Criticizing Criticism: Average Viewer Edition
Anyone Who Makes Any Complaint About Hollywood Has Forgotten Something — And People in my Profession Are At Least Partly Responsible
Hollywood’s been under attack by so many constituencies these days. Some people claim that it’s not inclusive enough. Just as many claim diversity is destroying Hollywood. Some people complain that there are too many shows and too many places to watch them. Others complain that none of these shows are worth watching. Some people complain that too many films are driven towards superhero movies and action franchises and not really art. Just as many complain that those same superhero and action franchises are what Hollywood should be making — not ‘art films no one sees.’ Some people think that films and TV are too political. Some people think they’re not political enough. Everybody argues that mergers of corporations eliminate creativity and limit the number of series that are made and the kind of people who make them.
All of these arguments miss one of the most fundamental points about Hollywood. To be fair, its one where the industry itself goes out of its way to try and make you forget. That being said, the reason that they are more willing to make the world forget this point is because of people in my job. And for that, I think I owe all of these people both an apology and an explanation.
For the past several months I’ve been writing articles about the fundamental flaws in the way so many critics and cultural historians view of art has misled generations of people throughout history. This point now has even more clarity these days considering all the problems Hollywood has. What will make this article different is that I now think the time has come to shift at least some of the responsibility from the critic to the viewer. Because while this illusion has been perpetrated by many in my profession about the nature of art, the fact remains that — particularly when it comes to film and television — some of the responsibility must be shared by the people watching it. To be clear, I include myself in both.
Let’s start with a statement that is basic: Hollywood is a business. Some of the people who are the face of it are more photogenic, many of the talented ones make more money in a few months than the average American will make in a lifetime, but it is a business.
This should come as a shock to no one. We measure film’s success by box office. We measured Broadcast TV success by Nielsen ratings, pay cable by subscribers, streaming by minutes but it all comes down to which show has the most. When first VHS and then DVDs and blu-rays were around, we measure film and TV success by the number sold, we do a variation with digital downloads. Everybody in Hollywood in the creative process — from Actors and Directors on down — belong to unions. Hollywood is business.
And all business are built on producing a product that creates a profit for the investors. No one who works on a movie or TV show is working for free. Some actors and directors will call projects ‘labors of love’ or ‘pet projects’ but they’re still getting paid for it, as is everybody else behind it. TV shows have always been made with the intention of making a profit for somebody, be it the network, cable or streaming service.
Now, in recent years, many have fundamentally suggested that most of the numbers that companies are giving us for recent films and television shows are lies, manipulated by the companies involved. I would argue that if they only think that has begun recently they are incredibly naïve. Films and television, in order to make money, need advertising which, like everything else in society, utilizes deception to work. (You don’t like that? I’ll address momentarily.) Some of the exaggerations that network television makes be slightly more grounded in reality than others, but at the end of the day, it is all marketing. Sometimes the best way to make something a real success is to pretend it already is one.
Now to all of you who think that deception and falsehood are the causes of everything that’s wrong in the world, I’d actually make an argument that we need lies to survive. In fact, Ricky Gervais made a film called The Invention of Lying that makes that same argument. It acknowledges upfront that almost every institution in the world — from marriage and religion to yes, advertising and entertainment — is built on deception. But Gervais also argues that without these deceptions, life would be pretty miserable. He might lean more into satire than you would like but I got a glimpse of the world he built. A world built on honesty and nothing else isn’t a lot of fun. All the interactions of day-to-day society are built on it. You think it would be pleasant being told every day that you’re fat and ugly and a failure? You think it would be fun basically knowing that your whole life is just one big wait to meaningless oblivion? Do you think it would be fun if the only distraction from all of this were films about real life because, remember, all fiction is a lie? That last one is certainly the truth. If everybody wanted to see the true-life stories of history, then documentaries would be the highest grossing movies of all time and PBS and C-SPAN would be the highest rated networks. Lying makes the world go round. We all know this to an extent.
Unfortunately for us all, there are some deceptions that do real harm. And one of them sadly is the one that my fellow critics and so many educators and historians have been spending their careers telling us. That deception is that no one who makes art is doing for the money. That anything designed for popular success is not worthy of being considered art. That art and business have nothing to do with each other and should not be considered when evaluating them. And those who suggest that the latter does have any real effect on what’s being produced are, at best, misinformed.
I can’t help but think that this may have caused irrevocable damage to both the film and television industries when it comes to how the general public has viewed both of them. It has not helped that almost everyone who works in Hollywood is more than willing to play into that deception. This has been done in many ways over the years, from arguing that talented stars and directors are ‘too difficult to work with’ to certain ‘critically acclaimed talents’ derided those who have made money as ‘sell-outs’ . You can’t really blame the latter that much: everyone is naturally jealous of the person to whom success comes easily to while you labor in your field never get the acknowledgement you may well deserve. But in Hollywood, this ‘us or them’ has a ripple effect that critics are more than willing to amplify. In the critical world, when Martin Scorsese demeans the MCU as ‘not true movies’ he is seen as speaking truth to the narrative they want to shape. To younger film-goers, he seems like an out of touch old man who doesn’t appreciate what they like. Both of these perspectives miss the point of made: Hollywood’s a business and businesses need to make money. Is it sad that Scorsese has to make films for streaming services rather than get wide studio release while Marvel films fill every theater? Yes. But rather than argue that is a problem with the business of Hollywood, so many of my fellow critics view it as how Hollywood as how it fits the critics version of Hollywood. That the two are almost certainly not compatible is irrelevant to the critic because in their mind, the business part of it should not even be part of the discussion.
