The following transcript is an interview with Mo Ryan, former TV critic for Variety, HuffPost and the Chicago Tribune. Asking questions is Megan Genovese, a doctoral student at the Annenberg School for Communication, who is a member of the Center for Media at Risk Steering Committee and studies fandom and popular culture.
As both an observer of and participant in entertainment media production, what are the most pressing risks that you see in the industry?
The first one is media instability. Everyone I know is constantly looking over their shoulder to see if they still have a job, and a lot of people have lost jobs. Some places are hiring; it’s not all dark. But most media organizations are in a state of constant adaptation, and constantly, honestly, working people harder and harder, and burning them out. And that’s really tough, because I think that writers are not being brought along, and taught how to write better. Reporters are not given chances to hone their skills as much as they could. Many do on their own time, but it’s much more difficult to get any kind of apprenticeship, or training, or mentoring in that environment.
And also, listen when people are afraid for their jobs, they’re more much more likely to pursue stories, and angles, and ideas that maybe aren’t necessarily in their interest or the public interest. So another big risk is that just in the realm of TV alone, there are now 500 scripted TV shows being made. There’s thousands of unscripted TV shows being made. There’s many other news programs, and children’s programs, and other kinds of programs, and documentaries, and all the rest.
The sheer amount of media being produced has gone up significantly, and the story in Vanity Fair recently pointed out the number of critics, or people who write about TV full-time, has not gone up in a similar way. So you have a smaller, or relatively stable, number of people in jobs that are somewhat precarious being inundated all the time, and part of that inundation is being basically swarmed by the many thousands of PR professionals who are trying to get coverage, understandably, for their projects. They’re paid to do that, and listenthat’s fine, but there are now many more publicists in the realm of TV and entertainment than there are journalists covering it. So that can lead to a lot of coverage that is essentially just an extension of the PR campaign, and there’s room for all kinds of coverage, and that’s one kind that I think is absolutely valid within a certain context. But when it seems like that’s the majority of what you get, or when some of these outlets have a complete iron-fisted control over how coverage rolls out, and who gets to cover what, that can lead to issues of all kinds, including representation.
There were a number of journalists who talked about writers, and podcasters, and critics of color having access to something like Black Panther. I think there was outrage, but there already is a pervasive whiteness, and a majority-male staff in most places. So this just leads to more problems. I definitely notice a trend of media companies exerting more and more control over how the press does its job. Including some places, in realms that previously didn’t have them, asking people to do roundtables and junkets that are strictly controlled in the realm of TV. And that’s just something that we haven’t seen there before. So there’s definitely, I think, a trend toward being less answerable to the media, and having more control over how media actually is gathered and disseminated.
What are the borders of entertainment media? How have they been changing, and do you see these changes as lessening or increasing risk?
More people are having to be jack of all trades. You might get someone who is good in a lot of different realms—podcasting, shooting video, writing, doing social media—and all those things are valuable, but there can be a real risk when people are spread too thin, and too much is expected of people. listen And as much as people think, “Covering the world of entertainment must be so fun,” it can be. It’s a job, though, like any other job, and increasingly publications are covering for their lack of staff with just working their existing people very hard. And that can just be challenging.
Thinking specifically about the shift from prime-time broadcast to cable and the addition of digital environments, how have the encounters between audiences, content creators and companies transformed? And how has this changed the way that companies make decisions about content creation or resource allocation?
Well, one big instance of that is the whole issue of algorithms deciding things. I really don’t know how Netflix makes decisions. With something like ABC or even HBO, you can get numbers that are verifiable, and checkable, and I understand why they renewed this show or made a sequel to this TV movie, because there was great interest in the first one. listenThe streaming companies—Hulu, Amazon, Netflix, the most prominent one of them obviously—they are essentially black boxes. They maybe occasionally will release a little drop, or a little crumb of data, or bits of data might come out from other realms that tabulate this stuff. But we really don’t know what they’re using to make decisions. Amazon famously had a process by which viewers could vote on which TV pilots got brought to series, but I think they’ve quietly abandoned that, and essentially it’s just more or less the same as at other networks: executives decide. But even that’s not really clear what they’re using as the basis for those decisions.
What responsibilities do viewers have in consuming or interacting with entertainment and media and creators? Should viewers see themselves as a check on the industry? What kind of opportunities and dangers does that paradigm present, specifically in this political moment and current technological affordances?
Well, one big thing that happened was Roseanne’s show was canceled, which I would have never thought possible, even three years ago, even a year ago, even two years ago maybe. I just think 10 years ago that would have been completely not even within the realm of my brain to process. listenBut what we’re seeing is that perception can very quickly go south with social media and the rise of all these different channels through which viewers and the media can come together, to knit together a response, or to have an array of responses—many of them negative, or many of them positive.
