The Watchman

Critic David Bianculli has made a career out of taking TV seriously.

Television critic David Bianculli in the basement of his Cherry Hill home. He admits watching as many as 60 hours of TV each week.
Photo by Chris Crisman.

Like a journey of a thousand miles that begins with a single step, the road to becoming a television critic starts with a solitary sentence.

In David Bianculli’s case, it was an entry printed in his diary on December 3, 1960, when he was 7. “Man was Alice in Wonderland good,” he observed of the previous evening’s broadcast. It was an abbreviated review for an audience of one—himself.

Half a century later, Bianculli has an audience that numbers in the millions, thanks to his job as TV critic on National Public Radio’s Fresh Air program; his online television magazine, TV Worth Watching; his three books about television; and a Twitter account. After a 32-year run as a critic for six daily newspapers, including the New York Daily News and New York Post, the Cherry Hill resident has enough spin-offs to rival Law and Order.

From his boyhood fascination, Bianculli’s interest in TV has never waned. “The first show I really loved as a kid was Rocky and Bullwinkle, which warped me immeasurably,” he says. Observations about TV continued to find their way into his diary.

“It just amazes me that I was watching TV and writing about it,” he says. “In my diary, I was counting down the days to The Wizard of Oz—which, like Christmas and my birthday, came once a year.”

Bianculli got a taste of criticism reviewing albums by the Beatles and Blind Faith for his high school newspaper in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, where he grew up. While attending the University of Florida, he talked an editor at the Gainesville Sun into allowing him to review a new show aimed at young people. That was the premiere of Saturday Night Live in October 1975. The piece led to more reviews—for which he was paid $5 each. A career was born.

Now 56, Bianculli retains his passion and enthusiasm for television and defends it as a medium for information, education, and entertainment. Teleliteracy, his first book (Syracuse University Press, 1992), is subtitled Taking Television Seriously, a phrase that could serve as the underlying philosophy for his life’s work.

Still, the easygoing and articulate Bianculli doesn’t deny television’s flaws. “I always say I don’t get paid to watch TV. I get paid to watch bad TV,” he says. “I’m the first to admit that 90 percent of television is, in a word, crap.” He agrees with science fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon’s observation that “90 percent of everything is crap.” It’s clear that for Bianculli, the pleasures of a good TV show, be it Cheers or Glee, outweigh the pain of having to endure The Dukes of Hazzard.

The basement of his home has the feel of a TV museum. DVDs and videocassettes fill the shelves. More are stacked on the floor. A dozen TV sets are installed in one wall and can be viewed at once to monitor breaking news, such as the tragic events of 9/11. Upstairs, Bianculli has a wide-screen TV to watch shows for review.

Divorced, his kids grown, Bianculli lives alone. While his time is largely his own, there are still a finite number of hours in the day. Technology—in the form of TiVo—has helped maximize his viewing, but there are limits. “I’m always trying to cram in as much as I can,” he says, while lamenting, “I can’t watch it faster than I record it.”

How much TV does he watch in a week? “I hate to even pick a number,” he says, but acknowledges it can be more than 60 hours.

Multitasking is a valued skill for Bianculli, an associate professor of radio, television, and film at Rowan University in Glassboro. “The way I’ve learned to define great TV is if it stops me from doing anything else,” he says.

When reviewing, Bianculli takes notes. What’s he looking for? “To be entertained or instructed. Sometimes both. If it’s a drama, I like to be involved. A comedy, I like to laugh. Both cases, I love to be surprised.
“I’ll watch a show more than once, but only if I really like it. That’s when I know I’m really watching something special. That, and when I am eager to show it to other people.”

Even a TV critic must put down the remote on occasion. “I play handball or tennis to get out and travel when I can,” Bianculli says.

It was during a stint at the Philadelphia Inquirer that Bianculli landed his job as TV critic for Fresh Air in 1985. He’s still there 25 years later—five years longer than the original run of Gunsmoke—and his role has expanded to include substitute host, giving him the chance to conduct interviews beyond the subject of television.

Fresh Air host Terry Gross appreciates the perspective Bianculli brings to the show. “Watching several TVs at one time for many years has turned David into an incredibly knowledgeable person about TV history,” she says. “When he reviews a show, he knows every good and bad show that has preceded it in that genre. He doesn’t condescend to TV; he loves it. And his reviews are sometimes more entertaining than the new entertainment show he is reviewing.”

His three books have given Bianculli the best opportunities to show off this depth of knowledge. Dangerously Funny: The Uncensored Story of the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, his latest book (Touchstone, 2009), explores the triumphs and controversies of the groundbreaking 1960s television show. “It took them three years to do the show and five times as long to do the book,” Bianculli says of Dangerously Funny, due in paperback in October.

While still thinking of himself as a “print guy,” Bianculli left a newspaper gig in 2007 to go online with TV Worth Watching and become a full-time professor. (“It was a reverse Godfather,” he says of the newspaper. “They made me an offer I couldn’t accept.”)

Bianculli’s website (tvworthwatching.com), which has about a dozen writers, offers daily suggestions of what to catch. It also gives Bianculli creative freedom unavailable elsewhere. “I can write whatever I want, any way I want, about whatever subject I want,” he noted in his first post.

Bianculli is candid about the pleasures and pitfalls of his vocation. “You have to watch so much awful TV, it’s painful. You’ll never get those hours back. At the same time, it makes you appreciate the good stuff even more. Still, the thrill is identifying something really good and steering people to it.”

Does he have any guilty pleasures in terms of TV shows?

“Guilty pleasures? Given the amount of TV I watch,” he says, “it’s all guilty.”

15 to Savor

Here are critic David Bianculli’s favorite TV shows of recent vintage (in alphabetical order):

• Breaking Bad
• Curb Your Enthusiasm
• Daily Show With Jon Stewart
• Damages
• Friday Night Lights
• Mad Men
• Dexter
• Glee
• House
• Lost
• Modern Family
• Rescue Me
• 60 Minutes
• 30 Rock
• True Blood

No Taste for Jersey ‘Reality’

As a resident of New Jersey since 1984, David Bianculli always has his antennae up for TV with connections to the Garden State.

He was an early champion of The Sopranos but was not a fan of the series finale in 2007. “It didn’t end; it stopped,” he complains.

As for more recent fare, he’s ready to whack those New Jersey-based reality shows. “You could say I hated Jersey Shore at first punch—the punch that made all the tabloid and show-business shows, yet was edited out of the premiere for matters of ‘taste.’ Had there been any taste, that should not have been released to stir up advance promotion,” Bianculli says. “Then again, had there been any taste, there would have been no Jersey Shore in the first place.”

As for The Real Housewives of New Jersey, Bianculli was ready to file for divorce after the first broadcast.
“I know a lot of people who like [Real Housewives] shows, but I cannot stand them,” he says. “I have watched every one of the pilots and said farewell to these women.”

Bianculli is a big fan of Jerseyan Jon Stewart, host of The Daily Show on Comedy Central. “I think Jon Stewart is the best TV critic working right now—even though he’d probably think of that as an insult—because he and his staff are watching TV carefully and using it brilliantly as a weapon,” Bianculli says. “If you want to truly understand TV and how it’s used or hoped to be used by who those appear on it, Stewart’s the best.”

Tom Wilk is an author and frequent contributor. He lives in Pitman.

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