Anne Helen Petersen’s history of Entertainment Weekly is, you should pardon the term, an epic longread — and one that you should, in fact, long to read — but for the purpose of this blog, there’s a thread worth teasing out about the changing role of criticism and critics.
Hard as it may be to believe (or even, if you’re old enough, remember), EW used to lead with reviews rather than confining them to the back of the book: Fully two-thirds of the first issue was devoted to reviews. Its mission was to focus on cultural products rather than the famous people who make them. As late as 2007, publisher Scott Donaton explained, “We’re not a celebrity magazine; we’re an entertainment magazine.”
The emphasis, Petersen explains, was on consumer advisory:
They wanted to assist “the aging baby boomers who still wants to be plugged in,” using a scale (A to F) that reflected the “universal experience” of school grades. If you read EW, the logic went, you were saving yourself from your own bad decisions: The magazine’s pitch for subscribers even asked potential readers to weigh the $50-dollar yearly rate against “the cost of a bad evening’s entertainment.”
Unfortunately, leading with the reviews had a tendency to antagonize advertisers, not to mention EW’s parent corporation, Time-Warner. Although the magazine’s former movie critics, Owen Gleiberman and Lisa Schwarzbaum, were labeled the “least discerning” in a recent (and somewhat questionable) study, back then they were fairly, well, critical.
No amount of formal redesign could change the magazine’s critical tone—a tone that Jarvis had cultivated from the start. When EW panned “Pretty Woman” in March — “slow, earnest, and rhythmless,” wrote Owen Gleiberman, slagging off Julia Roberts on the way — the Time Inc. bosses were livid. Not because Pretty Woman was a Time Warner product in need of protection — the film was from Disney — but because “it was irresponsible not to acknowledge its value as popular entertainment.”
Whatever its artistic merits, people liked this movie, and EW’s rejection highlighted the magazine’s alienating effect on readers. The Pretty Woman D-rating was no anomaly: Over the first five months, the magazine doled out dozens of Cs, Ds, and Fs, which made it increasingly difficult to leverage favors from industry players.
Moving the reviews to the back of the book helped, Petersen says: “Complaints from the Time Life building faded away, replaced by praise for the magazines’ newfound ‘objectivity.'” But something even more dangerous was coming over the horizon: boxes.
With what one staffer apparently called “the ‘fatal’ redesign,” the fluidity of text was now divided among dozens of prefabricated modules, each with their own inflexible word count. “Suddenly,” Petersen writes, “the editorial was being modified to accommodate the art, not the other way around, resulting in a wholesale dumbing-down of the magazine at large.”
There is, as she points out, no one reason why a magazine fails (and, unlike Petersen, I don’t take it as read that EW’s a dead duck). But one factor that helps explains EW’s dwindling influence is the obsolescence of its inaugural mission: advising readers how to spend their entertainment dollar. It’s arguable that was never a critic’s greatest function — it’s certainly not what gets us out of bed in the morning — and with the endless proliferation of user reviews, it’s effectively worthless now. If you want to know what you’ll like, ask a friend. If you want suggestions on how to think about something you’ve seen, or a sense of which direction the culture’s moving in, that’s where critics come in.
Cutting back word counts to accommodate more, shorter reviews makes sense if all you’re aiming to provide is an up or down vote: Why not just run the letter grade and dispense with the review altogether? But the publications that are flourishing aren’t going short: They’re running long essays, like Grantland or Slate, mixing in inventive features like Vulture or riffing in a million different directions like BuzzFeed. With rare exceptions, they’ve moved past the idea that a critic’s job is tell people what to watch (or not) and replaced it with the tacit assumption that everybody watches everything. (You’re not done with “Orange Is the New Black” yet? Too bad.) Smaller movies suffer, to an extent; they’ve lost the platform, however small, on which their advocates might once have stood, as well as the audiences hungry for something new: Who ever runs out of stuff to watch nowadays? But as a whole, I think a culture in which critics participate rather than one they advise from on high is a healthier, more interesting one — and in any case, it’s here to stay.