The Great Divide: The Ever-Growing Disconnect Between TV Critics and Television Viewers (2013)


From the dawn of television, there has always been a vast divide separating the TV critics from the TV viewers.  Critics tend to love TV shows with deep themes, that are intellectually stimulating, and best of all, offer insider-jokes.   But such high-brow fare rarely connects with the mass viewing audience.  Viewers have a completely different set of criteria which they judge TV shows.  They are not looking for the best shows, the most thought-provoking shows, or even the shows which make the most Hollywood insider references – instead, average viewers value entertainment, self-contained episodes, appealing characters, and most of all:  it cannot be strictly cerebral – viewers just don’t want to think that hard.

As any one who has looked at what critics recommend versus what is actually being watched on TV can attest, viewers’ taste in television can vary widely.  Currently, TV critics are lauding such shows as: RECTIFY (Sundance Channel), MAD MEN (AMC), GAME OF THRONES (HBO), BATES MOTEL (A&E) and ORPHAN BLACK (BBC America).  But what are the top scripted shows on television right now:  NCIS, NCIS: LA, THE BIG BANG THEORY, TWO AND A HALF MEN, MIKE & MOLLY, and PERSON OF INTEREST.  Yet it is a rare day when any of these popular TV shows rate a television critic’s Top 10 recommended shows.

Another stark example is the two latest scripted dramas offered on Netflix:  HOUSE OF CARDS and HEMLOCK GROVE.  Based on Netflix’s own viewing numbers, HEMLOCK GROVE easily outranked HOUSE OF CARDS in viewership.  TV critics everywhere immediately cried afoul as surely HEMLOCK GROVE could not have lured more viewers than HOUSE OF CARDS.  Yet think about it.  Viewers are not swayed by critics.  Viewers watched what they want to watch, regardless of what any critic ever says. It seemed a no-brainer to me that viewers seeking escapist fare would rather watch a teen-drama mystery with werewolves over a middle-aged politician with no morals.  It does not matter how many Oscar awards Kevin Spacey has won, viewers base their viewing preferences on entertainment value.  The whole lure of television has been escapism – and the masses prefer shows that entertain over ones that have snarky political agendas.

I confess, as a TV critic myself, that my taste tends to diverge quite a bit from mass viewers.  I am fond of obscure television shows like DOCTOR WHO, HAVEN, MERLIN, ORPHAN BLACK, THE NEWSROOM, DEXTER, HELL ON WHEELS, ROGUE, BANSHEE, THE AMERICANS, CONTINUUM, VIKINGS, and SUITS. And how many of those shows have you heard of and watched?  (Though I confess: I have happily watched the entirety of HEMLOCK GROVE’s 13 episodes and have not yet seen a single episode of HOUSE OF CARDS.)

It is always astounding when I read my fellow TV critics’ Top 10 Lists throughout the television season and realize that the TV shows they are watching and promoting are usually not the shows that the American viewers are watching.  Critics can yell the names of their favorite TV shows from rooftops and viewers will still ignore them.  Why is that?

Because viewers have a complete different set of criteria about what is “must-see TV.”  Critics are paid to watch television.  In fact, they watch so much television that most experience burn-out and have little patience for shows with repetitive storylines or that offer self-contained and/or strictly procedural episodes.  It’s like eating too much junk food.  A little is enticing and yummy; too much can make you feel nauseous and wish to never to see it again.  But the average viewer will not be watching 40-50 hours of TV a week; they will be watching 10-15 hours a week and because they are pacing themselves, they won’t feel like they have overdosed on any one type of show. So viewers can consume “junk food” TV as much as they want.  They are less likely to feel over-saturated and burnt-out over it because they do not watch as much.

Given this inherent point of divergence, it is impossible to ever think a TV critic’s tastes could possible align with the mass TV audience.  So as you read your favorite TV critic’s columns and articles you need to be aware that they are going to see TV shows through a vastly different viewing lens.