Now to be clear, critics are guilty at a certain level for the way almost all of us view Hollywood and art in general. But for all of this, there is an unindicted co-conspirator when it comes to film and TV. And now I shift my criticism from my fellow critics to…everyone.
Yes, that’s right. Anybody who has ever watched television regularly, everyone who has ever harped about the lack of programming, the way that networks television, then cable, then everything else is the way it is, those of you who blame hit shows for going on while your favorite show has been canceled, everyone who says that politics or diversity or anything other subject they think has ‘ruined’ television or film, I’m talking to you.
Because all of you bear a certain degree of responsibility. It may not be as much as I think, but it’s certainly not nothing.
Business have always operating on what sells. I grant you my fellow critics may have given the illusion that’s not what film and TV should be, but you still go to those movies, you still watch those shows. And in that sense, all of us bare not only a sense of guilt, but in many ways entitlement.
This is particularly true when it comes to TV. It always has. As long as I have been alive, whenever a beloved TV show that is not a hit is cancelled, fans will blame the network and the business. In their mind, a network is supposed to provide them the entertainment they want even though it’s a zero sum game. If they give you the show you want, they’re doing their job. If they cancel it, they don’t know what they’re doing. The viewer does not accept their part in it. How much of this can be laid at the door of the critics is anyone’s guess but to pretend the viewing audience bares no responsibility is idiotic.
So in the era of network television, we blamed the network for scheduling it on a ‘night when no one watched it’ or ‘against a show everybody loved’ or ‘not giving it the publicity it deserved.” To the first, not all shows can go in a slot when everybody can be there to see it. To the second, there are always a limited number of slots, some shows have to draw the short straw. To the third, what you really mean is the publicity you thought it deserved.
Then when cable began to offer more creative freedom to showrunner and actors, millions of Americans abandoned networks for cable. I don’t entirely blame viewers for doing so. But at some point, you have to have expected that networks — which are business — would suffer the way any other business does when a better product comes out. The number of creative people would decrease, the networks would begin to lose money and they’d start trying to win viewers back with new brands of old products. To be fair, critics refused to lay any of the blame on this on the rise of cable, usually lumping under the heading of ‘networks aren’t able to compete creatively.” The fact that they were subject to standards cable and streaming couldn’t match was never acknowledged because that would mean acknowledging networks are business, and critics refuse acknowledge that. None of this, however, prevented the viewer from blaming the networks for their part in this decrease in quality on the shows.
Then streaming came along and did something to up the ante: it offered instant gratification. I have always argued against that binge-watching was not a sustainable business model for Netflix or any other streaming service and their fall does not come a shock to me. But this does not absolve the viewer of responsibility, either. I admit binge watching a series is easier for most people than the average American, and I get the appeal. But this doesn’t absolve the viewer of the consequences of their actions. If rather than watch an entire series over the course of a weekly run, you decide to watch it all at once on a streaming network, then the end result is fewer people end up watching cable or network as a result. Again there will be repercussions that have become obvious over the last decade: many cable networks have halted production of original series altogether over many years. And with so many people canceling cable subscriptions because they’d rather watch shows on streaming, then cable networks have to find another way to survive, even if that means merging with other networks. Actions have consequences, and just because you don’t like mean doesn’t mean you are entitle to absolve yourself of the responsibility.
And as a result of so many cable and streaming services, there were an excess of shows to watch, almost certainly too many for any real viewer to consider part of their schedules. And when Netflix and other streaming services began to inevitably reach the limits of their growth, of course a lot of series were going to get canceled. Yes, Netflix overexpanded and spent too much money on developing product.. How does that differ from HBO, after years of being the only place for Peak TV, eventually biting off more than it could chew and other networks beginning to fill the gap? Yes, some streaming services and networks are cancelling shows they’ve already developed full seasons of. How is this different from network cancelling series they’ve committed thirteen episodes too and then cancelling after three because of low ratings? Entertainment is a business and its interested in the bottom-line.
And all of this comes down to the point of view — both the critics and the average viewer — that TV owes you entertainment, but you don’t owe television anything. The best businesses are built on customer loyalty; what did you honestly think would happen when you not only showed none, but were insulted at the idea? Why should I have to watch network television when cable is there? Why should I have to watch cable when streaming is there? Why should I have to buy DVDs or even television when I don’t have too? Why should I even have to bother paying for a subscription to Netflix or any streaming service when I can ‘borrow’ a friend’s?
And just to be clear, I don’t like defending corporations. I don’t like the idea of having to defend monopolies or big business. But let’s be clear: it’s not like there’s ever been a ‘small business’ cable or streaming service. It’s not like HBO and NBC have been putting the ‘mom and pop’ television network out of business. I hear a lot of people complain about big business destroying America; I’ve never heard or seen any column anywhere asking for anti-trust legislation for Showtime or HBO. And honestly, the people who are complaining now are nothing more than the people discussed at the start of this discussion: the people complaining about the cancellation of Westworld by HBO are just a variation on those who bore rage against those who were infuriated by Firefly’s death 20 years earlier.
So in conclusion, I will take responsibility as a critic for my profession’s attitude towards television over the years by viewing it as only an art form rather than part of a business. Over the past few years I’ve increasingly become aware of their responsibility and even though I’ve tried to be even-handed in how I view pop culture, I accept whatever part — however miniscule or large — it might be. The question becomes, will you the viewer do the same? Will you admit that to an extent some part of this is your responsibility? Or will you ignore this article and just bitch and moan about Netflix didn’t have the first clue of what it was doing when it cancelled Warrior Nun? I put the question before you and leave it in your hands.