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"Countless" shows to review

January 8, 2008 |  6:00 am

The question usually is: So many shows, so little time -- what's a TV reporting staff to do when it comes to choosing which to review?

Now that there's a writers strike on, the question has become: So few writers, so few new shows -- what's a TV writer to do?

TV editor Kate Aurthur responds.

There's more work, not less, for Times TV critics during the writers strike, says Aurthur: "The strike is an ongoing, brutally paced news story. While there's always plenty of news in the TV world, I've never covered something in entertainment that just keeps going like this. And we still have plenty of TV to cover for both reviews and features -- no, there's not less to do in those areas (yet)."

For the past few years, The Times has published some 200 reviews annually. Two reviewers are on the beat now: Robert Lloyd and Mary McNamara. Typically the busy time of the year is late September and early October, when the bulk of the network shows roll out. Nowadays, though, there's really no slow time.

In a world with cable stations and shows on the web, there are "countless" shows The Times could review, says Aurthur. As far as how much TV she watches, "that's countless, too. You can use this as an example if it doesn't make me seem too crazy. I wrote a list of 234 episodes of television that I wanted to watch at the beginning of the two weeks of slowness because of the holidays. By Jan. 3, the deadline, I got it down to 147." ("I feel like a failure," she adds.)

There's a bit of planning but also a lot of improvising when it comes to choosing among the "countless."

Aurthur and crew make it a priority to review those shows that a large number of people might watch, be it on the networks, or on the bigger cable channels. And, as Aurthur says, "We don't shy away from giving bad reviews -- witness Mary's review of 'Crowned.' The service part of criticism demands that we weigh in on a whole lot of stuff: wonderful, terrible or morally reprehensible."

After making sure the popular ones are covered, "things get more spontaneous. We receive dozens of DVDs a day, and there's just not a lot to say about some of them. So we try to have a good mixture of the more broad, and the more obscure. We try to review documentaries and children's television and terrific things that our readers might not otherwise know about."

The reviewers don't just review: "We also try to have essays about interesting plot twists that develop as a show goes along. After all, to fans, television is breaking news, and it doesn't stay static. Do you remember where you were when Adriana got whacked on 'The Sopranos'? When Richard Hatch won the first 'Survivor'? When Lucy was killed, and Carter was stabbed, on 'ER'? I do, and I'm probably not alone."

The Internet has changed the job, too: "More and more, we review web-only shows or clips."

The critics go beyond reviewing shows in another way: They look at televised coverage of news, too. Aurthur notes, "As the primaries start, we'll be doing more of that sort of thing. How is Katie Couric doing in her first presidential campaign? How are the morning shows covering the elections? Whose debate posture is most appealing?

"It's an imperfect science in a zillion-channel/website universe. But as a television fan, I try to imagine what I'd like to read, even if it's about shows I wouldn't want to watch."