” for a local TV station. It moved to PBS and quickly became one of its most popular series.
Ebert and Siskel left that show in 1983 to host a series of syndicated shows, usually employing the phrase “At the Movies” in the title. Siskel died in 1999, and when Ebert was diagnosed with thyroid cancer in 2006, he remained a producer on the series, which eventually ended up pairing Richard Roeper and the Chicago Tribune’s Michael Phillips in the balcony.
Ebert left when the studio sought a younger audience with the inexperienced critic Ben Lyons (whom Ebert deemed “a disaster”). The following year, producers reversed course and brought back Phillips, alongside the New York Times’ A.O. Scott. The show ceased production in 2010.
“We had favorable ratings in markets where we had favorable timeslots,” Phillips says. “Markets (with) early-morning slots weren’t doing us any favors. I think people assumed we were selling Gold Bond body powder.”
Few have attempted to replicate Siskel and Ebert’s entertaining bickering chemistry. PBS continued “Sneak Previews” to diminishing returns for another decade. In 2000, FX introduced the short-lived “The New Movie Show,” featuring a critics’ roundtable discussing movies and trends.
The proliferation of online movie sites may have damaged the genre, though Ebert points out, “Our ratings on public TV dwarfed the audiences for netcasts.”
Still, says AP film critic Christy Lemire, who appears on “Ebert Presents” and the vlog “What the Flick?,” “People want what they want and they want it now. Why wait until 6 p.m. on a Sunday to watch my show when you can go online? Hopefully, (‘Ebert Presents’) provides another level of analysis.
“There are pros and cons” to TV and vlogs, she adds. “What’s fun about ‘What the Flick?’ is we have a little more breathing room. It’s like watching friends having a conversation, which is exactly what it is. The benefit of being on TV is, you have to get to your points succinctly and make them count. I’d like to think we’re in a world where both shows are not mutually exclusive.”
“It’s a weird period if you’re a thoughtful film critic — — there’s very little perspective about movies before 1975, particularly from people giving away their reviews for free online,” says Alonso Duralde, who appears with Lemire on “What the Flick?” He worries that the shelf-life of the genre may be ending. “If Ebert can’t do it, it’s a little nerve-wracking for anyone else taking a stab at it.”
Phillips isn’t as pessimistic: “You can yak all you want about the death of film criticism, but it’s not going away any more than the film industry is vanishing. General audiences and cinephiles alike are always looking for an honest broker in the opinion game. There’s a way to get intelligent talk about the movies back into the national conversation. You just need the right people plus a format that works, and doesn’t feel busy or gimmicky.”
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