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?