×

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.

Popular on Variety

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.

More Voices

  • Oscar Statue Oscars Placeholder

    Oscars 2020 Predictions: Who Will Get Nominated?

    The Oscar race is on. And it’s about to get a lot more intense when the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences announces the nominations for the 92nd Oscars on Jan. 13. Golden Globes shutout “The Irishman” is favored to earn several nods, as will “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” which went home [...]

  • Golden Globes Analysis Oscar Race

    Why Golden Globes Will Likely Have Little Effect on Oscar Nominations (Column)

    With the Globes now behind us and Oscar noms rapidly approaching on Jan. 13, what should we be paying attention to in Hollywood’s biggest film awards race? Surefire bets are Globe winners Renée Zellweger (“Judy”), who already has one Oscar, and Brad Pitt, who should garner his third acting nomination for his work in Quentin [...]

  • Renee Zellweger "Judy" Pathe

    Golden Globes Predictions: Who Will Win in the Film Categories?

    With the Golden Globes just around the corner, there’s only one thing that seems inevitable: Renée Zellweger will win for best actress in the drama category when the awards are handed out on Jan. 5. Besides that, the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. can go in so many different directions, as the Globes are arguably the [...]

  • Joe Talbot Jimmie Fails Last Black

    Want a Career in the Arts? Build a Community (Guest Column)

    Last November, 400,000 writers from around the world agreed to spend a month with their friends writing novels. They met in libraries and cafés, cheered on by 1,000 volunteers. One writer, a 20-year-old college student, recently signed a two-book publishing deal. Previous novelists have had their books turned into Hollywood movies. And it wasn’t just [...]

  • Saoirse Ronan and Timothée Chalamet in

    Can 'Little Women' Recover for Oscars After SAG Nominations Shutout?

    Where in the world was “Little Women”? That was the big question this morning when the 2020 SAG Award nominations were announced. Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of the classic novel was completely shut out by Wednesday’s nominations. It comes on the heels of “Little Women” snagging just two Golden Globe noms for Saoirse Ronan for lead [...]

  • Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) is

    Golden Globes: Six Things to Know About the Film Nominations

    Most of Monday morning’s Globe nominations didn’t come as a big surprise. “Marriage Story,” “The Irishman,” “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” and “Parasite” have been ruling awards season – their many nominations were expected. But Globe wins don’t necessarily translate to Oscar gold — about half of best pic wins have been in sync [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content