We’re seeing TV shows get renewed based on really active social media followings. We’re seeing TV shows get canceled because “there wasn’t enough interest” or “there wasn’t enough media coverage.” There’s a huge array of people and companies monitoring reactions, monitoring perceptions of companies, of brands, of values. The life cycle of a scandal is now in a day. Roseanne tweeted a racist tweet about Valerie Jarrett, and that was, I think, early in the morning on Tuesday. And within hours of honestly most people in America waking up, very early in the morning on the West Coast where the decision was made, that show was gone. It was done, finito.
And that’s just, to me, a really interesting example of how quickly, and how responsive even large, somewhat staid companies can have to the perception that they are harboring an entity with racist or anti . . . something that is antithetical to the values that they have put out there in the world. So I think that the danger of this can be trying to over-serve a fandom, or a political group, or what have you. I think that, that is something that you see now and then.
For a while there, we saw a bunch of media pieces, “Getting to Know the White Trump Voter,” and TV has followed along in certain realms. The question has been answered. Are we making enough TV shows for those who voted for Trump? And I would argue that TV has always been making TV shows for people who want to see mostly white people on screen. I find that a weird question. I don’t actually think that it tracks with anything real, because now networks are scrambling to have shows about working-class people, but for a long time the trend has been toward showing wealth, showing great wealth even. And also, it’s been disproven that the white working-class voted necessarily majority for Trump.
There is an enormous array of people of color who are in the working class, in the lower middle class. listenSo I think that there’s a lot of grappling going on with what is the real America, and there’s much more opportunities for companies to find out from real Americans what they think about those perceptions, or what they think about those stories. And I think that’s why we’re seeing a real rise in authenticity. And you can define that a few different ways, but a woman directing Wonder Woman was hugely successful. As was an African-American man directing a largely African-American cast in Black Panther that told a story of aspiration and different kinds of oppression or limitation. Both those films did.
We’re seeing a similar thing with Black-ish, with Fresh Off the Boat, with all kinds of shows. Even a show like Superstore, which is, the show owner of that is a white man. You’re seeing a lot different points of view being represented. TV for sure has gotten more political, and does more to air out issues than it certainly was doing a few years ago. I think that’s certainly in response to the times that we’re living in. But listenI think the danger can be in not really having a firm grasp on what you mean by, when you say, “We’re going to have more shows, more films about the real America.” Well, that’s a loaded question, and whose America is the most real?
Has the way reviewers and audiences watch popular media changed, and how has it affected media creation?
Well, a huge thing that’s been a major feature of the last few years of my career, has been, how do you get your arms around the fact that some TV shows just drop all in one day? Or with something like The Handmaid’s Tale, three episodes will go up at once, and then they’re coming out once per week after that. Or you can have just the usual weekly TV show airing, and this, that, and the other once per week, 13–22 episodes per year.
So there’s all these different modes and models, and I think that the weekly recap has somewhat gone out of favor, partially due to the binging factor, and that’s just something I feel like also people maybe are a little bit less . . . Critics are a little bit less inclined to do that, because it was so dominant for so long that I think it’s natural for people to want to branch out into other areas. I think that there is more of a disconnect between what people are watching, when they’re watching it, when they want commentary from critics or from the media on it. And I certainly do not have that solved. listenI think the only thing that people who cover these mediums can do is gravitate toward what they think is important to write about, or what they want to write about, and feel enthusiasm for writing about. So there’s really no “one size fits all” thing. I think the only way in this highly pressurized environment is to keep your enthusiasm alive, is to nurture it and say, “Okay, well, I really have something interesting to say about this week’s Atlanta that I haven’t seen elsewhere.” Or, “I want to say something about this whole season of 13 Reasons Why” or “this particular scene.” And “Speechless really affected me for this reason.”
It’s freeing in some ways, in that you can see what people are responding to very easily. Viewers make it very clear what they are into. There’s many different interests, and many different fandoms, and many different kinds of viewers, of course. But you can have a constant monitoring machine of what people are talking about, and how that is all going. But then you can also just gauge yourself, and gauge what’s coming out, and keep that running commentary within yourself. Of, “How can I engage with it in a way that it will valuable to someone?” And maybe the only person it’ll be valuable to is me, but my feeling is that when I feel really passionate about something, or really interested or engaged in a negative or positive way, that’s when my work tends to connect the most. That’s what I’ve just been learning to home in on.
