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since 1997 | by maryann johanson

question of the day: Is film criticism on TV officially dead?

You may have heard already: Ben Lyons and Ben Mankiewicz have gotten the boot as the hosts of the syndicated TV series At the Movies, long the bastion of Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel. They’ve been replaced by the New York Times’ A.O. Scott and the Chicago Tribune’s Michael Phillips.

But this isn’t necessarily good news for the show.

The Los Angeles Times’ Patrick Goldstein — who calls the Bens “an embarrassment to all, meaning the previous hosts, the network and the critical profession in general” — breaks it down:

The network clearly believed that the venerable TV show, which traced its roots to the mid-1970s, when the Pulitzer Prize-winning Ebert and his Chicago newspaper pal, the late Gene Siskel, launched the first nationally known TV film critic program, needed a re-branding to appeal to younger audiences and boost its ratings. Of course, the opposite happened. As ABC reported on its own website, the show’s ratings dropped sharply, slipping from 2.1 million to 1.7 million after Lyons and Mankiewicz took over.

The network made one simple miscalculation: It thought that by hiring younger, more effervescent critics that it could get a younger audience to watch a cobwebby network TV format. That’s never going to happen. Just ask the great minds at CBS, who hired Katie Couric, thinking that a younger, more effervescent newscaster could get a younger audience to watch a cobwebby network TV format. Film critics are in the same boat as evening news anchors — their core audience is people 50 and over, and getting older by the day. You could hire Jessica Alba to read the evening news — or review “G.I. Joe” for that matter — and younger audiences still wouldn’t care….

[E]xpecting Phillips and Scott to deliver network-sized ratings in an era where hardly anyone under 40 pays attention to critics is a fool’s errand.

Despite their intellectual heft and engaging personalities — when you have dinner with Michael Phillips, you are sure to enjoy a sparkling evening of good conversation — they are being asked to revive a format that is as moribund as a black-and-white detective series.

Is Goldstein right? Is film criticism on TV “cobwebby”? Does no one under 40 pay attention to film criticism? Is film criticism on TV officially dead?

(If you have a suggestion for a QOTD, feel free to email me. Responses to this QOTD sent by email will be ignored; please post your responses here.)



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  • Ryan H

    I think it would be more accurate to say that film criticism (and media criticism in general) in mainstream media is dying. Two big reasons. The first is that their core audience, the people who automatically turn to them, is ageing away. The second is that the younger generation doesn’t trust them. At all. Period.

    As a 20something I don’t know anyone who takes reviews and criticism from big media sources seriously. The default assumption is that they, or their editors or producers or whatever, are going to do what the money says. No 200 million Michael Bay film will ever get a truly bad review from these sources.

    There is no trust and, rightly or wrongly, no perception of integrity. As such, they are doomed.

  • JT

    I don’t know if it’s dead because it’s difficult for me to get into the mindset of the general public. They don’t generally watch the shows I like and I don’t necessarily like the shows everyone in America is watching. Why should film criticism on TV be any different?

    I’m someone who loves to read reviews (my favorite critics are Robert Wilonsky, Nick Schager, Ed Gonzalez, Roger Ebert, Scott Tobias, Noel Murray, Tasha Robinson, Maryann, A.O. Scott, Manohla Dargis & Michael Phillips) and I’ll watch any show where real critics are are actually discussing movies.

    This is great news, in my opinion, because Ben & Ben were a couple of hacks and I stopped watching ‘At The Movies’ the moment they took over. On the other hand, I loved Scott and Phillips when they were subbing for Ebert, so I’ll be tuning back in.

  • Anne-Kari

    Oh, the irony. I used to watch “At The Movies”, in my twenties and thirties. I’m not sure why I stopped, but I’m pretty sure it was around the time that I started to read almost all online reviews – in my late 30’s. I’m now 41 and I wasn’t even aware that “At The Movies” was still on.

  • I think that Movie Critics on TV are perceived as being “part of the system” and therefore untrustworthy. Slick movie clips and trailers with photogenic presenters means that it all looks like an extension of the marketing for the film.

    Critics shouldn’t feel like part of the marketing but as a counter to it. A good critic can either validate the hyperbole or put it into perspective. And that, for some reason, carries more weight if the viewer discovers it themselves in the web or it comes from an individual the person trusts.

  • I don’t think it’s dead, but it will never hold the weight and ratings now that Ebert is gone.

    It’s never ideal to replace a legend. The two new hosts were doomed from the start, but now that they’re replaced, the two newer new hosts should do just fine.

  • Well, even back in the 1970s–when Sneak Previews first got started–people under 40 liked to diss film critics. And I remember often feeling like a minority whenever the subject of the show came up because few people my age even bothered to watch it on a regular basis. (And when they did, they’d inevitably spend more time griping about how those “old guys” didn’t like a particular movie than anything else.)

    Anyway, I would like to think the change to online critics will change things but one need only look at all the age-based criticisms that have been directed at our own dear hostess and one can’t help but wonder if things are likely to change that much.

    In other words, the more the times seem to be a-changing, the more they seem to stay the same…

  • JoshDM

    Film criticism is boring.

    It needs to be entertaining.

    News criticism is alive and well on TV: Daily Show, Colbert Report, Soup, etc.

