Nancy Franklin, who has been the television critic at the august weekly for 13 years, is leaving the magazine. I don’t know that it’ll happen, but this seems like an interesting and potentially important opportunity for the New Yorker to rethink the way it does television criticism.
More than any other form of criticism, television criticism has changed. A small percentage of it is devoted to telling readers if they ought to watch a show or not, but that’s far from its most important function. Instead, whether writers are recapping individuals episodes of shows, writing meditative essays on the course of single shows, or juxtapositional pieces that put television in a broader context, they are setting the stage for conversations between highly informed — or at least highly opinionated — viewers. They’re the beginning of the conversation, not the end of it.
Franklin’s pieces are very good, but they’re infrequent, and sometimes oddly timed given that larger shift in how television criticism is consumed. She wrote for the magazine roughly every four weeks. The September 12 column on The Hour came out almost a month after the show started airing in America, and is behind a paywall, so non-subscribers can’t read it, and even if they could, there’s no comments section. This is a larger philosophical issue for the New Yorker, of course. Comments sections take a long time to moderate, and while I find it a joy, it is not everyone’s cup of tea. Similarly, her column on Terriers came out a month after the show premiered last fall — it’s too bad Franklin didn’t get to write a preview piece that could have championed the show and tried to build an early audience for it. If you’re going to be in the business of using criticism to get people to watch something, those pieces probably need to be published in time for the sink-or-swim early weeks of new programs. And the magazine has blogs for books, film, and photography, but not for television (though Amy Davidson sometimes takes on the subject), which really seems like it might be the most natural fit for blogging.
So as the New Yorker thinks about who it’s going to hire to replace Franklin, I hope they pick someone who can help the magazine move into the new age of television criticism. Whether it’s Todd VanDerWerff at the AV Club, who’s proved you can build a community and set a tremendously high standard for the discussions it has; Heather Havrilesky, whose big, synthesizing pieces have been one of the best things about the revamped New York Times Magazine; Jace Lacob from NewsBeast, who brings a fierce reporter’s sensibility to bear, figuring out how what we watch comes together; Vulture’s wickedly funny Willa Paskin; and I’m sure you can all think of terrific alternatives. But in any case, I’ll hope for the New Yorker think not just about the person but about the job description.