Do you see any troubling or promising trends in the way audiences, critics, professional associations allocate or interpret signifiers of quality in entertainment media?
No, actually a little bit the opposite. I think that there’s been a really heartening display of wins for shows that would not have gotten attention from awards bodies in the past. American Vandal got a Peabody Award, so that’s amazing to me, and I’m so happy about that. It’s very much a spoof of true crime documentaries, but it’s also really good on just a narrative level. It’s working on a ton of levels, but it doesn’t take itself that seriously.
I think on those terms it really succeeds, and I think some associations that I’m part of—the TV Critics Association, the AFI, “Top 10 TV Shows of the Year”—there’s been a real recognition that genre entertainment can be quite pleasing. We’ve had really tiny shows like Orphan Black get some awards love, Jane the Virgin, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. I think that it’s heartening to me. listenI think that the bad thing that I see, and this is maybe more from the media creator standpoint, from the people creating TV, people putting TV shows into the world. There is this tendency to have a bad perception of it, or a really outdated or outmoded, or frankly sometimes tiresome perception of what quality is.
And that tends to come across as a very, very reductive and inaccurate, honestly, view of what shows like The Sopranos and Breaking Bad did. Those shows were often really funny, they had really good narrative spines, they had great pace in the sense of momentum, and cliffhangers, and great characters. All those things, but I think the perception is that, “Well, we have to have troubled characters, and male leads, and depressing somber circumstances, and very little light.” Literal or figurative, and often-times in the realm of prestige TV, these signifiers are meant to show that this show is taking some issue seriously, or has something important to say, when oftentimes they’re putting the cart before the horse, and there’s really not the substance there.
They just have all the signifiers of importance, but really nothing to say. And sometimes I see shows saying nothing, or not very much, or something quite banal with a lot of money to do that. And then you see shows that are made for essentially very little money, who don’t necessarily still get the respect they deserve, and I think that, that definitely still happens. And listenit always troubles me when a show by a creator of color, or a queer creator, goes by the wayside, because we still just don’t have enough of those, not nearly.
And so, the perception that why isn’t Insecure necessarily getting the level of awards love that a higher-profile half hour did or would. I think Issa Rae should have the career trajectory, if not greater than Amy Schumer’s, but I don’t know if that will happen. I don’t know; there’s still hurdles and obstacles.
What kind of initiatives by either studios or audiences have actually promoted or could promote diversity of representation behind and in front of the camera?
I think that some people have promoted a Rooney Rule—that for important positions, director, show runner, all those kind of things—interview men and women of color, LGBTQ individuals, and even if the person doesn’t get hired, you’ve made that contact, and that will probably serve both parties in some way down the road.
I think that that should definitely be a thing. I think the only thing that really works in terms of changing these numbers is the tracking. Whether it’s the Directors Guild, or the Writers Guild, or other guilds, tracking in front of and behind the camera. The media has been doing a much better job of that in recent years, tracking what has changed, what hasn’t. There’s been wonderful studies by a number of academic bodies that have backed up the claim that representation is still very poor in many arenas.
Just one, Latinx women on TV, are very under-represented as creators and as actors, and yet they are a huge part of our population in America, and they just don’t get screen time for the most part. That’s just one number, and I think pointing them out again and again, pointing out what does not change, pointing them out to the networks directly, and saying, “Over time this didn’t change,” or “This did change,” that can actually work. listenWhat I have found, and I’ve seen this happen many different times from various outlets . . . If you take an example of the things that a network or a network executive has said about their values and what they do. . . That they value diversity and inclusion, and then show them numbers that prove that those statements were not really accurate. That can sometimes produce change.
And I hope more people do it, and fans are now doing it too. There is now a collection of queer and nonbinary women or people, most of whom identify as women, who are collecting stats on representation of queer women on TV. And they are pointing out how often they’re killed, how often they had tragic endings, and those stats have changed. They’ve had a real effect on TV anyway, and I think that there’s much more awareness. And so, man, there are so many resources to educate oneself about these things. listenAnd so, when a creator will say, “I didn’t know about this,” “Well, you could have known.” So I think everybody gets one, maybe two mistakes, but after that people will really start to point out when things are not great, and when people are refusing to learn from their mistakes.
Have you seen any systemic change in the entertainment industry since #metoo and #timesup? What concrete changes do you think could have an impact on sexual harassment and discrimination in the industry?
I have thought about this so much. For many months I’ve talked about it to many, many people in the industry. I would say that institutional resources are still in short supply for those on the lower reaches of the power scale. The EEOC did a great study in 2016 that really laid out the parameters for where abuse and harassment is most likely to happen.
