Forgive My Ambivalence: ‘90210’ and Network Screeners

During the summer months, it’s hard to get excited about television. Now, I don’t mean to say that I’m not enjoying the summer runs of shows like The Middleman, Burn Notice, Mad Men or Generation Kill – it’s the opposite actually, as I’ve enjoyed them immensely. The issue, however, is that this great medium we call television is just less interesting up until about this late August period.

And so, Cultural Learnings has been all about the reviews and not so much with grand statements evaluating the state of television as a whole; and while my more established colleagues (Read: actual TV critics) usually receive screeners that help them handicap the year ahead, my lack of such screeners means that I rely on their coverage in order to design my own. This year, of course, this is proving difficult: some shows are barely finishing their pilots, and the result is a lack of coverage of what Fall will truly have to offer.

I’ve dealt with this screener question before, arguing last year that the networks should do more to get pilots out to people other than TV critics in an effort to rustle up support and build a fan base that can support the show through tough times. So, the recent news that The CW is not sending out screener DVDs of its ‘90210’ reboot should be something that has me up in arms, ready to pounce on their ignorance of the power of these screeners to get people interested about their show.

But, at least for now, I can’t really say that I care either way – and that kind of ambivalence is, for the networks, probably their best case scenario heading into this pilot season.

Traditional thinking, at least by entertainment standards, is to view this with a suspicious eye – when a movie isn’t screened for critics for example, the reasoning is almost always to avoid poor reviews and lure people into the theatres who may have been turned off otherwise. Now, in some instance, the studios will spin this as “This movie isn’t for critics, so we didn’t think it was necessary to screen it for them,” but it’s really the exact same reason: critics wouldn’t like it, so why allow their negative opinions to damage the film’s bottom line? Delay the negative reviews until the film has opened, and ensure that there are less of them, and you have a surefire recipe for some strange yet oddly prevalent sort of success.

And while there’s outright anger at the decision not to send out screeners for ‘90210,’ I really don’t think that we can draw that conclusion. I like Alan Sepinwall’s take, as usual, because it portrays all sides of the argument: he points out a couple of key reasons why ‘90210’ could benefit from a lack of critics’ perspectives, but offers up the question of the hour:

“But if I’m the CW, a network struggling to justify its existence, and the show that’s going to make or break my future is premiering the day after Labor Day, weeks before most people are going to be in the habit of checking out new shows, you’d think getting every bit of potential publicity would be the way to go, no?”

This is the real question here: rather than attempting to judge the show’s quality based on this decision, this is a better reflection of the way that this struggling network is planning on making their mark on a new season, and perhaps a last chance at maintaining its relevancy. And, their approach seems to be building mystery and suspense into the unveiling of the series, counting on critics like Alan to let either their nostalgia or that mystery drive them into covering the show regardless of whether they’ve seen it.

And Alan even raises the point of whether it matters if people see it, whether it will really change either the critical or audience reception, something that Ken Tucker echoes over at EW:

“No one’s freedom to express an opinion has been squelched. We all know where we stand. If the CW doesn’t want to send out advance copies, it still can’t stifle opinion — and if anything, it’s inviting you to make immediate comments even more critical of or positive about the show than I might be.”

And Jaime Weinman at TV Guidance raised similar spinoffs last week when discussing the overall lack of pilots being aired:

“In a weird way, there’s an advantage to the lack of pilot screeners, since it makes it much more clear than usual that a TV “preview” is all speculation. Without a pilot screener, you can admit up front that you don’t know how good or bad the show will be, and get around to figuring that out the same way everybody does — by seeing if the show is any good when the second, third, fourth episodes come around.”

In other words, the optics of this decision are being transposed from our past experience with film and more “controversial” shows – the long development cycles, casting news and general hype of television mean that unreviewed shows could never skirt under the radar like unreviewed movies, able to pop out of development hell and into our commercial breaks. Plus, as Weinman notes, television shows are designed to prove themselves, so reviewing a pilot has always seemed a futile exercise to begin with at some points.

While it may seem like an attempt to stifle opinion, it’s not as if it’s going to actually change anything, and may even result in more negative reactions from critics unhappy from being cut out of the loop. In other words, chances are the reactions now will probably be a wash compared to the reactions if screeners had been sent out, at the end of the day.

And the pilot might not be good, just as those critics might presume: I’m intrigued by the show, but as someone too young to have spent much time with the original series and too far removed from the target demo to be excited about its content, the only things driving me to the series are my obligations to cover the entire world of television and the casting of Jessica Walter and Tristan Wilds, performers from two far superior series. So, it’s not as if I think the show isn’t trying to hide something, striving to keep the terrible truth from getting out for as long as possible.

But I can’t blame them for this decision, as it makes perfect sense: as Sepinwall observes, there is every chance that there’s enough of a story in all of this hype (And in the legacy of the original series, and in The CW’s next big drama series) to not even need to have seen the episode. Plus, the topic is surely going to come up as critics discuss what kind of lead-in the network’s other new show, Privileged, will get from the series – that show is getting screeners, likely necessary as an untested brand without the same amount of hype.

So as someone who is on the backbenches of this particular conflict, unable to participate while at least somewhat affected by it, it does little to rile up my cynicism or make me any more interested in what is a very mundane opening to the season. My ambivalence, I think, is all too common: with the strike having derailed last season before it really began, we come to a point where all of the shows are behind schedule, most appear to be mostly untested, and where I can honestly say that ‘Fringe’ is the only one that really has me excited to turn on the television.

And perhaps that’s why the kerfluffle: Tucker is right that he isn’t breaking ranks by suggesting that this move is both smart and fairly innocuous, as it is not some sort of extreme statement by any means. If this was any other pilot season, where everyone was receiving bucketloads of pilots and there was a full development slate being unleashed to the public, this might have just been one more blip on the radar. But this is a year where a lack of ‘90210’ screeners is as much of a scandal as we’ll probably get.

I still think that more screeners could benefits these networks in the long run, reaching out to sources beyond the critical world to get the show into people’s hands, but I can’t say that I’m surprised or outraged that the network that pulled streaming video in order to boost Gossip Girl’s ratings is doing everything it can to be able to tout some Nielsen numbers come 9.03 – if anything, it’s just another sign that this is a television season where ‘logic’ is taking on new, strange meanings, for better or for worse.

A Note: As you may have noticed, things are slower around here these days, as I’m knee deep in job training: will have thoughts on Weeds later in the week, and I’ll probably discuss last week’s Burn Notice when its next episode airs on Thursday.

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