The TV Critic: Tumbleweed in an Arid Wasteland

I WROTE a monthly television column for Saturday Night for seven years. Although it never stopped being hard work — I write slowly even at the best of times — it was fun. I learned an enormous amount, not least of all about myself. When the column stopped being fun, I quit. I’d said everything I’d wanted to in that context and it was time to move on to other things. In any case, I’m not sure that critics and columnists have a useful lifespan of more than half a dozen years or so. By that time you’ve seen it all before. You’ve said it all before. And you probably said it better the first time.

Although television is now well into its fourth decade, it has yet to produce a major critic. There is no one writing about television (at least in English) with the knowledge and love George Bernard Shaw had for music and Kenneth Tynan for theatre or that Pauline Kael shows toward film. By the time the movies were as old as television is now, there were already a number of major film critics on the scene, men and women who believed that film deserved the same serious treatment that books and plays were given. Happily, they found editors and readers who agreed with them. There hasn’t been a time since then when we’ve been without at least half a few first-rate film critics writing in English.

But serious criticism of anything — sports, politics, music, whatever, depends on the tacit understanding between critic and audience that the subject matters. Such an understanding still doesn’t exist when it comes to television. Although on average we spend something like twenty-five hours in front of our TV sets, we continue to think of television as something we can’t take seriously. That’s partly because its offerings come to us without our having to do anything other than push a button. Good capitalists that we are, we value only what we have to go into the marketplace and pay for. I’d hoped our attitude would change with the advent of Pay-TV, but there’s no indication that that’s the case.

Most of us use reviews of other things — books, movies, plays, restaurants — as consumer guides for choosing what we read, see or eat. Until recently, reviews of TV programmes couldn’t be used that way because they appeared after a programme had been aired or just before a programme that didn’t fit into one’s viewing schedule. The videocassette machine may change that. Unlike books and movies which have always been available long after they were reviewed, making it possible to compare one’s own reactions to those of the critics, television programmes have been ephemeral, with a lifespan of a half hour or an hour. If they continued to exist, it was in archives inaccessible to the general public.

Books, movies and plays are finite; they have clear beginnings and endings. We speak of reading a book, seeing a movie, going to a play; but we watch not a television, but television. TV is never-ending. Thus, the TV critic who prescreens a single program in a network viewing room in order to write about it before it’s broadcast is in a sense cheating; he or she is taking the programme out of the busy context in which almost everyone else sees it — a context of people talking and moving about. As Clive James, former television critic of the Observer , puts it, “One of the chief functions of the television critic is to stay at home and watch the programmes on an ordinary domestic receiver, just as his readers do. If he goes to official previews, he will meet producers and directors, start understanding their problems, and find himself paying the inevitable price for free sandwiches.”

Those who write about television can have their own problems accepting the role. Take me, for instance. When Robert Fulford, the editor of Saturday Night, asked me in 1973 if I would like to write a monthly television column for the magazine, I felt hurt. I wondered if maybe he was telling me in his kindly way that he wasn’t happy with my work as a book reviewer. I thought of myself as a serious person and that writing about television was beneath me. What would my friends think?

Writing about television, I discovered, was far more difficult than writing about books. A book reviewer often specializes — in first novels, say. A drama critic watches perhaps five or six plays a week. A television critic can’t function that way. He or she has to be interested in, and knowledgeable about a wide variety of subjects — from sports to drama, from soap opera to grand opera, and from the politics and economics of broadcasting to the differences between tape and film. Kenneth Tynan, commmenting on the impossibility of TV criticism, once said, “A television critic would have to know everything, and who knows everything?”

I was lucky in being able to work with an editor who believed that it was worth paying someone to try to write serious television criticism. Most TV critics aren’t so lucky; other editors assume that anyone who owns a TV set can handle the job. That attitude is partly a function of condescension, partly of fear. The print media continue to be wary of TV, which, after all, competes with them for advertising revenue.

