Now What?: Advance Screeners in the Digital Age

Advance Screeners in the Digital Age

March 31st, 2011

It is hardly a secret that television critics often receive advance screeners of popular television programs: after all, the role of the traditional critic has been to produce pre-air reviews of programs, which would necessitate seeing the program in question before publication.

However, we live in an era where the awareness of screeners is cultivated through more than simple logic: through Twitter, engaged users know when networks are sending out particular programs, as journalists/critics/bloggers often tweet when a screener package arrives (sometimes even taking pictures if the packaging is particularly novel). It’s like a wave if you’re following enough of these professionals, as various unboxing tweets fill our feeds.

In the interest of full disclosure, although this won’t be a surprise to those who follow me on Twitter, I’ve had my fair share of screeners this year; currently, for example, I have received considerable chunks of new series from Showtime and HBO, including United States of Tara and Game of Thrones. I point this out not to brag, although that seems like an inevitable byproduct of this discussion. Rather, I share in order to express my central dilemma, which is quite simple:

What, precisely, am I supposed to do with them?

And I figured I would turn the question over to you.

The act of sending screeners to critics relates to the notion of opinion leaders which I last discussed in my piece on Game of Thrones‘ transmedia experience, The Maester’s Path. In simple terms, they are being sent to critics in order to raise awareness among their readers; historically, this would be through the pre-air review, which would be published on or before the show’s premiere date.

My question, I guess, is whether or not the expectations have changed. As people become more aware of screeners, and as critics become more accessible, their presence is considerably more powerful: by tweeting that we received screeners, even, we are reminding followers that the show in question is arriving/returning/airing. This is, of course, what networks are looking for: while screeners rarely (if ever) come with actual strings attached, there is a certain expectation that critics who like a show will tell their viewers when it is airing, build up hype ahead of its premiere, and use the screeners in order to facilitate more timely and more detailed coverage.

However, I don’t want to make this a network issue: who, after all, could blame them for wanting more coverage of their programs? What I’m interested in, however, is what you expect from critics who have screeners. Since I have access to the first six episodes of Game of Thrones‘ first season, is there a particular kind of coverage that you think should come from this? Do you want me to tweet my response to each episode, as some critics have done? Are you expecting extensive pre-air analysis of the series as a whole, or simply more detailed post-air analysis facilitated by the increased access to the text itself?

From talking to and observing the writing of my fellow critics, there seem to be a wide range of strategies being employed. Some go completely radio silent: they don’t tweet when they receive screeners, they don’t review them in advance, and the only sign that they received a screener is the speed at which a post-air review comes online. Others, meanwhile, almost let the viewers into the screening process by tweeting about the episodes, and sometimes even writing pre-air reviews of individual episodes to help build awareness. Yet more fall somewhere in between, tweeting the occasional comment or writing the occasional pre-air coverage while mostly using the screeners as a tool to help them in their regular coverage.

None of these strategies are unreasonable, but I always wonder how readers are responding to this kind of coverage. Should having screeners be changing the way I cover shows (perhaps offering more of a “preview” function), or should it simply result in faster post-air coverage that is generally the norm? Was my “advance” look at Mildred Pierce (and its negotiation of film/miniseries within television outlets) valuable to your pre-air decision making, or would you rather have had that same consideration in a post-air form where more spoiler-ish discussion could be possible? What kind of tweets do you want to see about screeners, if any?

Obviously, Game of Thrones may be a unique case: the show’s fanbase has proven itself to have a veracious appetite for this kind of material, and so many fans would suggest I write/tweet/review as much as possible. However, even within that fanbase some may have different preferences, and I am curious to learn more about what kinds of coverage you might be looking for if/when I receive more screeners in the future.

So, I turn it over to you – what do you want to read/know/see from critics with screeners?

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22 Comments

Filed under TV Criticism

22 responses to “Now What?: Advance Screeners in the Digital Age

  1. Cornballer

    From critics with screeners, I appreciate:
    1) Pre-air, spoiler free critique so I can determine whether or not it’s worth my time.
    2) Episode recaps reviews that are up as soon as the show has aired. I’m much more likely to read them right after watching.

    Anything beyond that is a bonus, but not something that I specifically look for. Tweets about what you’re watching are fine for driving hype, but pre-air they rarely do more than slightly adjust my interest in the upcoming show.

  2. Zac Beach

    I definitely would love post air analysis. I would appreciate a few tweets as you’re watching. Just general thoughts on quality of acting and writing. Is the scale epic? And where does it fit in TV world? Mad Men or Breaking Bad, or Lost and Battlestar Galactica?