And one of the parameters is industries with large power differentials, and those tend to be politics, media, Wall Street, Silicon Valley, and entertainment industry. These are very much why we’re seeing a lot of stories. Of course, these stories happen everywhere, no doubt in my mind. listenBut to me, when you have abusers and narcissists, and bullies ascending to the top levels of the entertainment industry, what you get is entertainment that essentially puts these values out as propaganda, as right and correct, and that’s really troubling to me. Because that’s how many of us learn what the values of our society are.
I’m very skeptical at the moment, to be honest with you, because the question that I would ask of every woman in the entertainment industry, and I don’t think that there’s a lot of good answers for this, are between a year ago and today, what institutional resources does a person on a lower end of the power scale have that that person did not have a year ago? And I do not count individual responses, and I do not count corporate HR, because corporate HR is usually lax, for lack of a better word.
What institutional resources do people have? There are some hotlines now. There is the Time’s Up Foundation. I don’t exactly know what Time’s Up is doing. I’ve heard different things come out here and there, listenbut if I’m a PA, or an assistant, or a junior writer, or a day player on a TV show, and I’m harassed or assaulted, what resources do I have on an institutional level that I didn’t have a year ago? And I just don’t think that those robust institutional resources are where they should be, not nearly.
I do think that, as one person put it to me, more people are likely to speak up, and more people are likely to be heard. Those are two good steps, but they’re just the starting steps. Once someone has spoken up and has been heard, then what will be done? I don’t know about that. I do not think that there is a unified response. I do not think that there are norms and consequences that have been uniformly applied, not by any stretch of the imagination. There are still people who have been covered who still have their jobs, who still have good-paying jobs, who were put on a paid vacation.
There’s very little that I’ve seen that will guarantee that proven cases of repeated transgression will be curbed, if not just completely. . . that a person will be out of a job. I think that’s not really the case. And one thing that I think of a lot is that listenHollywood is a giant forgetting machine. They want you to forget. They want you to move on, and to go do something else and forget about it, because they do not want institutional, or legal, or federal regulation. Whether we’re talking about copyrights, whether we’re talking about issues of unions, this, that, and the other. They just want people to stop thinking about a thing, and they’re very good at getting something shiny into the mix to distract people.
I think at the moment, I said this last year, and I still believe it.
What institutions can be mobilized for the protection of individuals in the entertainment industry from sexual harassment, abuse, discrimination, exploitations, and to champion victims in the aftermath?
I said this last year, and I still think it’s true. listenThe media is functioning as Hollywood’s de facto human resources department unfortunately, and don’t think any of us want to be that. I don’t think that we trained for that, but people still do not necessarily perceive that they will be free from consequences for reporting any of those things that were outlined in the question. What typically happens, for sure, in the entertainment industry as far as I’ve seen, is that people who speak up are themselves penalized often, or ostracized, or have some kind of career repercussion.
And I think it’s far more likely for that to be the case still. There has been power in people coming to the media as a group. There has been some recognition of that. I do think there’s some curbing of some behaviors. But again, I think this is rather voluntary, and I don’t know over time how much will truly change, because the HR departments of the major studios are worthless. They really just follow the lead of whatever the top executives at those companies want.
And the top executives at those companies want to make money for their bosses, and if someone is making a ton of money for their bosses, the idea that they’re going to punish transgressors severely is still a little bit outside the mainstream. Although, as we saw, it’s a differing case, but Roseanne Barr faced consequences for her racist statement. She didn’t face consequences for the many other racist statements she’s made over the years, and the many other things that she’s said and promoted that were frankly not good or beyond the pale. But I think we are in a new age of different kinds of pushback having some effect.
But the media cannot fully be that pushback forever. We’re all overworked as it is. We are all really trying to paddle furiously to stay employed, and of course, I know many, many journalists who essentially took on a second job during the Me Too era, and did this on nights and weekends to make sure that these stories got told. But I think the next question has to be, what institutional reforms have been made? I do not know of that many that would necessarily eliminate the prospect of negative consequences for those who have survived the abuse, and that’s troubling to me.
listenI do think that industry would really rather have all of this just go away, because it’s too hard, it’s too difficult, it’s too challenging. And we can’t let it, and hopefully between social media, the media as a whole, and individuals within these corporations who do want to do good, and I know that there are some, I hope that doesn’t fall off the radar.
The Reflections series incorporates SoundCite, seamless inline audio created by the Northwestern University KnightLab. While not a perfect science, SoundCite allows the reader/listener to experience interviews in a new and interactive way.