Big TV Networks Resist Independent Online TV Writing

By: Steve Outing Covering television as a journalist is all about access. To do a credible job, you must have a relationship with the TV networks, so they will send you press releases and preview tapes of new shows, facilitate interviews with celebrities, and invite you to their preview events.

Without that access, your career is pretty much dead as a TV critic or reporter. Thus, as an online television writer -- one of the very few who can claim that professional title -- Rick Ellis has a challenge in just performing his job.

Ellis is the TV critic and columnist for Entertainment Drive, a 2-year-old, independently owned, online-only entertainment service offering coverage mostly of movies and television. Phoenix-based Ellis is a freelancer for the New York-based Web site, but it makes up the bulk of his career. He has done freelance writing for a dozen years; is a TV screenwriter; spent four years co-hosting a nationally syndicated talk radio show called "The Hot Tub Radio Party"; and has been a stand-up comic.

Seeking celebrity status

That checkered career is now focused on getting noticed as a serious television columnist. Ellis points out that quality TV columnists with opinionated voices not cowered by the networks are rare -- in any medium. That's because most TV writers are by definition beholden to the TV networks to grant them access to the field they cover. Anger one of the big networks and your access can be cut off. Perhaps that's why there's no "Siskel & Ebert" of television reviewers, Ellis says; the movie industry that the famous film critics cover is far more tolerant of criticism than are television executives. (And what TV network would host a Siskel & Ebert-like show that consistently trashed the network's own shows?)

In Ellis' view, the Web is the ideal medium for a "Siskel & Ebert" of TV to emerge -- someone who develops major celebrity status and can provide true, unadulterated criticism of network programming. Obviously, he'd like to be the first such person, and Ellis says his goal is to try to "create myself as a brand. ... I really think the Web is the only place (that building a TV critic into a legitimate critical force) is going to happen."

Even other major entertainment Web sites have corporate relationships that may prevent unblanched criticism of TV programs. E! Online is an offshoot of the cable channel, for instance. The Mr. Showbiz site is partly owned by ABC; the network has its own Web site which uses some Mr. Showbiz content. While the Mr. Showbiz site is not likely to squelch all content that's critical of ABC's programming or corporate actions, the relationship raises questions about how objective Mr. Showbiz writers can be, Ellis suggests. It's not unlike the valid questions being asked about how objectively MSNBC covers issues surrounding its parent company, Microsoft.

Overcoming the obstacles

While Entertainment Drive is independent and thus "above the fray" when it comes to relationships that might taint editorial coverage, the site and its TV writer also are at a severe disadvantage in covering the TV industry. Ellis says he is consistently turned down or ignored by the major TV networks when he asks for celebrity interviews, preview tapes and invitations to press events. Smaller and cable networks generally are cooperative when he makes requests, while the big four U.S. TV networks either ignore his requests or tell him politely that it's not in their interests to grant him access.

"With networks that have substantial Web sites, they don't have a lot of interest in helping me at all," Ellis says. "Basically, I'm competing with them." Some of the network TV sites offer message boards about shows, chat sessions with TV celebrities, star interviews, etc. -- the same sort of content found on Entertainment Drive.

While Ellis can at least get press releases sent to him by most of the networks, preview tapes -- which are sent to most newspaper, magazine and television reporters covering the industry -- are tricky to get. Too often, he has to report after the fact when the show has first aired.

And recently, the TV Critics Association, a loosely organized group of mostly newspaper television writers, spent three weeks in Pasadena, California, where the networks previewed fall '98 shows and trotted celebrities out for group interviews. Ellis had only nominal success in getting in to the group interview sessions, but was kept out of the previews. Nor has he had success getting credentials to cover the upcoming Emmy Awards (although last year he was able to get in using his old radio credentials, something he considers ironic since his Web columns have a wider audience than did his radio show).

Ellis says gaining access to TV celebrities for interviews or to participate in online chat sessions is pretty much out of the question if he has to go through the networks' media relations departments. Sometimes he can gain access to a celebrity through the star's individual publicist, but that doesn't always work because the publicists don't want to anger the networks.

That doesn't mean the case is hopeless. Ellis says he has a good set of contacts in the industry from many years working in broadcasting, and increasingly he goes behind the networks' backs to contact celebrities via those contacts. Another approach is to go after the people behind the scenes -- the writers, producers, etc. -- who aren't interviewed as often as the stars. Particularly on the Web, Ellis says, readers are interested in hearing about what goes on in the background.

The back-door approach is something Ellis has been trying just in recent months, and it's too early to tell how it might succeed. There have been no major coups yet, but "if I get to a huge TV star, the back door is the way it's going to happen," he says.

Ellis' approach to TV journalism on the Web is to emphasize the interactive side of the medium, a part of the job that he enjoys. Some celebrity chats have been interesting, he says, like the one where a producer for the VH1 cable network made some interesting comments, followed by, "Oh, I really shouldn't have said that," perhaps forgetting that his words were being transcribed to a live chat session. Ellis also participates as part of his job in discussion forums with readers, and answers their questions.

Lagging online sports journalism

Entertainment Web writers face many of the same problems and challenges as online sports journalists, who struggle with gaining access to major games, and players and coaches for interviews. Many sports organizations and teams, however, have created policies regarding granting access to online reporters -- even if oftentimes the policy is to deny online writers access because they would compete with the organization's own Web site. Ellis says in his experience, some of the networks still don't know what to do with his requests, putting him off rather than citing a policy one way of the other regarding access for online sites.

One reason for the networks not fully addressing the issue is that there are so few online television writers; it's a new field, with probably fewer than 10 people covering TV for online sites, Ellis says. He doesn't consider newspaper sites as in the same league, since most simply repurpose their print TV columnists' work for their Web sites.

It will take one or two online TV writers to break out and make a big name for themselves for the major networks to notice -- and address the access problems faced by pioneers like Ellis.

Contact: Rick Ellis,

Bye-bye, DiveIn Denver

Recently I reported on the closings of several DiveIn local online city guides sites by MediaOne (following the broadband company's split from telco US West). At that time, the company was undecided about what to do with its Denver DiveIn site -- since Denver is MediaOne's headquarters city, but is not a market where the company offers broadband Internet access service. This week, MediaOne announced that it will close its Denver site, bringing the total number of city guide sites to be shut down to four. Other DiveIn sites closed down are Phoenix, Arizona; Portland, Oregon; and Seattle, Washington -- all cities where US West offers phone service but MediaOne does not offer broadband Internet service. redesign debuts

Summer seems to be a popular time to trot out news Web site redesigns. Debuting a new design this week is You'll want to check out executive editor Christopher Ma's explanation of the thinking behind the redesign.


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This column is written by Steve Outing exclusively for Editor & Publisher Interactive three days a week. News, tips, and other communications may be sent to Mr. Outing

The views expressed in the above column do not necessarily represent the views of the Editor & Publisher company


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