It is the constant struggle to set aside our own biases and preferences and see a show as it will be received by a larger audience.  There are those who argue it is not a TV critic’s job to think like the masses, it is a critic’s job to sift through the bulk of television and advocate only the truly worthy.  Yet what is worthy?  To the average viewer the criteria is simply different.  As I briefly mentioned above, there are four distinct categories that must be satisfied if a TV show is to become “must see” by the average viewer:

Entertainability – What is deemed “entertaining” can vary person to person, but most viewers know if something is entertaining or not upon first sight.  Entertainability is when a show is so compelling and addictive that a viewer feels like that have to watch more.  It will also be a show that they recommend.  There is something that catches their attention, holds it and lures them back for more.  Entertainability may be an elusive and esoteric quality, but it is the number one factor that viewers consider.

Self-Contained – Given an era where serialized storytelling has worn out audiences, or perhaps it is due to the long hiatuses or frequent disruptions as episodes are bumped off the schedule, viewers are fatigued by the idea of following a 22-episode season of a show.  It requires an investment of their time and commitment, which may or may not be rewarded.  The show may be canceled and no answers ever provided, or the show may drag out its story to such a degree that answers are withheld for long periods (even years).  Given the outcry over the fact that the AMC series THE KILLING did not reveal the identity of the killer at the end of the first season, or how quickly viewers were clamoring for answers for the new drama series REVOLUTION about how and why the power went out, TV viewers today want their answers sooner rather than later.  So they are more likely to be drawn to a TV show that guarantees an answer or wrap-up within a single episode – like police/legal procedurals.  It is as much time as they want to devote to a mystery.  (Though this may become a moot issue with the advancement of “binge viewing” as recently made available by Netflix – because who needs the answer to a mystery in one hour when an entire season is being made available all at once.  After all, giving viewers an entire “book” opposed to weekly “chapters” holds immense appeal.)

Appealing Characters  – How many times have you seen a show raved about by a TV critic and then wondered what the heck they were thinking because none of the characters were likable?  This happens quite frequently.  Critics love shows with flawed characters that stretch the boundaries of their reality.  But for the average viewer, they are looking for characters that they want to spend time with.  It’s like embarking on a “love affair.”  Once a week, we sneak away from our daily lives to spend it with someone we have fallen in love with or a family that we want to be a part of.  We are looking for characters to share our lives with.  We are not necessarily looking to spend it with a serial killer, someone who’s cracking under the pressure of a serious disease, or the latest comedian wanna-be to come along and think his crazy antics are funny (when their not). Viewers are searching for intoxicating characters that make them devote their precious free time to spend time with them.

Non-cerebral  – For most people, television is a chance to escape from their daily lives.  They do not want to have to think too hard about the imaginary, fictional world that they are being asked to join.  How many times have we heard the phrase “brilliant but canceled” when associated with great TV shows?  All too often.  But why are we hearing it?  It is because even though a show may be “brilliant,” no one was watching it.  One reason that viewers either didn’t tune in or didn’t stay tuned in was they thought the show made them think too hard.  Complex sci-fi/fantasy shows have this immediate hurdle to overcome right from the start.  I confess: I love complex dramas and sci-fi.  I love having to think about the multiple layers of reality, multiple identities and personalities, and all the intertwined relationships that come with it.  But after a full day of work and perhaps the commute-from-hell, the average viewer just wants to sit down and watch an hour or two of TV and they don’t want to think about it too hard.  They are too emotionally, mentally and physically exhausted.  They will choose the easier to watch show that demands less of their attention every single time, just because it is easier.  Easier to jump into and out of, and it asks for less demands on them. Hence the rise and sustained popularity of reality TV.  It’s mindless fun that requires very little thought or commitment.

These four factors are what TV viewers tend to gravitate towards time and time again.  It is what resonates in their daily lives.  It speaks to them.  Their lives are complicated and dreary enough that they are seeking something that takes them away from that.  But because the average person is looking for something so different than what TV critics are looking for, the inherent divide between what is recommended by the professional versus what is actually being consumed and watched, shall continue to grow.

I know I rarely trust critics’ recommendations. They are not living my life. They could not possibly know what I will like and enjoy.  The only way I can know is if I see it myself.  So I try to do just that. I try to sample as many shows as I can.  I would encourage more viewers to do the same.  Don’t take anyone else’s word for it whether as show it great or not, find out for yourself.  You might be surprised by what you discover.

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