What The TV And Streaming Industry Press Can Learn From Pitchfork

A version of this piece first appeared in the TooMuchTV newsletter

Whether you are creating TV, working at a streamer or somehow involved in the television and streaming business, one of the most significant problems on a day-to-day basis is content discovery. What are the best ways to get your title in front of potential audiences? How do you cut through the clutter of hundreds of choices and highlight a show that doesn't have natural news pegs such as a big star in one of the lead roles?

In a lot of ways, TV industry journalism isn't that different than music journalism. A lot of industry power is now concentrated in just a few companies. And as the industry consolidation was happening, there was consolidation on the journalism side. Fewer outlets owned by an ever-smaller group of companies meant that music labels and music journalism outlets were able to come to an agreement of sorts. The labels funneled millions in ad revenue to friendly outlets, who mostly focused on the acts that were the current priority of the labels.

But the losers in this scenario were the readers and music fans. Independent acts didn't have the juice to get coverage in Spin or Rolling Stone or Billboard. So unless they were picked up by a major label, most music fans never knew they existed. 

Pitchfork, the news and reviews site that for a time was among the most powerful tastemakers in music, stepped into that gap. It became a dominant voice in the music industry because they didn't give a crap about expensive industry junkets or any of the pricey swag that comes your way when the music labels believe you're on their side. They cared about the music and there was a time when Pitchfork had the ability to break a small band nationally simply by covering them a couple of times. Because readers began to realize the site couldn't be bought. And even if you didn't agree with every word, you knew it all came from a brutal honesty and love of the music.

Pitchfork was founded in 1996 by record store employee Ryan Schrieber, and as Casey Newton noted in Thursday's Platformer, it was a force of nature in the industry and shaped the musical tastes of a generation of fans in the early 2000s:

In the early days I remember laughing out loud at Pitchfork’s reviews, which often ran into the thousands of words and at times seemed to have little to do with the music itself. Over time, though, I came to appreciate the vast musical knowledge possessed by even the most occasional freelancer for the site. Open a review of a band you had never heard of and you could be certain the piece would place their new record in the context of everything else they had ever recorded, the genre in which they operated, and possibly the entire history of recorded music.

And beyond being knowledgeable, Pitchfork was deeply opinionated. At a time when Rolling Stone and other music magazines were rubber-stamping nearly every review with a milquetoast three-star rating, Pitchfork went out of its way to pick fights, famously slagging Liz Phair, the Dismemberment Plans’ Travis Morrison, and others during its early reign of terror.  

And now after a decade or more of financial struggles, a much-diminished Pitchfork is being rolled into the GQ brand, to be combined with that outlet's GQ Music content.

I won't get into the reasons why that happened - you can read plenty of detailed breakdowns elsewhere. But I bring all of this up because the role Pitchfork played in the music industry. And how that is a role that is desperately needed in coverage of the TV and streaming industry.

The Penske Media-owned sites have done some very good journalism (and some not-so-good journalism) and their size gives them both the ability to nab a lot of ad revenue while also taking advantage of their close relationships with studios and industry insiders to get access. But they do a uniformly terrible job at surfacing smaller titles you might not have heard of before. They're the place to go for reviews of the latest Walking Dead spin-off. But they're not so useful for discovering some smaller Netflix title or a South Korean series you might enjoy.

And to be kind, most of the smaller independent sites covering the industry are light on original journalism. Some do a decent job with reviews. But there is entirely too much lazy aggregation or building an SEO-friendly headline around some random tweet or comment on a podcast. Most of what I see isn't new or useful. It's just search engine chum or clumsy efforts to hype whatever project they happen to be a fan of at the time.

Or, as Israel Daramola wrote in Defector:

Meanwhile, throughout the industry, features and reporting and music reviews have taken a backseat as companies push for more social media and video content. What has filled the vacuum left behind by actual music criticism is a loose collection of YouTubers and influencers who feed slop to their younger audiences, and fan communities that engage with music solely through their obsession with a particular pop act. This has all helped produce a mass of music fans who don't understand the value of criticism and outright detest being told the things they like might suck. Even worse, it has helped destroy what scant opportunities remain for obscure or up-and-coming musicians to find an audience. 

I'm spending time on this because I wanted to point out that there are a few independent media industry sites and newsletters doing great, inventive and thoughtful work. And with the steady waves of job cutbacks and advertising challenges, they could use your help. If someone is doing journalism you find worthwhile, share it other people. Thanks to changes at Google and the collapse of Twitter, just getting the word out there can be nearly impossible.

And if you're able to, support the web site or newsletter in other ways. Send some positive feedback, and if you're in the industry, consider giving them a bit of the access you'd normally share with the big guys. 

On a strictly commercial note, if you're able to provide some direct financial support, that is incredibly helpful. Join the web site's Patreon, upgrade to a paid newsletter subscription. And if you're not able to do that right now, just click on an ad every so often.

There is so much incredible work being released in the next few months. And as both a journalist and as a fan, I'm concerned that many of the shows won't receive the attention they deserve.