How Are TV Critics Handling Peak TV?

Peak TV is here! Like Peak Oil only more relevant because so many more of us care about running out of TV shows to watch and write for than we do about having enough oil to power our soon-to-be-obsolete civilization.

So, right now, let’s get down to the nitty gritty: What do the TV critics believe is going on? How are their concerns different from ours? How the hell can a whole lotta new TV shows ever translate into “too many TV shows?” Take it away, Pilot Viruet:


When did "57 channels and nothing's on" become "peak TV?"

When did “57 channels and nothing’s on” become “peak TV?”

by Pilot Viruet

Last week, I wrote about my personal experience of trying to keep up with peak television — the unfathomable amount of scripted programming airing right now, and all the other series available for viewing on any number of platforms — but I’m also interested in how fellow TV critics are handling the phenomenon.

Watching television is a task in itself, but writing about it — often daily, whether as reviews or recaps or thinkpieces that analyze TV in the context of the broader culture — makes the peak TV era that much harder. Sometimes, it seems damn near impossible. Every September, I have a hard time trying to decide which new shows to cover (mostly because I want to cover all of them), how to cover them, and how many pre-air episodes I should watch before filing a review. Once I have that settled, there’s the question of which returning shows to cover — especially when one that I abandoned last season has been winning unanimous praise, making me feel like I absolutely need to return to it (and one day I will, Halt and Catch Fire).

But I’m clearly not the only critic with this problem. Many of my colleagues are facing the same questions. To get an idea of how various TV critics are dealing with the peak television conundrum and our ever-increasing workload due to the ever-increasing amount of TV, I asked a handful of writers — staff critics, culture editors, site founders, freelancers — to describe how they approach work, especially as we gear up for the new season. Their methods are sometimes similar, mostly different, and often familiar (especially because I’ve either worked alongside or been edited by a majority of them), but all provided insightful, thought-provoking answers.

Flavorwire: How do you decide which shows you want to cover?

Alan Sepinwall, TV critic at HitFix: Once upon a time, the goal was to attempt to review every new scripted show debuting on broadcast and cable, but that aim stopped being realistic a long time ago. Sometimes, I never even find the time to watch these shows, let alone write about them. But in terms of what I see, it’s a mix of what I respond to strongly (either in the positive or negative), what I suspect my audience might be interested in (due to subject matter, creative team, star, network, or what have you), gut instinct, and how much time I have in a given week. For instance, this week things are relatively slow, so my podcasting partner Dan Fienberg said we should watch NBC’s The Carmichael Show, which I likely would have never even sampled at a busier time of year. Instead, I watched it, and liked it enough that I’m probably going to write something about it on top of the podcast discussion.

Sonia Saraiya, TV critic at SalonIt’s a combination of what our readers have demonstrated interest in (based on trailers or pre-air pieces), what my editors think is relevant or valuable, and what I find either important, interesting, or fun. And it’s kind of in that order, too; I know our readers will want to read a lot on The Daily Show, for example, so that’s a must-cover, as both my editors and I myself would agree. But, like, if there’s absolutely no interest from the readership about Jane the Virgin (and there isn’t a ton), I’m going to limit my coverage to just one or two pieces a season, perhaps, which will try to sell the show to new viewers, and focus instead on other shows.

Margaret Lyons, TV columnist at Vulture: [New York magazine TV critic] MZS and I divvy up the calendar for reviews, and then over the course of a show’s season, if there’s something that really sparks an idea, I’ll revisit a show in another capacity.

Todd VanDerWerff, Culture Editor at Vox (previously TV Editor at The A.V. Club): At Vox, we rarely cover more than a show at a time. So we’re usually covering the big show of the moment, or we’re covering something I feel really passionately about (since I do the majority of our TV writing).

But I suspect you’re more interested in my A.V. Club days, and that was a constant attempt to stay ahead of trends, figure out a way to drop shows at just the right moment, and cover an increasingly expanding universe of TV on roughly the same budget year over year. Readers often wondered why I covered so much, and it was usually because I didn’t have to pay myself. Shortly before I left there, I pointed out that the number of total shows on TV had roughly tripled from when I started, but we were already at the peak of content we could expect readers to reasonably check out.

I’ve sensed this from networks at Vox, too. There’s a frustration with how not everything gets coverage now in the way it once did, but there’s just not enough time or reader interest to cover everything. And I don’t know that that will change any time soon….

Read it all at Flavorwire