When radio arrived on the scene in the 1920s, the print media were terrified that the new medium would take their advertisers away. Newspapers and magazines paid as little attention to radio as possible, even refusing to list or review radio programmes. (The first radio columnist for the Globe was hired not by the Globe itself but by Simpson’s, which bought space in the paper and paid Frank Chamberlain to fill it.) Lobbyists for public broadcasting shrewdly played on the print media’s fears. In the early 1930s, the Canadian Broadcasting League pointed out in a pamphlet entitled Radio Broadcasting: A Threat to the Press that advertising was increasing rapidly on the radio and declining in print. Something had to be done. Newspaper and magazine editorials soon began to argue that radio was too important to be left in the hands of advertisers and private broadcasters. So important an educational tool needed to be a public service. Enter the Canadian Radio Broadcasting Commission) CRBC in 1932 and the CBC in 1936.

If you write about television, it’s a rare day on which you don’t receive two or three envelopes filled with detailed programme listings and profiles of stars, all written in a style that can easily be paraphrased — or lifted — by TV columnists. Given the quantity and variety of such material, one can actually write a television column without watching television. And it happens. Editors (and readers) who wouldn’t tolerate reporting by press release in other areas of a newspaper regularly accept it from television columnists.

If you’re writing about a movie, a play, a hockey game, your readers expect a connected piece of prose on the subject. A little essay. If you’re writing about television, however, it’s acceptable to churn out copy that looks like a print analogue of the medium itself — a number of unconnected itty-bitty paragraphs, many of them garnered from press releases. The whole column looks and reads like a series of TV commercials. Those who write that way reinforce the attitude that television isn’t worth taking seriously. Their lack of engagement encourages ours.

No one has spoken more pungently of the inadequacies of those who write TV criticism than Ron Haggart, senior producer of the fifth estate. Haggart, a brilliant newspaperman before he moved to television several years ago, commented early this year (in the course of criticizing a particularly vacuous TV Guide article): “If television is an arid wasteland, the people who write about it are its tumbleweeds. Lacking in care or commitment, they skim the landscape of their beat, pulled this way by the puffs of publicity, pushed that way by the momentary passions of pack journalism. Their work habits are lazy, their insights banal, their principles dominated by a mendacious (and largely boring) vitriol.”

Many TV critics spend far too much time letting us know they’re slumming. And because most of us feel guilty about how much television we watch, we accept their condescension. Michael Arlen wrote the “On Air” column that appeared irregularly in The New Yorker. “What Pauline Kael does for the movies, Michael Arlen does… TV,” declared Newsweek in a review of a collection of Arlen’s columns. But the comparison is foolish. Pauline Kael loves movies with a passion; even when she writes about films she hates, her affection for the medium is never in doubt. Arlen never let us forget that he didn’t really like TV all that much. At one point he asked, “What can a critic do in the face of… work which has almost no substance or dimension [and where] it is generally understood that the work’s creators have no ambitions for it beyond the simplest commerce?”

But isn’t that true of almost everything. And isn’t one of the chief functions of the critic to make distinctions between and among books or television programmes or whatever is being criticized? If Arlen believed, that there were no distinctions worth making, that TV was, in fact, a wasteland, “a monster composed of distractions”, as Paul Goodman put it during his brief, unhappy stint as television critic for The New Republic, maybe he shouldn’t have been a televsion critic.

I can’t say I learned to care about television the way I do about books or movies. But I did learn (to my surprise) that a day didn’t go by when I couldn’t find at least one and usually more programmes worth watching and writing about. And I came to see that in addition to individual programmes (and series) there were a number of interesting themes a TV critic could write about: how old people (women, children) are portrayed on television; how TV has changed sports; whether it’s reasonable to expect as much as we do of TV newscasts, given that the text of The National would fill roughly half a page of the Globe and Mail.

A critic is primarily a teacher, I think. In teaching and criticism at their best, there exists a symbiotic relationship between teacher and students, critic and audience. Good TV critics, pushing themselves to know more about television, and to think — and write — more clearly about it, could help their readers to do so too. A more sophisticated audience might in turn demand more of TV critics and of TV itself.

— Jolts, Introduction, 1985

Postscript: I’ve taken the concluding paragraph above from an earlier essay on TV criticism, written for TVO Plus, a magazine published briefly by TV Ontario.

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