The Playgoer: Print Critics Feel the Heat

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Friday, October 31, 2008

Print Critics Feel the Heat

"Some theater people are shivering with fear that their jobs are about to disappear. Unfortunately, they won't get much sympathy from anyone else on Broadway. That's because they're newspaper drama critics, those once all-powerful arbiters who, with a vicious turn of phrase, could close a show, humiliate an actor, bankrupt an investor. Now they're in danger of being shut down themselves, done in by declining circulation, shrinking arts coverage and that dreaded rival who's usurped their power, The Blogger."

Of course for Michael Riedel (author of the above, in case you couldn't tell) "The Blogger" amounts to some guys on All That Chat.

But sobering news indeed that such familiar names as the Star-Ledger's Michael Sommers and Peter Filichia, as well as our friend Eric Grode, formerly of the late NY Sun--are all out of jobs now. (Some voluntarily. Sommers, reports Riedel, took a buyout--as are so many journo's these days.)

Here's a wistful statement from Sommers that pretty much captures the changing times:

"We were all misled," says Sommers. "I thought I was going to be George Sanders. [i.e. Addison DeWitt in All About Eve.] Then I found out we don't get invited to the parties. There's no glamour anymore. During the stagehands strike, my editors had me standing on the sidewalk at 2 a.m. getting quotes."
Hey at least they had someone on the street covering the strike. But in the old days, the paper might have actually had a theatre reporter (or two!) in addition to the critic. It's now a one-man beat, if that.

Also newsworthy is this view of the changing landscape from the PR Firm view:
"A review is the only kind of editorial you're going to get for an off-Broadway play," the publicist says. "But for a big musical or a play with a star, the critics don't matter at all."
This confirms the obvious recent trend of "critic-proof" hits, like "Little Mermaid" and "Grease." In fact, given the concurrent rise of "praise-proof" flops on the drama side ("Journey's End," "Well," "[title of show]" and even, to an extent, "Passing Strange") dare we come to the conclusion that print critics are mattering less and less on Broadway in general?

If true, then that remark about the Off Broadway impact seems all the more salient, doesn't it.


Anonymous said...

They matter less and less if you buy into the stupid notion that the purpose of theater criticism is to make hits or close shows - and Reidel is being specious in any event; for the few decades, only the lead NY Times critic has had such power. It's a shame about he Star-Ledger and the Sun(only insofar as the Sun's arts coverage is concerned; good riddance to th rest of it), but really: the Star-Ledger could "bankrupt an investor"?

One needs to frame this conversation quite differently to understand why critics - book, film, etc., as well - are considered less and less important in print newspapers. In part it has to do with the dumbing-down of everything and the ever-reducing appetite for intelligent discourse about culture. Once newspapers made critics mere consumer reporters, they set them up for obsolescence.

This is nothing for bloggers to gloat about -- unless they want to see less and less room for discussion of theater on as many platforms as possible. That would not even be self-serving.

Catherine said...

It depends on where you're talking about, really.

In Toronto, most shows -big or not -rely on critics for coverage & audiences, and yet among younger demographics (the audience most theatres are desperate for these days), the online world has taken on a new importance. It's refreshing to see attitudes about marketing & word-of-mouth shift from print to online, where there is a whole new -and ripe -demographic that will be helping to re-shape the consumption (& perhaps creation) of culture in the next decade.

As an online journalist, I'm rather inspired by all of this. That doesn't mean I don't regularly defer to my print colleagues -it just means I aim my stuff at a different crowd. I do think there's room for all of us, but whether print will hold the power it does now remains to be seen. Toronto is awfully slow when it comes to changing old habits.

Anonymous said...

I read Riedel, and I find him amusing, but he lives in a fantasy world. He seems to revel in the image of himself as a dagger-wielding show killer.

I cannot for the life of me understand why he finds that fantasy so exciting.