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Ellen Gray – Television Critic For The Philadelphia Daily News (Part 1)

By Admin | October 23, 2007

Ellen Gray
Ellen Gray
How long have you been doing television criticism?

I’ve been on the TV beat since April 1994, but for the first two years, I was technically considered a beat writer, not a critic or columnist. After my writing had gradually evolved in that direction, they gave me a column sometime in 1996, I think.

How did you become a TV critic and not a movie critic or food critic?

Well, the easy answer is that this is what I was asked to do.

I’d been an editor at the Daily News for about 13 years when I asked to go to features as a writer for what I then envisioned as a year. I hadn’t done much reporting since college – when I mostly covered small-town government for publications like the Willimantic (Conn.) Chronicle and the Hartford Courant – and I thought some feature-writing experience would improve my background as an editor.

A few months later, after I’d been working on all sorts of stories as a general-assignment feature reporter, I was asked, along with another reporter who’s since left the paper, to replace the then-TV critic, but not as a critic.

At the time, our editors seemed more interested in our generating stories than in opinion pieces. The Daily News had been through a number of TV critics in a relatively short time, and I figured I could do anything for a year. That was 13 years ago. I keep waiting for the powers that be to change their minds, but in the meantime, I’m having fun.

More seriously, though, the difference between TV criticism and other forms ­ — movie, food, art, music, dance – is that it’s probably the one that’s easiest to fake while you’re learning how to actually do it.

Most of us, unless we had extremely careful parents, grew up in front of TV sets. We share a vocabulary and a base of knowledge that critics in other disciplines might have had to actually seek out.

I see dozens of movies a year, in part because I think it’s impossible to do a good job of television criticism without being aware of what’s happening in film, but I’m not a movie critic. Good criticism is all about context, and there are holes in my film education I’d want to plug before I wrote about movies for a living.

Plus, it would spoil one of my great pleasures. Since I also love to cook and to read, I’ve tried to avoid becoming a food or book critic, either.

While in some ways, I love TV more than I did 13 years ago – when I actually didn’t watch very much – I’ve learned to distance myself enough to look at why something does or doesn’t work, and maybe even what it means. I don’t want to be thinking about dinner that way.

What is your academic background?

I graduated from the University of Connecticut with a degree in political science, which turns out to be as good a major as any if you’re spending most of your time working at the school newspaper or the local papers, which is where too much of  my education took place, I’m afraid.

UConn at the time didn’t offer a journalism degree, and I wouldn’t have wanted one, since even then I realized that what I’d need in journalism was a firm grounding in history, English and  politics.

I did take the four writing courses the journalism department offered, and if I’d been better in math, I might have added a course in statistics, especially if I’d known I’d end up spending so much time looking at ratings.

I didn’t, by the way, watch any television at all in those days, which is why I didn’t see “Roots” until 20 years after everyone else had.

What are your personal favorite top three TV series (past or current)?

HBO’s “The Wire” is probably the best TV show I’ll ever get to write about, the first and fourth seasons, in particular. After that, I’d probably say the first season of “The Sopranos,” followed perhaps by “My So-Called Life,” which I’ve been rewatching in preparation for writing about the new box set and which holds up surprisingly well.

But there have been so many. A very short-lived CBS drama called “EZ Streets” was one of the first cancellations to break my heart. Paul Haggis’ films have won two best-picture Oscars, but I still think “EZ Streets” might have been his best work.

I loved “The West Wing” even when it drove me crazy. And I think “Project Runway,” for all its “reality”-show hissy fits, is a brilliant look at the creative process.

As you can see, I’m not great at short lists.

What is your main focus these days for your column?

How I do the job changes all the time, sometimes to meet the demands of our changing business and sometimes because the business I cover is also changing. I find I spend a lot of time these days thinking and writing about how we watch, not just what we watch.

I watch streaming video online, I use a Slingbox to watch stuff I’ve recorded at home on my office computer and right now I’m planning to spend a couple of weeks trying to watch the evening newscasts on my iPod Touch, to see what that’s like, since like most Americans, I have trouble catching a 6:30 p.m. newscast in real time.

Until a few months ago, I co-hosted the newspaper’s podcast, Philly Feed, and these days, the Inky’s critic, Jonathan Storm, and I host a weekly online chat for readers.

The Daily News is one of those rare places where having your own ideas is considered a good thing, so change isn’t always dictated from the top. I think we’re all trying to be as flexible as we can these days, especially about changes we think serve the readers.

What is like when you preview the networks new fall lineups? Do you go to New York and attend a lot of parties or do the networks just mail you DVDs to watch at the office?

It’s a process of several months, and yes, it generally involves travel. And DVDs. About mid-May, the networks announce their fall schedules to the advertisers in a an exercise known as “the upfronts” because that’s when they get a lot of their money upfront.

For the past couple of years, I’ve gone into New York for some of the announcements, because it’s interesting to see how audiences full of ad buyers react to, say, their first view of “Cavemen.”

But, the upfronts really aren’t for the critics, and while the spectacle’s interesting and I sometimes get some interviewing done at the parties. This year, I got 10 minutes with Katie Couric, for instance. It’s not nearly as important as the Television Critics Association’s winter and summer meetings, which take place in Los Angeles.

Informally called “press tour” and I can’t really say why, since we mostly stay put in a hotel while the networks bring their casts and producers to us, TCA anchors the year for most of us, to the point where I feel as if I’m always either getting ready for tour, doing tour, recovering from tour or writing stories from tour.

The last is the only one that matters, of course: A tremendous amount of what I write comes from interviews I’ve done out in L.A. or from opinions formed out there.

Before we go out, the networks (and the cable channels, too) send us screeners, so we’ll know where to begin questioning. Lots of those screeners are essentially rough drafts – people may get recast, storylines may be thrown out, etc., before they see air. Occasionally, we see a show you’ll never get to. Fox always seems to have one like this.

And, yes, there are parties. If you can call it a party when you’re holding a glass in one hand and a digital recorder in another.  

Some of us work the parties as hard (or harder) than the press conferences and the post-press conference scrums with actors and writers, because, aside from the mountains of shrimp (which I’m allergic to, anyway), there’s access to people most reporters will never get anywhere else. That’s what they’re there for, that’s what we’re there for.

Sometimes it’s a lot of fun (“Desperate Housewives” creator Marc Cherry, for instance, is a hoot) and sometimes, honestly, your feet just hurt so much after a long day of interviewing that you’d rather be in bed.

By the end of two or three weeks out there, most of us would cross the street to avoid making eye contact with a famous person. It’s an odd way to do it, but when I look at the stories I’ve gotten out of TCA over the years, I’m glad I get to be there.

How do you think Katie Couric is doing?

While I don’t think Katie Couric’s destined to be remembed as one of the great news anchors,  I continue to be astounded by the amount of attention the whole question gets and by the near-constant speculation about how long she’ll remain in a job that, less face it, is best done by people able to project themselves as a little bit more boring than whatever it is they’re telling us.

Dan Rather’s newscast was No. 3 for years, he’d behaved bizarrely on the air more than once and he was well past the age that Walter Cronkite was when they pushed him out to make room for Rather, and yet none of that seemed like an emergency, at least not till the memo scandal.

Next to him, Couric actually seems quite normal.

She and her producers tried a few new things and most of them didn’t catch on. The evening news audience is a pretty traditional one, and it seems less eager for fresh faces than the fixers would like, but that’s not Couric’s fault.

These days, she’s doing a fairly straight-ahead newscast and while she may not be tearing up the Nielsens, she has nothing to be ashamed of, either.

 Copyright 2007 DailyInterview.net

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