In Which Ryan Once Again Talks About How We Talk About TV

So let’s talk about the state of TV, and the state of talking about TV.

You could put together an excellent year-end “Best Of” list consisting of nothing but shows that aired new episodes between Memorial Day and the upcoming Labor Day. “UnREAL,” “Mr. Robot,” “Hannibal,” “Review,” “Bojack Horseman,” and “Rectify” are all shows you’re going to see on a lot of lists, and I bet more than a few will appear together on those lists. And that’s just a short list of shows I personally watch, and exclude plenty of other shows others swear by, which brings me to my next point…

2015 is going to be the year in which the way TV is covered will fundamentally change. It’s simply not possible for anyone (either individual or website) to cover everything, or really come close. I hope those in a position to write analytically about TV take a curatorial approach, and I hope that approach speaks to quality of programming rather than the SEO potential of the programming. Websites and magazines shouldn’t be judged by depth of coverage of the medium, but how well they allow readers to understand why certain shows deserve merit and attention.

This approach will only work if critical curators lean into diversity of programming rather than hivemind approaches to coverage. While it’s not possible for one outlet to cover everything, it should be possible for readers to learn about all shows through the absorption of content across multiple source providers. Again, this is about critical analysis of shows, not boiler-plate “here’s who got cast in NCIS: LA,” which can be covered as it is today via copy-and-paste from the press release. The shows a site covers should convey an overall critical aesthetic, one that takes potentially contradictory shows and demonstrates how they all excite the mind, body, and soul in similar/complementary ways.

That last paragraph’s a pipedream, in that the people who cover TV often have overlapping roles which creates a sticky journalism/criticism hybrid role. It’s not an impossible hurdle to overcome, but if you’re a fledging site who needs access to screeners for content and are worried said access might be turned on/off depending on your reviews and/or relationship with the talent in front of or behind the cameras, then it’s hard to do both jobs equally well, above and beyond the fact that doing two jobs is a little insane in the first place.

Inherent in all this is my assertion that one should spend more time talking about what does work rather than what doesn’t. That doesn’t mean blind praise of a show. It means that you’re essentially marking a line in the sand between what’s worth your effort to celebrate as well as interrogate. You aren’t saying, “I don’t cover a certain show because it sucks.” You’re saying, “I don’t a certain show because I have nothing interesting to say about it, but I am willing to wager someone else will.” This is how critics can keep from burning out and readers can maximize their chances of finding someone who cares as much about a show as they do, even if that care sometimes means ripping it to absolute shreds.

If that last line seems contradictory, I have two words: Moff’s Law.

One concrete suggestion on how to free up time to do this: Journalism-as-pure-endurance-test has to stop. Editors need to stop assigning it, and readers have to stop giving editors reasons to assign it. Sure, it’s buzzworthy for a day or so when someone published, “Every Character In GOT, Definitively Ranked In Order Of Awesomeness Of Beard,” but holy hell it’s not worthy the time and effort it goes into writing something designed to delight via concept versus execution. A long-form piece about how Amazon is essentially cultivating the next generation of Patrick Batemans? That seems worthy of a lot of time and effort. But ranking every meal Hannibal Lecter created by cooking it oneself using only a hot plate and a Snoopy Sno-Co Machine? Probably not. I love long-form, but not for the pure sake of it.

You’ll notice a theme here, which is that too many people are working too hard for what’s ultimately not that important in the overall scheme of things. I don’t mean that culture isn’t important, but that we’re collectively too precious with our content and too competitive to be the one to back down. A few years ago, I desperately wanted to do this full time. (I don’t, and never have, a misconception that still remains to this day, which I guess is a good thing since it appears that I write enough to make it seem possible that this is my job.) But I look at the scene now, and from my admittedly outsider perspective, it doesn’t sound too dissimilar from the scenario at Amazon. It’s an industry based on the prospect that there’s literally no such thing as finite content, even if there are finite resources (aka, HUMANS) to do it. Sure, anyone can do it for a little while, but on a base level, only a few can do what’s required to even do a decent job of keeping up with the pace of business. One could argue not every PR blurb should be a blog post, that every casting announcement shouldn’t yield hundreds of identical articles within minutes of one another, that every site doesn’t need to cover “The Walking Dead”…but that would be describing what’s essentially a fantasyland.

It’s a fantasyland, but one I think is important to try and achieve all the same before the already overwhelming choices eventually devour the identity of the content provider entirely. As an end-user, your loyalty might be to a certain writer, but generally it’s to a website. I have written for a dozen or so, and even I don’t have the ego to think that anyone really started or stopped reading a website because of my involvement there.  I dreamed about writing for The A.V. Club, but once I did, I realized pretty quickly my byline there meant nothing to 99% of the readers. The A.V. Club provided their content, not me, and while I’d like to think I contributed positively while there, I also don’t think those 99% knew who I was while I was there, and certainly didn’t miss me when I left. There’s a new crew there, and they are great, and I am willing to wager they feel the same way to some extent. When you’re that expendable, it simultaneously inspires you to dig in as hard as possible yet also existentially wonder why the hell you’re trying so hard in the first place. (But hey, maybe that’s just me.)

All in all, this is about looking at the surge in TV content as opportunity for reinvention of the coverage model, one that keeps both writers and readers engaged, one that allows for a multitude of shows to be covered even as the overlaps between individuals decreases. The fact that there’s more stuff to cover provides opportunities few have truly tapped into yet. And with the rise of inexpensive equipment and hosting for audio/video, there’s an entire non-writing market just waiting to explode. Who the hell knows: Maybe in 6 months we’re all live-Periscoping instead of livetweeting. I just want to have a world in which those doing this full-time doing have less career longevity than the average professional football player, and in which readers recognize voices that have something to say rather than some corporate line to parrot. That won’t solve everything. But it’s a start.