  3. I watch a lot of TV. A LOT. And I’ve come to decide that I kind of like getting a pre-show review, in general terms. I want a critic to give me just enough to help me make a decision, but not so much that they’re giving too much information away. I really like listening to Alan Sepinwall and Dan Fienberg’s podcast where they talk about things that are upcoming.

    For instance, after reading and listening to them for over 2 years now, I kind of know what they like and don’t like and if they say, “I like this more than Breaking Bad,” I will usually decide I have to watch said show. And when they’ve seen the entire season 3 of U.S. of Tara and tell me the whole thing is awesome, it makes me happy. When they saw the Terriers finale a few weeks ahead of time and were able to say it was a satisfying finale, that made me happy and even more excited to keep watching the show.

    That said, I respect the rights of each critic to make his/her own choice in how much to reveal and what to keep quiet. If someone continually tells me more than I want to know, I’ll probably stop reading them. (I don’t think I’ve ever done that) And I don’t mind getting tweets from a critic who just says, “Got X screener. LOVE.” Or “Got X screener. HATE.” Ultimately, I will watch what I want regardless of the critics, but a critic’s viewpoint can sometimes tip the scale in terms of whether I decide I have to watch something right away, or if I can stand to let it pile up On Demand or something. I will freely admit that after hearing Alan and Dan’s take on Mildred Pierce, I was much less enthused and will likely watch it later rather than sooner.

    • Hans

      I agree. I like pre-air reviews of shows I don´t follow, since I most likely don´t read reviews of those shows and might not be aware that the show has taken a turn for the better. So I pretty much always read those. But obviously that lends itself better for sampling, so for semi-regular coverage I would definitely prefer post-air analysis.

  4. trippdup

    I want to know who the audience is for it and what type of storytelling I can expect. I want to know about any stand-out performances or significant caveats. I want to know what previous works it’s most like. Then I want timely, well-thought out individual post-air episode reviews based upon multiple viewings.

  5. I don’t want anything about too far in advance, unless maybe it’s a crushing disappointment. I know I want to watch Game of Thrones, I know I’m going to, so anything a critic with screeners does to talk about it just feels like you’re rubbing my nose in it. I will grant that it’s different for a show that I don’t know that I want to watch, but hey, we’re talking Game of Thrones here!

  6. What I tend to notice when it comes to critics who have been given the whole season (or at least a significant portion of it) in advance is that they are torn between this decision of whether to watch all of the advance of their first post, or to take the time between episodes to write a post, and thus simulate what the average viewer goes through.

    Me, I prefer that they choose to go the latter route, as it facilitates a bond between reader and critic, and it keeps the more focused on the episode at hand as opposed to future developments. I’m not saying these critics ever spoil anything – they’re much too professional for that – but it does sometimes make it seem like the critic isn’t interested in the episode itself so much as it place in a path whose end they already know. (Of course, this plays into the larger “forest-among-the-trees argument, but that’s another issue for another time.)

    Myles, I have no idea which path you choose with your recaps, so maybe none of this applies to you, but then again maybe it does. Either way, I figured I would get in my two cents.

    • trippdup

      Seconded, with the caveat that I would want a critic to watch, if possible, at least half a season of any new series. One episode is very often not enough to make a reliable assessment of whether it’s worth checking out. Subsequent seasons, stay with the audience.

  7. As someone who sadly doesn’t qualify for screeners and has to recap after it’s aired, and as a viewer who has way too many shows on their radar, I think the limit of what I want to hear is whether or not the show is any good. The bare minimum of whether or not it’s worth checking out, what performances work and what don’t, and (if they have multiple episodes available) if it fixes its problems early and moves its story along.

    There’ll always be some show outliers though, but that’s mostly due to personal preference. Something like “Game of Thrones” though, with its massive hype and production costs, is a show I want to know as little as possible about to approach with a clear head. Other shows like “Mad Men,” where the plot is so dissected and analyzed in the wider consciousness, I think it’s important to keep details under wraps (and I agree with Matt Weiner in this case for halting all future screeners).

    Basically, I don’t have a problem with critics having advance screeners and using that information to shape their coverage. However, I do expect those critics to appreciate the info they have and know what shows would benefit more from them keeping that information to themselves.

  8. Personally, I never read pre-show reviews. I much prefer in-depth post-air analysis that goes up very soon after the episode finishes. My thing is, I trust my own judgment enough that I decide what I’m going to watch, regardless of what critics think; I enjoy forming my own opinions, and I enjoy contrasting those opinions with the detailed thoughts of online critics after the fact, especially those who have had the luxury of time in regards to screeners. I’m not necessarily opposed to waiting for in-depth analysis, but it seems more convenient all around, if one has a screener, why not put it to the most use possible?

