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For Movies and TV, a Critical Divide

When it comes to controlling critics, TV and movies go in different directions

Beyond their good works, Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel’s TV showcase helped simplify film criticism, bringing a gladiatorial thumbs-up or thumbs-down ruthlessness to such analysis. It was also a handy marketing tool, which is worth considering as we enter the summer movie season, when negative reviews are deemed about as effective as trying to stop Iron Man by throwing paper clips.

The irony is that while a certain breed of movie blockbusters appear invulnerable to critical brickbats, studios continue to labor mightily to control the flow of information — from forcing attendees to hand over cellphones at screenings to sometimes asking journalists to sign nondisclosure agreements pledging not to break review embargo dates.

In this context, critics are seen as a necessary nuisance, designed to serve one purpose: helping to remind people your movie is opening — thus augmenting the millions spent on TV ads — if not convincing them to go see it.

By contrast, TV criticism resembles the Wild West — a medium where reviewing has been transformed by establishing an ongoing conversation with die-hard fans, as opposed to simply tub-thumping a new show’s arrival to the masses.

With the growing emphasis on recaps and post-viewing essays, a branch of TV criticism has taken a significant turn away from “Tell me what I should see” to “Let’s discuss what I just saw.” It’s a more elevated conversation, but also a more insular one that does less, from networks’ crass commercial perspective, to further their marketing goals.

That’s because, as Josh Levin wrote in a 2011 piece for Slate, a consequence of such longform Web criticism “is that you get led around by television’s most rabid fan bases,” which aren’t always particularly representative of the wider world. As Time critic James Poniewozik observed in response, the broader challenge for critics is “how to build a community without pandering to it.”

Although the networks’ PR machines are generally no less anal than their feature-film counterparts, few in TV bother setting or seeking to enforce strict embargo dates, allowing critics (and other journalists who don’t even write reviews) to post and tweet appraisals almost as soon as they receive DVDs.

Networks and especially producers do ask critics to refrain from publishing spoilers that give away key plot details — in certain instances, such as “Mad Men’s” perfectionist showrunner Matthew Weiner, going so far as to issue an explicit no-no list. Yet when the AMC show returned in April, some reviewers chafing against such restrictions simply chose to hold their thoughts until after the premiere, freeing them to weigh in without handcuffs.

Of course, nothing is quite that simple or easy anymore, since DVR viewing means many people don’t watch a show right away. Nevertheless, scribes unleash torrents of post-“Mad Men” analysis every week, sort of like a term paper you’re never finished writing.

Which approach is more effective? That sort of depends on whom you ask, and what your specific agenda entails as a studio/network flack or traffic-seeking hack. But it’s pretty clear the two aren’t always in sync.

Despite longstanding efforts to diminish them, critics still have a valuable role to play. That’s even truer now regarding television, where consumers who could once idly surf the free-TV dial often must pay to watch something — albeit not as much as they shell out for movie or theater tickets — which introduces a desire to be an informed shopper.

Almost certainly, some programs benefit from TV’s cascade of meta-analysis, with at least anecdotal evidence (if not much in the way of ratings) to suggest all the navel-gazing about HBO’s “Girls,” for example, causes some folks to wonder what could possibly merit such a fuss.

Frankly, it would be nice to settle on a reasonable middle ground between movie studio control freaks and TV’s laissez-faire, if-it-feels-good-write-it attitude. But for now, everyone is still feeling their way.

Ultimately, studios and networks don’t really care how people are alerted to their wares, as long as they show up. It’s interesting, though, that despite all the dexterity evidenced in carefully shaped PR and marketing campaigns, when it comes to creating a coherent blueprint for this brave new world of criticism, the industry is pretty much all thumbs.

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