- Sarah D. Bunting and Tara Ariano are obscure names in the high-stakes world of Hollywood TV production. They are anything but L.A. insiders; Bunting works in Manhattan, while Ariano is based in Toronto. Yet their opinions carry real weight among the producers and writers who fashion many of the most popular programs on television. The two women are co-editors of a Web site called Television Without Pity, and that's a name producers know extremely well. True to its name, Televisionwithoutpity.com critiques shows mercilessly and includes message boards where vast communities of passionate viewers register everything from arcane appraisals of a program's story line to their hatred of an actor's leather jacket. When TWoP editors run interviews with writers and producers on the site, it is usually because the Hollywood types have contacted them, a little dazed by the level of the site's vitriol.
Even a show as critically adored as ''The Sopranos'' gets smacked around when it disappoints its most ardent fans. This season's third episode, for example, which was loosely centered on a local Columbus Day parade, was instantly deemed a flop by TWoP participants. ''Was this entire episode made to shut up the Italians that keep complaining about how they are portrayed in the media?'' complained one viewer. ''The whole Italian image thing really just bored me to death.'' Another posting offered a litany of protests: ''The death of Bobby's wife was really gratuitous. . . . I also don't quite get the reason why Carmela would be attracted to Furio.'' The hardest knocks, however, were reserved for a sex scene involving Tony Soprano's sister, Janice. ''I really didn't need to see that,'' wrote one repelled viewer. ''I've now gone completely blind.'' Another fan joined in: ''I never thought I would be so grateful for a white piece of fabric in my life, but God bless the top sheet of Janice's bed.'' Within days, 274 detailed messages had been posted about the episode.
Right now, Television Without Pity has active discussions on 35 shows. And that's just one Web site. Most popular series are tracked by scores of sites — an official one run by the network; the others run by fans — that dissect the content of every episode. Many postings are requests for specific changes. Some of these are minute. ''I can't believe Abby bleached her hair,'' an ''E.R.'' fan recently lamented online. ''She looks better as a brunette.'' Other critiques are more sweeping, asking the show's writers to aim higher. One TWoP participant recently wrote of ''C.S.I.'': ''It would be refreshing if the 'bad guys' actually got away with murder (pun intended) on this show for once. Instead, 'C.S.I.' remains in a time warp, and takes the 'Perry Mason' approach in which the good guys win every ep. Boring.''