- 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.”
It would be simple to underestimate the intensity with which Web sites fetishize TV programs — and the impact they have on the show’s creators. It is now standard Hollywood practice for executive producers (known in trade argot as ”show runners”) to scurry into Web groups moments after an episode is shown on the East Coast. Sure, a good review in the print media is important, but the boards, by definition, are populated by a program’s core audience — many thousands of viewers who care deeply about what direction their show takes.
Any notion that the Hollywood telegentsia hovers above the fan-site fray was shattered two years ago when Aaron Sorkin, creator of ”The West Wing,” bitterly responded to an online complaint; he posted under his own name on Television Without Pity (or, as it was then called, Mighty Big TV). A year later, Sorkin wrote a ”West Wing” episode that savaged TWoP and its ilk, portraying hard-core Internet users as obese shut-ins who lounge around in muumuus and chain-smoke Parliaments. It was his best and loudest available form of revenge against a phenomenon that has not always treated him fondly. One disgruntled ”West Wing” viewer recently demanded on TWoP that Sorkin show his fictional president and first lady ”being nice to each other some time.” She went on: ”I don’t mean show us they love each other — that’s been established. I mean call each other something other than ‘Jackass’ and ‘Medea.’ Or give each other a kiss hello. Something!”
John Wells, executive producer of ”E.R.” and ”The West Wing,” knows better than to shrug off Web sites’ feedback. ”We always have someone on the writing staff assigned to keep track of them,” Wells says. ”Though we don’t often need to assign that duty. There’s always a writer who’s in there all the time and can give you a clear sense of what’s going on. I don’t overreact to the boards, but I pay real attention to messages that are thoughtful. If you ignore your customer, you do so at your peril.”
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