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NPR’s Eric Deggans: ‘The more ambitious consumers of television have left broadcast’

Bill DeYoung

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As television changes, so changes the role of the television critic.

No longer are the auteurs and innovators breaking new ground on the major broadcast and cable networks. Streaming TV – unfettered (for the most part) by advertising and FCC restrictions on language and subject matter – is where the old rules are being pulverized. Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu and others are wielding mighty hammers.

No one knows this better than St. Petersburg resident Eric Deggans, the full-time television commentator for National Public Radio, who sees his job as helping viewers navigate through it all.

The new normal, Deggans declares, “is a firehose of information and programming. Netflix is getting to the point where it has three or four major releases every Friday. Which is an insane amount.

“Just in the last week and a half, I had to watch 10 episodes of Maniac, two or three episodes of American Vandal, the documentary Quincy, and I’m in the middle of the reinvention of Sabrina the Teenage Witch. And the new season of Making a Murderer is coming up.”

What sounds like a dream job – getting paid to watch television – is, in fact, quite a juggling act. And Deggans, 52, is adept at keeping multiple LED screens in the air at the same time.

The native of Gary, Ind. began his journalism career as a pop music writer and columnist in Pittsburgh and Asbury Park, N.J., before assuming that role at the Tampa Bay Times in 1995.

Two years into his Times tenure, he transitioned into the paper’s TV and media critic role.

“With television and film, the quality of criticism gets better as you get older,” he believes. “Because you have more experience, you’ve seen more and you have more contacts. But pop music is very much about what young people are vibing on, because they’re the primary consumers of it.”

After 18 years at the Times – including a lengthy stretch as an editorial writer – he was tapped for the NPR gig. He is the radio network’s first-ever full-time television critic.

Deggans is also a frequent guest host on CNN’s media analysis show Reliable Sources, and an advisor and sometime instructor at the Poynter Institute, where he maintains an office.

Deggans’ 2012 book, Race-Baiter: How the Media Wields Dangerous Words to Divide a Nation, examined the way prejudice, racism and sexism fuel certain elements of modern media.

He received the Florida Press Club’s first-ever Diversity Award, honoring his coverage of issues involving race and media, and the Legacy Award from the National Association of Black Journalists’ A&E Task Force. He also serves on the board of educators, journalists and media experts who select the George Foster Peabody Awards for excellence in electronic media.

In 2005 and 2008, Deggans was selected to lecture at Columbia University’s prestigious Graduate School of Journalism.

So yeah, he’s qualified for that “cushy job.” Deggans suggests that his obsession with TV and media began back in Indiana. “It was a poor neighborhood, with not a lot to do,” he remembers. “And so music and television were my gateways to the world outside where I was living.”

These days, he bristles when people ask him if he actually likes television. “There’s so much material out there that I think you have to love watching television or you couldn’t do it,” he says. “There’s no way. It would be like torture.”

Game-changer

Streaming TV, where an entire story arc is played out over 10 or more episodes (all made available on the same day) has changed the ground rules.

“It’s almost like taking a story that would normally be packed into a movie and stretching it out,” explains Deggans. “So I can’t watch one episode and know whether or not it’s any good. Particularly if I think it’s really bad, I feel like I have to watch almost the whole season.”

He feels compelled to binge-watch, he says. “If you criticize something about the show, and it’s dealt with later and you didn’t see it, then it makes you look like an idiot.”

The father of four has a recording studio (“it’s more like a closet”) in his Poynter office. Here, he can record his commentaries in high resolution audio and send them to NPR’s D.C. studios for editing, and – when it’s called for – speak live, in real time, with the anchors.

The latter is essential for discussing current TV-related controversies (think Kavanaugh hearings, Bill Cosby, the recent ouster of CBS head Les Moonves, anything Donald Trump).

For Deggans, living in St. Petersburg – far from the centers of the television universe – keeps him grounded. And fair. “If you live in L.A. or you live in New York, you start to see things the way they see things,” he says. “You have such blinders on about what they’re doing, it’s hard to see it as an average person.”

Although he travels frequently, to interview the medium’s movers, shakers and stars, he likes it here at home.

“I feel like my job is to be the most educated viewer out there,” he explains. “I’ve been doing it since 1997, so I’m the most educated viewer that’s out there.”

Next on his plate: Amazon’s The Romanoffs (a new series from Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner), and the Julia Roberts drama Homecoming.

He’ll sandwich those between the latest offerings from Netflix, Hulu and the major broadcast and cable networks.

“The interesting thing, to me, about television – and everybody that works in television knows this – is that most of the money is still made in broadcast television,” Deggans says. The CBS comedy The Big Bang Theory, for example, averages about 13 million viewers (who conveniently absorb sponsors’ advertisements, too) every week.

“But most of the more ambitious consumers of television have left broadcast, or have at least downgraded their usage of it, and they’re watching streaming shows.

“Broadcasters got the message over the last few seasons that what viewers want is comfort food television – because the actual world is so crazy now. And so they’re giving you heartwarming dramas, they’re giving you re-booted versions of old, formerly popular comedies and dramas, they’re giving you stuff that’s all very familiar and not that challenging.

“Because they’re assuming that all the viewers that want challenging programming are going to Hulu, Netflix and Amazon.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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