‘At the Movies’ swats away its flyweight critics

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NBC only had to take a gander at the ratings for one episode of its much-ballyhooed ‘Quarterlife’ series before the network gave the show the old heave-ho last year. It took ABC nearly a year before it realized that Ben Lyons and Ben Mankiewicz -- the fresh-faced ‘At the Movies’ hosts who had replaced Richard Roeper and the one-and-only Roger Ebert -- were an embarrassment to all, meaning the previous hosts, the network and the critical profession in general.

So I can’t say I’m shocked to read the news that ABC has dumped Lyons and Mankiewicz and hired a new pair of critical heavyweights, the New York Times’ A.O. (Tony) Scott and the Chicago Tribune’s Michael Phillips, to anchor the long-running syndicated series. I’ve rubbed shoulders with both guys on the film festival circuit and happily endorse the appointment. Scott and Phillips are lively, intelligent writers with a keen grasp of what makes films work, which in itself makes them a huge improvement over the previous duo, who were critical bantamweights, especially Lyons, who had a bright smile but about as much gravitas as an Alabama beauty show contestant.


To be fair, Mankiewicz, the scion of a fabled Hollywood family who hosts Turner Classic Movies presentations, was clearly more knowledgeable than his counterpart. As my colleague Chris Lee reported last December, Lyons, son of film critic Jeffrey Lyons, was held in such low esteem in the critical fraternity that others in the profession were lining up, happy to be quoted by name ridiculing his work, with Chicago-based film critic Erik Childress saying of Lyons: ‘He has no taste. Everyone thinks he’s a joke.’

Well, everyone except for Disney-owned ABC TV. The network clearly believed that the venerable TV show, which traced its roots to the mid-1970s, when the Pulitzer Prize-winning Ebert and his Chicago newspaper pal, the late Gene Siskel, launched the first nationally known TV film critic program, needed a re-branding to appeal to younger audiences and boost its ratings. Of course, the opposite happened. As ABC reported on its own website, the show’s ratings dropped sharply, slipping from 2.1 million to 1.7 million after Lyons and Mankiewicz took over.

The network made one simple miscalculation: It thought that by hiring younger, more effervescent critics that it could get a younger audience to watch a cobwebby network TV format. That’s never going to happen. Just ask the great minds at CBS, who hired Katie Couric, thinking that a younger, more effervescent newscaster could get a younger audience to watch a cobwebby network TV format. Film critics are in the same boat as evening news anchors -- their core audience is people 50 and over, and getting older by the day. You could hire Jessica Alba to read the evening news -- or review ‘G.I. Joe’ for that matter -- and younger audiences still wouldn’t care.

Don’t get me wrong: I grew up reading film critics -- it’s what helped me understand the history and meaning of film, not to mention how to appreciate such exciting filmmakers as Nicholas Ray, Howard Hawks, Sam Fuller and Hal Ashby. But expecting Phillips and Scott to deliver network-sized ratings in an era where hardly anyone under 40 pays attention to critics is a fool’s errand.

Despite their intellectual heft and engaging personalities -- when you have dinner with Michael Phillips, you are sure to enjoy a sparkling evening of good conversation -- they are being asked to revive a format that is as moribund as a black-and-white detective series.

The best thing ABC could do is keep improving the show’s presence on the Web, where expectations are lower and where fans -- like myself -- could sample the new critics’ take on specific films on demand. One of the cult hits on the Web last year was Reel Geezers, where Lorenzo Semple and Marcia Nasatir, two eightysomething old film pros, fussed and bickered on YouTube over various recently released films. Film criticism remains an honorable trade, but it’s now a niche business, which is why it feels especially wrong-headed for ABC to cast two wonderfully gifted critics in a role where they are doomed to fail if the network’s only priority is bringing more eyeballs to TV screens.