Wednesday, December 3, 2008

"A yappy guy doing play-by-play at the multiplex"

Originally posted by Phil Rosenthal on the Tower Ticker blog at the Chicago Tribune

The idea that people can see the same thing and have completely different takes on it was at the heart of what made Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert's TV conversations about movies so compelling for so many years.

That's important to remember in the face of what many would be apt to see as decidedly thumbs-down stats for the Chicago-based syndicated "At the Movies" in the first two months since Walt Disney Co. installed two new hosts as part of an overhaul of the program.

Sure, Nielsen Media Research notes "ATM" viewership is down 23 percent to 1.7 million total viewers, compared with the same period last year, including a 25 percent decline in the money demographic of viewers age 25 to 54.

The Los Angeles Times notes that Disney claims some improvement since the new show's September debut. And a spokeswoman for ABC Media Productions, the Disney unit that produces "ATM," told the paper it's not fair to compare new hosts Ben Lyons and Ben Mankiewicz to Ebert and Richard Roeper, who joined the program in 2000 after Siskel's 1999 death.

"You are comparing hosts who had been nurtured for years to a team that just started two short months ago," the spokeswoman said in the Times, although, with Ebert sidelined since 2006 because health issues robbed him of his voice, Roeper has been paired with a number of less seasoned TV partners, including the Chicago Tribune's Michael Phillips.

Excuses or not, the opinion on this side of the aisle -- even as a friend and former colleague of Ebert and Roeper -- is that the Disney people have reason to be delighted.

After all, while Mankiewicz is fine as a reviewer, sparring partner Lyons' remarks are about as helpful, insightful and welcome as those of the yappy guy doing play-by-play in the row behind you at the multiplex.

So even with those who put a premium on credible, thoughtful banter about films forced to abandon "At the Movies," the program has retained around three-quarters of its viewership from a year ago.

What that says to me is Disney might be able to save a lot of money and still retain some viewers by just stringing together movie clips and ditching real critics altogether.

And isn't that the kind of forward thinking that got "ATM" to where it is today?

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