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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

question of the day: Is there room for film criticism on TV anymore?

Roger Ebert

If you were a film fan in the 1970s and 80s in the U.S., you likely watched At the Movies on PBS, on which newspaper critics Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel debated the relative merits of the week’s new flicks. Yesterday we learned that the latest incarnation of this show, Ebert Presents At the Movies, is in danger of cancellation. Not because of low ratings but because of lack of money. From Ebert’s blog:

Unless we find an angel, our television program will go off the air at the end of its current season. There. I’ve said it. Usually in television, people use evasive language. Not me. We’ll be gone. I want to be honest about why this is. We can’t afford to finance it any longer.

Before I go into details, let me say that by any fair measure, “Ebert Presents At The Movies” has been a great success. The program has a coverage of more than 90% of the country, and all of the top 50 markets. Our ratings place us among the top shows on public television, and compare to the ratings of cable news. And we have loyal and vocal followers. Whenever our show is pre-empted for any reason we get immediate e-mails, calls and letters from viewers looking for it. We have also had cordial relations with the programmers and station managers across the country.

I believe a program like this is needed on television. On “Ebert Presents,” a new Johnny Depp movie can get two thumbs down (or up, or a split decision) from two intelligent people who will tell you why they voted that way, and challenge one another. Movie coverage on TV is otherwise so intensely driven by marketing that some programs actually cover the marketing itself.

Since we went on the air in January 2011, “Ebert Presents” has been almost entirely funded by Chaz and me, plus $25,000 in generous backing from the Kanbar Charitable Trust. We paid for the screen tests. We paid for the pilot. We paid for the titles. We paid for the set, the lighting, and all of the salaries (Chaz and I do not draw one). We have offices at WTTW, for which, of course, we pay rent. We pay for the director, the camera operators, the assistant producers, the interns, the editors and editing suites, the transmission of the show to American Public Television, lunch on taping days, everything. We also paid for the design and maintenance of the web site, www.ebertpresents.com.

I haven’t seen the new version of the show, but based on what Ebert says here, I’m not sure that this show is neeed. There are lots of intelligent people on the Web who can tell you why they feel however they feel about a movie, and there’s certainly lots of challenging discussion happening around movies, too. It is true, however, that most of what passes for entertainment coverage on TV is little more than regurgitation of marketing material… although that’s true of the Web, too.

Is there room for film criticism on TV anymore? Is there a need for it? Or can the Web be the new home of intelligent film criticism?

(I’ll also say that, on a related tangent, if Ebert with his name and his reputation cannot muster support for his criticism, what chance do I have?)

(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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