Everything old is new again.
The departure of Milwaukee Journal Sentinel TV/radio columnist Tim Cuprisin in an August 2009 buyout left the newspaper with a gaping void in coverage. His column mostly condensed press releases, rewrote the wires or gave quick updates of reality shows – who got voted off the island, who would be sent packing from “American Idol.” Still, it was guaranteed to get at least skimmers attracted by the boldfaced names, eager to follow the movement of broadcast personalities or seeking updates on the TV and radio ratings wars.
Cuprisin moved the column and its accompanying blog – lock, stock and boldfaced names – over to OnMilwaukee.com. OMC might position itself as the latest in online journalism, but Cuprisin pretty much replicates his old JS formula – a short lead-in story keyed to some media event, usually in the last 24 hours, followed by a bunch of quick hits.
Meanwhile, the JS ultimately replaced Cuprisin with a stroke of deja vu: Film critic Duane Dudek now does a thrice-weekly TV column – reprising his gig of 20 years ago, when he was TV/radio critic for the old Milwaukee Sentinel.
Yet the Dudek of old and new are quite different. Back when the Journal and Sentinel were less relentlessly local, Dudek had a national canvas. He was first and foremost a critic of network and cable offerings. Reviewing network coverage of the 1991 Gulf War, he observed: “The cost of instantaneous coverage is usually without context and events were often telecast simply because they were live. The result was often more dramatic than informative.” Then he proceeded to solidly back up the assertion.
His columns went in-depth, as in a 1992 analysis of NBC’s response to declining ratings. And his commentary could be nicely pointed: A 1990 review of an HBO courtroom drama became a meditation on the entire genre of crime shows: “Television’s portrait of law and order is out of order. Much of it is a crime. Watching it is punishment. And there oughtta be a law.”
Dudek’s new TV column skews more local than the old Sentinel version, especially in the short takes that round out the bottom. But it’s no Cuprisin-esqe rat-a-tat-tat of two-or-three-sentence press release digests. Indeed, Dudek isn’t filling just Cuprisin’s shoes, but also those of departed TV critic Joanne Weintraub.
One of his first outings discussed television news reports of a 14-year-old allegedly murdered by his stepfather. All four local stations used video surveillance footage of the suspect pumping gas and walking around his van at a gas station only moments before the killing, but only two (including WTMJ-4, which, like the JS, is owned by Journal Communications) also used footage of the boy in the store. Dudek got comments from all four stations – including sharp criticism from stations that didn’t run the footage of the boy. Only the pulled punch of his conclusion, that its use was “problematic but defensible,” lessened the impact.
Cuprisin’s “OnMedia” column for OMC actually looks shorter than it used to be. He recites weary truisms (such as that TV weather coverage will continue to be over the top in search of ratings), watches reality shows so you the viewer don’t have to, and largely avoids deep critique.
Dudek offered a trenchant column labeling as “bogus” Time Warner’s “get tough or roll over” campaign, which asks cable viewers to protest networks hiking the fees they charge the cable company for programming: “It’s like asking peasants to enlist in a battle waged by kings.” It’s meaty stuff of the sort that, given a deal putting Cuprisin on Time Warner as a guest each week, seems unlikely to be on OMC.
Dudek continues to wear the cineaste’s black beret, and his double-duty assignment reflects a growing trend in the ever-shrinking JS newsroom. Editors like Jim Higgins and Chris Foran now routinely cover stories and even write reviews. Before workplace reporter Joel Dresang left for a public relations job, he was assigned to cover higher education as well. (Dresang is just one of three reporters to leave – sans comfy severance pay – after the August round of buyouts and layoffs that shed 71 people; the others are Ellen Gabler, going to the Chicago Tribune, and Stacy Forster, who left the Madison bureau for a job at UW-Madison.)
Still, there are only so many hours in a day. Dudek may end up sharing more of his movie reviewing duties with others (like freelancers), and Pressroom predicts we’ll see fewer Sunday features from him about cinema, with the JS relying more on wire services. We’d be happy to be wrong. But based on Dudek’s early performance in his old job, the tradeoff would be worth it.
Read Erik’s new Pressroom blog at XXXXXXX.
Everything old is new again.