As Informed Commentaries Go, This One’s Just Mid

It’s hard to find a media critic with an auspiced a resume as THE NEW YORK TIMES’ James Poniewozik.  Prior to his current role at the Grey Lady, he spent 16 years at TIME, where I had the pleasure of crossing paths with him on several occasions.  He was, and apparently still is, an unabashed fan and champion of prestige TV, and naturally found a way for a once-generous industry to fly him to virtually every significant launch or wrap party for FX’s originals.  He’d sometimes even try and challenge me with a few trivia or ratings questions that he thought would stump me; rarely did he succeed.  And when a colleague of mine made the mistake of addressing him as Jim, he immediately harrumphed and quickly corrected him:  “It’s James“.

So I sort of get the framing and tone that went into his latest “Critic’s Notebook” piece that dropped yesterday headlined THE COMFORTABLE PROBLEM OF MID TV.  In the ensuing 47 paragraphs, James alternately praises and laments what the wide, wide world of TV has evolved into.   Witness how he grapples with these clearly in-conflict emotions as he attempts to put into perspective the career choices of some of the talents associated with what he considers to be lean-forward shows of the past:

Keri Russell, a ruthless and complicated Russian spy in “The Americans,” is now in “The Diplomat,” a forgettably fun dramedy. Natasha Lyonne, of the provocative “Orange Is the New Black” and the psychotropic “Russian Doll,” now plays a retro-revamped Columbo figure in “Poker Face.” Idris Elba, once the macroeconomics-student gangster Stringer Bell in “The Wire,” more recently starred in “Hijack,” a by-the-numbers airplane thriller.

I’ve watched all of these shows. They’re not bad. They’re simply … mid. Which is what makes them, frustratingly, as emblematic of the current moment in TV as their stars’ previous shows were of the ambitions of the past.

What we have now is a profusion of well-cast, sleekly produced competence. We have tasteful remakes of familiar titles. We have the evidence of healthy budgets spent on impressive locations. We have good-enough new shows that resemble great old ones.

We have entered the golden age of Mid TV.

Look, I’m as conflicted about criticizing Poniewozik as he appears to be in criticizing the platforms and talents who have fueled his rise as an influential journalist.  Getting a favorable review from him when TIME was the most anticipated and ubiquitous newsweekly was a ticket to pop culture inclusion.  His seminal oral history of the fall of Michael Eisner and the ascent of Bob Iger, DISNEY WARS, was one of the best of its kind.  I personally knew a lot of the folks he spoke to and quoted and may I say as an outsider he captured the lunacy and uber-competitive mindsets as accurately as anybody could, and in an entertaingly narrative way.

But much like many of those he is pointing fingers at for their career choices, arguably his best work is also in the rearview mirror.

Poniewozik spends a disproportionate amount of time blaming algorithms for the homogenization of content, such as he did in this wailing:

Increasingly, the best way to get noticed was with something people already recognized: A familiar title, formula or franchise.  Disney+’s Marvel Cinematic Universe series are too polished to be awful or tacky — just compare them to the threadbare comic-book dramas of the ’70s and ’80s — but they are too bound by the rules and needs of the larger megaproperty to take creative leaps…Meanwhile, Netflix’s “Ozark” showed that you could ask, “What if ChatGPT rewrote ‘Breaking Bad’?” and enough people would embrace the result as if it were “Breaking Bad.”

Or this follow-up:

If comparing TV to fast-casual dining is an insulting analogy, in my defense I only borrowed it. A New Yorker profile last year quoted a Netflix executive describing the platform’s ideal show as a “gourmet cheeseburger.”

I’m not going to lie, I enjoy a gourmet cheeseburger. Caramelize some onions, lay on a slice of artisanal American cheese and I’m happy. But at heart, the sales pitch for that cheeseburger is no different from that for a Big Mac: You know what you’re going to get.

Predictably, his piece fostered lengthy and equally elitist backing from the cultural team at THE RINGER, perhaps best represented by one Joanna Robinson, whose own past work includes a lengthy stint at Vanity Fair, where her bio reminded you that (s)he lives in Northern California and knows more about Game of Thrones than you do.  (So THERE).  Robinson filled the void of THE WATCH co-host Andy Greenwald on yesterday’s drop, and she proceeded to double down on Poniewozik’s judgmental diatribes, arguing that even what he conceded to be the HBO of Mid, Apple TV+, was churning out originals that should have been merely one-off movies rather than series, spending more than enough time rambling on and on and on about the exact same point for much of the extended podcast that my own insomnia was mercifully relieved.

But neither of these journalists have actually worked inside the companies or with the executives they prostrate themselves in front of, and somehow they both missed the point that the very reason they have had something to write about is fully dependent upon popularity and business considerations that go way beyond artificial intelligence and time spent.

To his credit, Poniewozik at least tried to allow for such perspective:

There may also be economic reasons to prefer good-enough TV. As more people drop cable TV for streaming, their incentives change. With cable you bought a package of channels, many of which you would never watch, but any of which you might.

Each streaming platform, on the other hand, requires a separate purchase decision, and they add up. You might well choose a service that has plenty of shows you’d be willing to watch rather than one with a single show that you must watch.

Except HBO and its sister networks and competitors were always add-ons to basic cable access.  It was a separate purchase decision even then.  And they actually had Nielsen data that conclusively proved that despite the popularity of even its most successful originals, more than two-thirds of its subscribers never watched a minute of THE SOPRANOS or THE WIRE in a given month.  Apple TV+ is still a relatively smaller part of a far larger tech company, and they claim to be getting as much or more global engagement from Leo Messi as they are from Ted Lasso, let alone HIJACK.  And speaking for FX, which I know far more about, the cumulative audience and revenue ascribed to acquired movies was and is greater than even any extended and enhanced metric incorporating five-week multi-platform viewing.  Not a single individual spot in an FX original was sold without the purchase of a schedule across the balance of the network (those willing to buy out an entire telecast with billboards and allow limited or zero commerical interruptions were exceptions).  Simply put, without what some would dismiss as “filler”, there is no gourmet cheeseburger, let alone the Kobe beef versions that Poniewozik appears to be pining for.

And, Mr. P. and Ms. Robinson, may I remind you both that these platforms are increasingly pivoting to ad-supported models where the need for broader audiences is essential, and becoming more necessary as subscription prices continue to escalate.  You know who buys an awful lot of inventory in media these days?   Fast food chains.

And as for the urging that Poniewozik concludes his thesis that TV is far from broken, but it does feel like someone needs to go in and tweak the settings:  Spent any time in a boardroom lately?  Spent any time with the likes of, say, Apollo Global or other hedge funds who the bosses of Casey Bloys, John Landgraf, Jamie Erlicht and Zach Van Amburg now are more dependent upon than ever?  Doesn’t seem like they’re watching anything as closely or as emotionally as you are.  They seem to be a tad too preoccupied.

Bringing up examples of cultural impact from decades ago in a far less expensive and competitive ecosystem isn’t going to change much about how and why TV of today gets made.  Or even tomorrow.  In recent reporting done by the likes of THE ANKLER and PUCK, the development teams at these companies are now seeking what they call “prestigurals”–shows with the elasticity and breadth as, say, SUITS that in their minds are a cut above what that show was on a creative basis.  And nowhere in that world is the desire for a one-off movie even a consideration.

In other words, lots more gourmet cheeseburgers are on the menu.  Go grab your bibs.

Until next time…

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