How Are TV Critics Handling Peak TV?

Chapter TwoFlavorwire: How do you decide which shows you want to cover?

Alan Sepinwall, TV critic at HitFix: Once upon a time, the goal was to attempt to review every new scripted show debuting on broadcast and cable, but that aim stopped being realistic a long time ago. Sometimes, I never even find the time to watch these shows, let alone write about them. But in terms of what I see, it’s a mix of what I respond to strongly (either in the positive or negative), what I suspect my audience might be interested in (due to subject matter, creative team, star, network, or what have you), gut instinct, and how much time I have in a given week. For instance, this week things are relatively slow, so my podcasting partner Dan Fienberg said we should watch NBC’s The Carmichael Show, which I likely would have never even sampled at a busier time of year. Instead, I watched it, and liked it enough that I’m probably going to write something about it on top of the podcast discussion.

Sonia Saraiya, TV critic at SalonIt’s a combination of what our readers have demonstrated interest in (based on trailers or pre-air pieces), what my editors think is relevant or valuable, and what I find either important, interesting, or fun. And it’s kind of in that order, too; I know our readers will want to read a lot on The Daily Show, for example, so that’s a must-cover, as both my editors and I myself would agree. But, like, if there’s absolutely no interest from the readership about Jane the Virgin (and there isn’t a ton), I’m going to limit my coverage to just one or two pieces a season, perhaps, which will try to sell the show to new viewers, and focus instead on other shows.

Margaret Lyons, TV columnist at Vulture: [New York magazine TV critic] MZS and I divvy up the calendar for reviews, and then over the course of a show’s season, if there’s something that really sparks an idea, I’ll revisit a show in another capacity.

Todd VanDerWerff, Culture Editor at Vox (previously TV Editor at The A.V. Club): At Vox, we rarely cover more than a show at a time. So we’re usually covering the big show of the moment, or we’re covering something I feel really passionately about (since I do the majority of our TV writing).

But I suspect you’re more interested in my A.V. Club days, and that was a constant attempt to stay ahead of trends, figure out a way to drop shows at just the right moment, and cover an increasingly expanding universe of TV on roughly the same budget year over year. Readers often wondered why I covered so much, and it was usually because I didn’t have to pay myself. Shortly before I left there, I pointed out that the number of total shows on TV had roughly tripled from when I started, but we were already at the peak of content we could expect readers to reasonably check out.

I’ve sensed this from networks at Vox, too. There’s a frustration with how not everything gets coverage now in the way it once did, but there’s just not enough time or reader interest to cover everything. And I don’t know that that will change any time soon.

David Sims, Senior Associate Editor at The Atlantic: I think I make these choices unconsciously, but I think I pay closest attention to the creative staff and network — if there’s a name I recognize among the writers and producers, or perhaps the cast, that’s one thing I take note of, and if it’s from a network that already makes good original TV, that helps put it on the radar. After that, a show’s premise is obviously important, along with any and all advance word of mouth from other critics.

Tara Ariano, co-founder of Previously.TV (previously co-founder of Television Without Pity): If you mean on the site: we get a vague sense of interest based on which shows people have requested forum sections for, and beyond that it’s just instinct. Running Television Without Pity for almost a decade gave us a good idea of the type of show that Internet users will hook into and want to talk about: they generally have some or all of the following — serialized story arcs, meaty roles for women, cute boys, ambiguous but weighty themes. It actually is that simple. Jane the Virgin: yes. Ray Donovan: no.

If you mean me personally, I cherry-pick my own shows based on the above criteria, more or less; however, there are lots of shows I like to watch but about which I know I would have very little to say. My schedule plays into it too: I know in the summer I can’t take on any Wednesday-airing shows we don’t get screeners for because Catfish takes up half my day.

Alyssa Rosenberg, columnist and blogger at The Washington PostSince the way I cover shows is very different from a lot of other critics, I would guess that my process is somewhat different. I watch pilots to see which shows are likely to have intriguing political theme (or if they have elements I can turn into trend pieces) and use the Television Critics Association press tour to see how engaged the executive producers seem to be with those themes. I’ll stick with these for a while, and as the season progresses, talk to other critics about what they’re seeing, what they’re enraged about, what they’re excited about. Often this will make me loop around and revisit a show I’d set aside earlier (I did that with Halt and Catch Fire earlier this year). And I also try to have a couple of shows that I really champion, because I feel like my readers’ lives would be improved if they watched them. Right now, that’s The Americans and Starz’s outstanding comedy Survivor’s Remorse.

Sarene Leeds, freelance writer:  As a freelance writer, I’ve been pretty fortunate in obtaining assignments for a significant amount of shows I want to cover. My situation varies by publication, but for the most part, the shows I end up covering tend to be ones I’ve pitched that, for one reason or another, have not already been snapped up by staffers (be it interest, oversight, workload, etc.). I pitch shows that pique my interest via word of mouth, press kits, or direct pitches from PR reps (in this case, it’s only if I wind up liking what I see in initial screeners).

Once in a while, an editor will ask me to cover something because it’s similar to a type of show that I’ve written about in the past. For example: since I am the resident Downton Abbey/Outlander reporter/writer at Speakeasy (WSJ.com’s entertainment blog), my editor there asked me to recap Poldark this summer.

Mo Ryan, TV Critic at The Huffington Post: I throw a bunch of show titles into a hat and pick one out — either that or roll 12-sided dice. No, seriously, I find more and more of my job is simply triage, i.e., watching an array of pilots or however many episodes we get, in order to see which shows I want to write about. I tend to be more interested and possibly excited to check out shows that have actors or writers whose work I’ve liked in the past, but I’m well aware that many of my favorite shows have been created by people I hadn’t heard of when those programs premiered. I always try to keep an open mind.

Another big deciding factor is whether it’s reality or not — I tend not to review unscripted/reality anymore, though I have no innate bias against it. Also what network it comes from matters as well. There are certain plsvrd that have good or at least interesting track records and make shows that are least worth paying attention to, so those might get bumped up on the “to be watched” list. That said, it’s awesome when a new network/entity comes out with a show that’s amazing or even an established network breaks out something like “UnREAL.”

All that boils down to following a gut instinct regarding what I think might be worth checking out and what I think people will want to read about. My favorite feeling is when I just *have* to write about a show and I can’t sleep until that piece is posted. Whether I’m angry, excited, intrigued or whatever, there has to be an energy of some kind motivating the piece. Another thing I think about when deciding what to cover is how many great critics there are these days. Whatever I do, I don’t want to just lamely echo what someone else has already said well.