  • Michael

    I could also have something to do with the time slot they put it in. I didn’t even really know the show was still on the air. The last time I saw it, when Ebert was still on the show, it aired at something like 12:30am Sunday night/Monday morning here in Seattle. Like Anne-Kari, I used to watch it in my 20s, too. I think it was on at 7pm or something…

  • Saladinho

    It’s not anymore “cobwebby” than writing for the Los Angeles Times.

    It may be a niche market, but I still believe that it works. You can’t get all the viewers in the world for everything.

    But we’ll see in the next few months or so, I guess. I’m just glad they’ve got some reviewers I can respect. Although, I kinda would have liked to have seen a more X-Filesy format, with one of the reviewers being a woman.

  • Hank Graham

    I think it died with Gene Siskel, and he got replaced with the good-looking but lackluster Richard Roeper.

    It was emblematic–rather than cast for that lightning-in-a-bottle chemistry that Siskel and Ebert had together, the producers went for someone who looked good on tv.

    Note that up until Siskel and Ebert, film criticism didn’t have much prescence on tv. Their success paved the way for a lot of followers, and they were always the kings of that niche. One guy giving a film review is just a talking head. Two guys disagreeing about a movie could be much more than that.

    It didn’t help that Roeper was so similar to Ebert in his tastes that he always came across, to me, as Ebert lite. There were never the fiery disagreements that made the pairing of Siskel and Ebert so interesting.

    I chalk it up to another bad Hollywood casting decision.

  • ed

    I’m 32. Of course I pay attention to film criticism. But film criticism on TV is indeed cobwebby.

    I look for reviews minutes before I see a movie, whether in the theater, or renting online. I have my list of critics that I trust, and I check and see what they have to say, online.

    Why am I going to block an hour out of my day, on whatever day this show is on, to watch reviews for movies I may or may not go see 6 days later? I can get reviews on the web, as needed.

  • Der Bruno Stroszek

    JoshDM brings up an interesting point: why can’t there be a movie show that’s as snarky and intelligent as The Daily Show? TV movie coverage might be of little interest to a young audience, but surely people were saying exactly the same thing about TV political coverage before Stewart, Colbert et al came along.

    The only reason I can think of is that movie studios are unwilling to give TV shows clips of their products unless they were treated reverentially – but then again, film shows can show a clip and follow it with a bad review, can’t they? Do people in the media see snark as more threatening somehow than old-fashioned critical brickbats? I think they do, but I’m not sure why.

    Maybe the internet does just do this kind of thing better.

  • pausner

    I’m not sure film criticism is dead on TV. I think there isn’t an established definition for what film criticism is. I think many people think it means a crtic will find what is bad about a film, others think it’s a job for critics to simply report on the plot and actors/entertainers involved; others believe, like I do, that criticism should be about deconsturcting a film and exploring its themes and/or ideas and/or concepts while identifying strengths and weaknesses of the craft/product.

  • Rebecca

    I’m 27, and I love film criticism, but the concept of watching TV at all seems cobwebby to me. I’ve got a TV with a media computer, DVD player and a few video game consoles attached to it — I don’t have cable, and I never even bothered to figure out how to get our TV to play those few other stations. If I want to watch something, I’ll rent it or buy it or stream it off a website. If I want to know if it’s any good, the internet will tell me in a lot more detail, with a million more interesting opinions, at 3 in the morning or whenever I feel like reading them. It’s not even a contest.

  • MaryAnn

    Although, I kinda would have liked to have seen a more X-Filesy format, with one of the reviewers being a woman.

    You silly billy: Everyone knows girls don’t like movies!

  • bats :[

    I’m siding with Michael. Even good film critics have an uphill battle on television when the show is syndicated and it can be at the whim of the station to shift it to accommodate a football or basketball game, or to shoehorn in a local bit of color (the syndicated Arizona Highways program is a prime example around here, and that is stellar compared to the extraordinarily small-potatoes thing called “Shopping in Tucson” or something). A few years ago, when I would make a point of watching (or trying to watch) “At the Movies,” more often than not it would come with the caveat “we join our program, already in progress”.
    Then again, the two Bens never failed to war-whoop the opportunity to watch their show online, so why bother to try catching it on TV?

    For the record, I do like A.O. Scott. Did Phillips ever do guest-spots on “At the Movies” with Roeper?
    (I thought Roeper was the beginning of the end for the program…a very long and painful beginning.)

  • Saladinho

    MaryAnn: “You silly billy: Everyone knows girls don’t like movies!”

    At The Movies Producers: “We here at At The Movies would like to state for the record and for our viewing public, that of course we realize girls like movies…They just don’t understand them.”

    :P

  • I am twenty-five years old and have not missed a single episode of At The Movies (with Ebert and Roeper) for seven years. Minus the previous year when Ben Lyons broke in and made a mess.

    Scott and Phillips are among the most interesting and engaging of film critics. It looks like a half-hour every Sunday night will be reserved starting September.

  • FrankS

    For the record, I do like A.O. Scott. Did Phillips ever do guest-spots on “At the Movies” with Roeper?

    At the end of Roeper’s run on the show, Phillips was the regular cohost. He, like Tony, was one of the rotating guest critics after Ebert left, but he eventually took the seat permanently. It brought the original newspaper parity back to the show: Chicago Sun-Times (Ebert, Roeper) and Chicago Tribune (Siskel, Phillips).

  • Pat Mustard

    If the demise of TV Film Criticism means ‘Film 2009/10/11 etc’ on the BBC is for the chop, it also means that Jonathan Woss will appear on British TV less…

    Gets my vote.

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