Photo by Patti Sapone/The Star-Ledger
September 11, 2008
Alan Sepinwall has been the television critic for The Star-Ledger since he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania 12 years ago. In that time, he has had the pleasure (and misfortune) of watching hundreds of programs.
Sepinwall, 34, grew up in Pine Brook and attended Congregation Agudath Israel of West Essex in Caldwell. His mother is Dr. Harriet Sepinwall, professor of education, history and interdisciplinary studies at the College of St. Elizabeth and codirector of the school’s Holocaust Education Resource Center.
You used to be able to set your clock by the new television seasons: They always started in the middle of September, with some shows making their debut in January. But with the advent of cable TV and new technologies, those time frames are blurred, making life more difficult for the writers who cover the industry.
According to Conference-board.org, an organization that tracks trends, “on-line TV viewing has been gaining in popularity. Nearly 20 percent of American households who use the Internet watch television broadcasts on-line, double the viewership from 2006.”
“Most consumers do not like a set schedule,” the report claims. “Being able to watch broadcasts on their own time and at their convenience are the top reasons users tune in on-line.”
Changes such as this affect not only the viewer, but critics like Sepinwall, who must separate the gold from the dreck.
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NJJN: How has the job of the critic changed since you started?
Sepinwall: It’s changed enormously. How much time have you got?
When I started out there were basically six broadcast networks doing original programming. There was a handful of stuff on cable; reality TV was around but hadn’t exploded to this degree. There was much less programming. It was much easier to keep track of it all. Now I’m probably paying attention to half of what I should be.
NJJN: What about the new technologies over the years? In addition to watching a program when it’s actually on the air, critics can view DVDs or watch on a computer. And the regular viewing public isn’t tethered to a box in the living room. What impact has that had on how you do your job?
Sepinwall: In some ways it’s easier. Today at work I was able to watch a show on my computer that I wasn’t able to watch last night. There are lots of different ways to do things: DVDs, Slingbox [a device that allows the user to view his television and video programs through other electronic devices such as computers or cell phones], etc.
There’s a younger generation coming up that basically doesn’t own a TV; they’re watching things on their computers. Kids going to college are not bringing TV sets with them; they’re just using their laptops, and that’s how they consume entertainment.
At the same time, there are even more things to watch, including certain original-for-the-Web content.
NJJN: These programs are in addition to network and cable? Is that something you have to concern yourself with?
Sepinwall: Occasionally something is really good or a tie-in to a program. In certain cases, they wind up playing a significant role to what happens in the regular show.
NJJN: You have a blog on The Star-Ledger website (“All TV”). How has that additional responsibility changed your work?
Sepinwall: I’ve been blogging in this current form for about three years…. There are days where I’ve written things for the blog, so I don’t write a column. It’s a matter of juggling resources. A lot of what I’m writing on the blog are things that I would have been having conversations with people about anyway in a given day, so I don’t know that it eats up that much more time. I could be sending an e-mail asking, ‘Did you see this last night?’ and now I just do it in a slightly more public forum.
NJJN: Does the TV critic have to be a student of the media to be able to write credibly?
Sepinwall: I think so. I’m being paid to express an opinion. I need to have something that makes my opinion worth reading…. Anything where you can introduce something historical always helps. However, you don’t want to do it too much because then you’re alienating people who don’t understand the reference. But you want to be able to speak from a position of authority.
NJJN: What do you look for when critiquing a program?
Sepinwall: It’s as simple as whether I find it engaging or not. I watch a wide range of stuff: things that are really dense and complicated and dark and things that are light and silly. Things where you can turn off your brain and things where you have to be concentrating every minute, so it’s really just a matter of, does this entertain me?
I guess it depends on what I’m in the mood for at a given time. There are certain times of the day when I’m just not going to watch something heavy. I do think sometimes, for me, shows with a serial element have an edge over self-contained shows. I like CSI, but I almost never watch it because, again having to justify my hours in the day, I know I don’t have to watch every episode, where if I missed an episode of Lost I would be lost.
NJJN: Have your tastes changed as you’ve gotten older?
Sepinwall: A little bit here and there. I started out as a single guy out of college; now I’m married with a four-year-old daughter, so certain topics I respond to differently. Shows about young people I’m a little grouchier about than I would have been at the time.
I remember I was really engaged in the reality TV trend when it first started. I would watch every episode of stuff like Big Brother, and now I can’t. I still watch some, but not nearly as much as I did.
NJJN: How do you think religion is portrayed on TV?
Sepinwall: Oddly. I think for the most part people in Hollywood — and this is a generalization and doesn’t apply to everybody — are not that religious, regardless of what their upbringing and affiliation is. And so when they write about it, they’re writing about it as outsiders.
NJJN: Are there any shows that are so bad yet popular that you find yourself just shaking your head?
Sepinwall: There’s lots of things. For example Deal or No Deal. It just amazes me. I get it to a certain extent: It’s a show that you don’t have to think about at all because there’s no strategy to it whatsoever. It’s like ‘How many fingers do I have behind my back?’ I just can’t believe that people actually watch this for an hour a couple of times a week.
Also The Hills. I don’t know if it’s that popular; it just gets written about a lot. I find that staggeringly dull.
NJJN: So is that a product of good PR?
Sepinwall: It’s a product of [its] fans. It’s a self-selecting thing, where it tends to attract people who are in media. The same could be said of lots of shows I like. Mad Men has an audience of about 300 people, all of whom are TV critics, and I think it’s a great show. The Wire — there are very few people who watched, but those who did tended to be in the media elite or whatever you want to call us.
NJJN: What’s the best part of what you do?
Sepinwall: They pay me to watch TV! That is the essential genius of my job.
NJJN: And the worst part?
Sepinwall: Sometimes I have to watch really bad TV — even though I’m getting paid for it.
NJJN: So what do you do to relax? Some people would come home to watch TV after a hard day at the office.
Sepinwall: I do. A lot of my work gets done at night after my daughter goes to bed. It’s me watching things I don’t have time for at the office or that are airing in prime time. I don’t necessarily work an eight-hour day during the day; I’m working at night, too.