• Category: Features
  • Written by Rick Ellis

Curation And The Role Of The Alt-Critic In The Age Of Peak TV


I loathe the term "Peak TV." It seems to have been originated by FX Networks CEO John Landgraf, who used it in front of a room of television critics a couple of years ago. He used the phrase to explain the rapid growth of new scripted programs on linear TV channels. But it has since morphed into this lazy way of framing a time when there are more new television shows than can be watched by any one person. In reality, "Peak TV" really means there's a change coming in the way television critics think about their jobs. And like any sea change, it's a transition that promises to be messy.

The past week or two have brought two long, thoughtful pieces about this problem from TV critics at The Hollywood Reporter. In "This Is Your Limited Window For TV Catch-Up," critic Daniel Feinberg offers up some suggestions on what shows you should catch up on before the next onslaught of new programs come in mid-July. But the piece's core point is that audiences have to get used to being perpetually behind on some really great shows (or "prestige" shows, as THR refers to them):

The result is that in a TV landscape that never, ever offers room to pause and catch up, this may be the best chance you're going to get of pausing and playing catch-up this year. Game of Thrones is probably the next show headed for a media saturation launch and that's not until July 16.

To clarify: This pause is an artificially constructed illusion. You could just use the time to watch each new episode of Twin Peaks 15 times. Preacher just returned to AMC. Queen Sugar just returned to OWN. Heck, thanks to Vanessa Hudgens and a return to its original formula, So You Think You Can Dance is back. Between the time you start this article and finish it, Netflix will have released, with limited promotion, seven new shows starring semi-household names. That there's 75 percent less TV to watch than there was a month ago doesn't mean there isn't still 25 percent more TV than any normal human should be spending their week watching. That's incontestable.

In "The Post-Review, Post-Premiere, Post-Finale World Of Peak TV," critic Tim Goodman focuses less on what you missed and more about the impact this bounty of new programs is having on the priorities of the career television critic:

We are now in a world where endless choice means that premieres have less value. That has a huge effect on promotional spending. We are now in a world where finales don't have the same impact. That has an effect on those once-popular creator post-mortems and critical wraps. This new world means reviews are evergreen. That means publications need to learn how to resurface formerly date-specific reviews. It means critics can (and should) write about series even well after the finale. It means spoilers are now both infinite and hold less power. There are no seasons because there are no boundaries. Ratings will never be meaningless, but they are now much harder to effectively track and monetize accurately. Everything as we knew it in the television industry is subject to reinterpretation. And that scares the hell out of a lot of people because some in the industry resist change; they have no conceptual understanding of flux or willingness to bend with it.

I found both of these pieces fascinating because this is a topic I think about on a daily basis. What do I cover? What's the best way to engage readers and not just provide a review, but help in deciding what to watch? In an era where new stuff comes at you like it's being shot out of a firehose, how do critics do their jobs and stay connected to their readers?

For the record, I don't think we're anywhere near Peak TV. Sure, scripted programming on traditional television might ebb and flow. But at a time when astute TV viewers can name a handful of favorite Norwegian programs and everyone from Facebook to your local barista is creating new stuff....well, we're going to look back on 2017 as the good old slow days five years from now.

Although I've been writing about television and the media since the late 1990s, I've always had one foot in TV and the other in some other online journalism field. Maybe that's why I'm not surprised that these changes are coming, although no one could predicted the exact way in which the industry has evolved. But when I started covering TV, I was also covering the media industry for a now-defunct Bay Area financial news web site. I was expected to crank out a dozen or so pieces a day - all in audio and/or video. So that meant lots of long days and frantic scrambling for stories. That was the pace I expected to see elsewhere in journalism, and the role of a TV critic back then couldn't have been different.

The Television Critics Association (TCA) still wasn't accepting members from online-only publications and the average critic was still leisurely cranking out maybe a piece of two a day. Most of the jobs were print-driven and I think it's fair to say the TV critic industry was small and slightly territorial.

While the primary home for TV criticism is now online and their work now includes everything from podcasts to Facebook live broadcasts, the basic precepts of the job are still in place. If you are an established TV critic (i.e., not one of the under-paid web monkeys writing 300-word news snarklets), you're expected to have watched and at least attempted to write about all the important television of the day.

It's obviously an impossible task and each critic and web site has struggled to figure out their own best practices. The trade publications have hired more critics in an effort to cover it all. But they are also in the midst of a pageview and revenue war that finds them cranking out more rewritten press releases on pages topped with autoplaying video. They have a solution, but it's not clear to me that it's the right one. And while the TCA has evolved as well, it's also an organization that continues to struggle to find its place in this high-speed, 24/7 new media world.

I'm not going to offer any suggestions to my TV critic brethren, because to be honest, that hasn't gone so well in the past. So instead, let me offer up my evolving sense of my role in the industry and more importantly - to my readers.

I think of myself as an alt-critic. Sure, I do some of the work of a traditional television critic. I review shows, write some think pieces, cover important news and do some interviews. But really I am here to provide a curated look at what I think is important in the industry. You won't find everything covered on AllYourScreens. But because I am my own boss, I can primarily write about what I find worthwhile. Whether that means a traditional review of a high-profile new television show or a rant about the horrible interface of Playstation Vue.

Providing that personalized focus is the best way I can cut through the online clutter. If I do it correctly, I'll retain a loyal, engaged readership that's big enough to attract advertisers interested in a specific type of audience.

I think of AllYourScreens as the online equivalent of a small regional grocery store chain competing in the age of Walmart and Amazon. In this environment, you're either chasing numbers or you're hyper-focused on the business of giving personal signs of approval. If I cover something, it's because I think it matters. And if you're the right kind of reader, these pieces will matter to you as well.

I don't think any one person or web site can adequately cover the post-peak TV world. But like a great free-form rock DJ on a 1970s FM station, one person can introduce readers to why specific things matter. At least, that's what I'm trying to do with AllYourScreens.

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