  9. Eldritch

    I realize you have many demands on your time, but that notwithstanding. . .

    I appreciate advance, non-spoilery reviews to decide whether to invest my time to watch new shows, new seasons, TV specials, miniseries, etc.

    I also enjoy post aired reviews of individual episodes.

    …if your workload permits that amount of work.

  10. shopshopshop

    I’ll echo what a few others have said here and say that I like to get some opinion from critics before a show premieres. This is mostly for series premieres, though. I use these pre-air reviews to get a sense of whether I want to watch a show or not.

    For instance, if Alan Sepinwall reviews a show, and says it’s mostly a bland police procedural show like CSI and whatnot, I won’t bother watching it. I don’t always follow a critic’s opinion, but I very much find these pre-air reviews interesting and useful.

    For returning series, I would much prefer post-air reviews. I know I’m going to watch season 4 of Breaking Bad. I know it’s going to be awesome. I don’t need a post saying “you guys should watch season 4, it’s really good” because I already know what Breaking Bad is about.

    • Jess D

      I agree with this approach. I like the pre-air reviews for new series, miniseries, and such. Productions that we wouldn’t otherwise know too much about. And if that review is informed by having seen the first 3 to 4 episodes, all the better. I’ve definitely appreciated the recent articles about ‘The Killing,’ which premieres this weekend.

      But for returning shows, I don’t like to read the pre-air hype. As shopshopshop notes, I already know what a returning show is about, and I just want to experience it without critical opinion influencing my reactions. I’d much rather have detailed post-air analysis.

      ‘Game of Thrones’ has already been hyped to death, and at this point feels more like a returning series than a new one. I’d much rather have the detailed post-air analysis than more preview teasing on this one.

  11. What do you do with the Game of Thrones screener? Leak it!

    Please… 🙂

    • Eldritch

      Sure. And that would answer all his questions on how handle screeners . . . since he wouldn’t get them anymore.

  12. the radish

    I concur with several of the commenters in that pre-airing I’d like a spoiler-free recommendation of whether to watch a show or not — especially if you’ve received several episodes and can tell us whether it gets better or continues in quality. Then I like detailed, thought-out post-airing discussion that is possible when you have more time to work on it.

    Really enjoy the site.

  13. Greeney28

    I want critics to help my excitement build. Perhaps the day of, you could tease about the coolest things that are coming up (in vague terms) of course. Stuff that makes the premiere super duper exciting. I do read the occasional pre-show review, and I worry about the power of these reviews (the ho-hum reaction to “Mildred Pearce” may have impacted its reception). But in terms of strength of script, breakout performances, and elements that make you yearn for more, that’s the stuff an early review can address.

    If you want to go beyond the traditional program review, though, I want critics who have read the books to contemplate the issues of loyalty versus creative license (medium shifting, etc.) I’d like an examination of HBO’s commitment here, and a consideration of how to translate this story for a particular audience. I want a consideration of the risks–a history of fantasy on TV and how it has fared. But that may just be me. 🙂

  14. Tausif Khan

    I would prefer more in depth post-air reviews of all kinds. Getting screeners is great for an academic because it will allow you more leisure to offer greater analysis were as with a television critic who writes for a news publication who writes to promote a series it wouldn’t have less meaningful post air value.

  15. M.

    I’ve been so frustrated by reading so much about it — but not being able to watch it — that I don’t think I’m going to tune in at all. Hype is a major turn-off.

    Consequently, I don’t think I can answer your question.

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  17. I know I’m late to the post, but I do have some things to say.

    Like others in this comment thread, my thought when a critic gets a screener for a new show is “Is this show any good?” When it comes to new shows, I want to hear pre-air thoughts on whether the show is worth my time. I want to hear different pers

    When it comes to returning shows, I prefer to look at the episode after air and to see how it fits in with the series as a whole with complete spoilers. When it comes to a returning show, I don’t want any reviews that I read (or write) to hold back any spoilers from the episode. I don’t need to be told that I may or may not like this show because I’ve already seen it.

    This is something that I’m going to be thinking about as I just got my first set of screeners for upcoming shows (and a returning show). The approach I’m going to take with the new show is to write a pre-air review and save my spoilerish thoughts for a post-air post. What I’m going to do with the returning show is do a post air review only.

    Well that’s my two-cents. Hope they were in any way helpful!

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