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TV Criticism in the Digital Age Becoming a Matter of Favorites

In the just-published book “Media Criticism in the Digital Age,” Central Michigan U. professor Peter Orlik explores how criticism is evolving. And while he cites “critic as guide” as a still-vital function, for many, “What should I see?” is being replaced by “What did I see?” even as interest in impartial analysis gives way to favoring like-minded voices apt to echo one’s views.

If this sounds like a potentially futile, last-ditch defense of traditional criticism, guilty perhaps as charged. Yet there are significant and tangible implications, beyond those insular concerns, associated with small constituencies gravitating toward recaps of what they like as opposed to reviews of what they might like, as well as a landscape where those invested in a show — from creative personnel to ardent fans — can easily sidestep discouraging words and find “Atta boys” by frequenting the right social-media venues.

For a parallel to this in the political sphere, see the failed 2012 presidential bid by Mitt Romney, who — along with many of his supporters — was convinced he would win right up until Election Day. That’s because there was ample polling and punditry to buttress that feeling of momentum, especially if one ignored sites like Nate Silver’s Fivethirtyeight.com that indicated otherwise.

In similar fashion, programs that generate passionate but tiny followings often engender a false sense of security, causing those who can’t get enough of “Hannibal,” for example, to wrongly assume they have more company than they actually do.

The shifting way criticism is consumed, and measured, feeds this dynamic, now that everything can be gauged in Web traffic, in a way that wasn’t possible not so long ago. In this climate, genre hits like “The Walking Dead” or “Game of Thrones” obviously can’t be written about enough, but there’s also an incentive to write more about less-popular programs that possess their own rabid, zombie-like followings. By contrast, a lot of new shows that lack such cachet — or barring that, a big star or some other extremely marketable hook — are going to be treated like dead shows walking, and left to starve.

In some respects, the digital evolution has forced the critic-to-public relationship to become more democratic, and certainly less one-sided, than it once was. Daily statistics let us know which series generate the most enthusiasm, and coverage can be tailored accordingly to address demand.

At the same time, decisions about what gets covered — and ignored — are becoming increasingly ruthless and unforgiving. Moreover, certain biases are built into this process that should be evident to anyone with an Internet connection, favoring not necessarily the widest audience, but — again aping politics –— those who are most engaged and vocal, and amplifying those voices.

As a consequence, smaller networks are going to have a harder time getting noticed, while properties with built-in followings enjoy a considerable advantage. And suddenly, every outlet, mainstream or otherwise, has acquired fanboy sensibilities — just witness the metamorphosis of Entertainment Weekly — knowing full well that the audience looking for information about Marvel, “Star Wars” or “Supergirl” will turn out in disproportionate droves.

As Variety noted two years ago, newspapers’ migration to digital platforms has fundamentally altered their priorities. And since journalistic resources are finite (and in many cases shrinking), one has to wonder about which deserving new shows or channels will get overlooked, due to this pressure to keep feeding the insatiable appetite for what’s hot.

Orlik closes his book with a pitch for legitimate criticism, writing, “Art is inspired construction, while criticism is scrupulous deconstruction. It is hard for either to prosper without the other.”

Of course, for a critic, that’s preaching to the choir. And as noted, these days, there’s a lot of that going on already.

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