TV Criticism In The Age Of COVID-19

Post by: Rick Ellis 17 March, 2021
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The past year has changed just about everyone's jobs and personal lives in a myriad of unexpected ways. And as more and more Americans are getting vaccinated and we increasingly feel a bit more optimistic about the future, we are all beginning to take stock of how our lives have changed. And trying to figure out if those changes are temporary or a precursor to something more permanent.

CNN's Brian Stelter had an brief paragraph about how the pandemic had altered his television viewing habits in a recent edition of his "Reliable Sources" newsletter:

Finally, getting back to my opening question, think about what and how you watch. News and sports are still the only categories that are relatively unscathed by these changes, emphasis on the "relatively." Personally, my wife is in the middle of "The Crown" on Netflix. I'm on season five of "Superstore" on Hulu and hoping to finish my binge at the same time the series finale airs on NBC next week. But I'll still watch the finale on-demand on my own time. I really want to watch "Nomadland" next, in light of its Oscar noms, but I'll stream it instead of going to a theater. How about you?

While I can't say that my TV viewing habits have changed all that much since the advent of COVID-19, the pandemic has had a profound effect on my job as a TV critic. Unexpectedly, it's made some things much easier.

I live and work out of the suburbs of St. Paul, Minnesota, far away from either coastal media center. And while I can do a solid job of covering the media and entertainment world remotely, I do miss out on some things in normal times. I generally don't get to attend press events, premieres and junkets. Although I am able to make it to some set visits (have I mentioned how much I miss set visits? When you can, invite me again. I'm ready).

One irony of the pandemic is that it has moved a lot of junkets and press events online, into a mix of zoom calls and other video-centric presentations. And suddenly it doesn't matter as much where I'm based. It's as easy for me to do a Zoom interview as someone based in L.A. and as a result, I have probably done more press events and junkets in the past six months than I have in the past six years. Even more helpful, my increased presence in theses events has led to more opportunities and a better relationship with publicists I've never met in person.

When it comes to the business side of the pandemic for me, it was initially a mixed bag. As more people were stuck at home watching television, traffic to the site continued to rise. According to Google Analytics, did just over a million unique visitors in March 2020. Based on the month so far, I'll probably end March 2021 within the margin of error of two million monthly visitors. And since - like Brian and his wife - people are watching a mix of older and newer shows, the site traffic has skewed more in the direction of older programs and more obscure international television.

And that increased interest in less mainstream programs has meshed well with the overall editorial philosophy of AllYourScreens. I think of myself as the streaming TV world's equivalent of the old iconic video store clerk who can help guide you to all of those great, quirky and overlooked programs that don't get all of the press buzz. "What do I watch next?" is an important question for anyone and the better I can answer that for readers, the more successful I will be.

The downside of the past year is that the first few months of the pandemic were pretty brutal financially. Like most news and entertainment web sites, my ad revenue dropped about 40%. It has since recovered to close to pre-pandemic rates, but it was an unsettling experience to make substantially less money while at the same time hitting new traffic high marks each month. I also launched a free daily M-F newsletter (you can subscribe here), but I've opted to not shift to a subscription model, in order to grow it as fast as possible. The upside is that I hit my one-year subscriber number in two months. The downside is that I'm not making any direct revenue from something which takes up an hour or two of every weekday.

Another unexpected consequence of the past year is that all of the turmoil has forced me to develop some clarity of what this site is and the best way to promote it. I've been reluctant in the past to tout the fact that AllYourScreens is essentially a one-person operation. I have the occasional bit of freelance help, but otherwise I am the only person working on the site. And given that, the fact that I'm squeezing nearly two million visitors a month out of my efforts is impressive (he says modestly). 

In a year where close to 14,000 journalists lost their jobs and everyone in the industry in discussing the "creator economy" and whether journalists can "build their brand" with a newsletter, the fact that I can make a good living running my own little one-man media operation is a good story. Watching friends of mine struggling with unemployment in the midst of a pandemic has forced me to get out of my shell a bit and talk about my business. I've given a couple of virtual presentations in which I discuss my business model and the many complications. That's not something I would have been as comfortable doing in the past.

Being more upfront about the one-man nature of the site also helps me manage the challenges of a daily workflow when I'm also dealing with family conflicts and personal issues. It's easier for me to tell my readers "Hey, my teen son had a rough day doing virtual schoolwork today, so this is review/feature is running a bit late." It's a problem lots of people are dealing with as well and I believe admitting it honestly is better for everyone in the long run.

I can't speak for anyone else, but this past year has transformed my professional life in ways I could never have predicted. I think I'm a better writer and I am definitely more confident about telling my story.

I hope at least some of the zoom calls continue, but I look forward to seeing more of you in person in 2021. 

Last modified on Wednesday, 17 March 2021 16:17