Morris Wolfe - Essays, New & Selected

Table of Contents

When radio arrived on the scene in the 1920s, the print media were terrified that the new medium would take their advertisers away. Newspapers and magazines paid as little attention to radio as possible, even refusing to list or review radio programmes. (The first radio columnist for the Globe was hired not by the Globe itself but by Simpson’s, which bought space in the paper and paid Frank Chamberlain to fill it.) Lobbyists for public broadcasting shrewdly played on the print media’s fears. In the early 1930s, the Canadian Broadcasting League pointed out in a pamphlet entitled Radio Broadcasting: A Threat to the Press that advertising was increasing rapidly on the radio and declining in print. Something had to be done. Newspaper and magazine editorials soon began to argue that radio was too important to be left in the hands of advertisers and private broadcasters. So important an educational tool needed to be a public service. Enter the Canadian Radio Broadcasting Commission) CRBC in 1932 and the CBC in 1936.

If you write about television, it’s a rare day on which you don’t receive two or three envelopes filled with detailed programme listings and profiles of stars, all written in a style that can easily be paraphrased — or lifted — by TV columnists. Given the quantity and variety of such material, one can actually write a television column without watching television. And it happens. Editors (and readers) who wouldn’t tolerate reporting by press release in other areas of a newspaper regularly accept it from television columnists.

If you’re writing about a movie, a play, a hockey game, your readers expect a connected piece of prose on the subject. A little essay. If you’re writing about television, however, it’s acceptable to churn out copy that looks like a print analogue of the medium itself — a number of unconnected itty-bitty paragraphs, many of them garnered from press releases. The whole column looks and reads like a series of TV commercials. Those who write that way reinforce the attitude that television isn’t worth taking seriously. Their lack of engagement encourages ours.

No one has spoken more pungently of the inadequacies of those who write TV criticism than Ron Haggart, senior producer of the fifth estate. Haggart, a brilliant newspaperman before he moved to television several years ago, commented early this year (in the course of criticizing a particularly vacuous TV Guide article): “If television is an arid wasteland, the people who write about it are its tumbleweeds. Lacking in care or commitment, they skim the landscape of their beat, pulled this way by the puffs of publicity, pushed that way by the momentary passions of pack journalism. Their work habits are lazy, their insights banal, their principles dominated by a mendacious (and largely boring) vitriol.”

Many TV critics spend far too much time letting us know they’re slumming. And because most of us feel guilty about how much television we watch, we accept their condescension. Michael Arlen wrote the “On Air” column that appeared irregularly in The New Yorker. “What Pauline Kael does for the movies, Michael Arlen does... TV,” declared Newsweek in a review of a collection of Arlen’s columns. But the comparison is foolish. Pauline Kael loves movies with a passion; even when she writes about films she hates, her affection for the medium is never in doubt. Arlen never let us forget that he didn’t really like TV all that much. At one point he asked, “What can a critic do in the face of... work which has almost no substance or dimension [and where] it is generally understood that the work’s creators have no ambitions for it beyond the simplest commerce?”

But isn’t that true of almost everything. And isn’t one of the chief functions of the critic to make distinctions between and among books or television programmes or whatever is being criticized? If Arlen believed, that there were no distinctions worth making, that TV was, in fact, a wasteland, “a monster composed of distractions”, as Paul Goodman put it during his brief, unhappy stint as television critic for The New Republic, maybe he shouldn’t have been a televsion critic.

I can’t say I learned to care about television the way I do about books or movies. But I did learn (to my surprise) that a day didn’t go by when I couldn’t find at least one and usually more programmes worth watching and writing about. And I came to see that in addition to individual programmes (and series) there were a number of interesting themes a TV critic could write about: how old people (women, children) are portrayed on television; how TV has changed sports; whether it’s reasonable to expect as much as we do of TV newscasts, given that the text of The National would fill roughly half a page of the Globe and Mail.

A critic is primarily a teacher, I think. In teaching and criticism at their best, there exists a symbiotic relationship between teacher and students, critic and audience. Good TV critics, pushing themselves to know more about television, and to think — and write — more clearly about it, could help their readers to do so too. A more sophisticated audience might in turn demand more of TV critics and of TV itself.

— Jolts, Introduction, 1985

Postscript: I’ve taken the concluding paragraph above from an earlier essay on TV criticism, written for TVO Plus, a magazine published briefly by TV Ontario.

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