Tuned In

Double Dead Tree Alert: or, Why Magazine Writers Hate Newspaper Writers

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Crab fishing is a bitter fight for scarce resources. And so is TV criticism. / Cameron Glendenning / Discovery Channel

In the magazine business, we have a thing called “lead time.” It means that many of the pieces you read in a print magazine like Time—especially anything not having to do with breaking news—gets written and put to bed days or even weeks before you see it. For a writer, this can be frustrating, not just when you compare it to the daily newspaper schedule, but all the more so when you get use to the type-and-post gratification of the Web.

So I have two articles in this week’s Time. The first is my Tuned In column. Boy, was I proud of this idea! It was about the explosion in popularity of cable reality shows like Deadliest Catch, and how they celebrate the kind of blue-collar workers who mostly disappeared from primetime since the eras of The Honeymooners, All in the Family and Roc. I even tied it into the obsession with working-class voters in the election.

These shows don’t address class directly, at least not by the American dollars-and-cents definition. The jobs pay well–$75,000 a year for a rookie rigger on Black Gold. The class difference lies in the attitude toward money. TV doctors and lawyers don’t talk salary–they, like many upper-middle-class professionals, can take comfort and stability relatively for granted. But here, everything is denominated in dollar terms. You hear the price tag whenever a saw gets lost ($1,000) or a pipe gets jammed ($50,000) or a worker calls in sick ($1,000 an hour in company revenue). Economic risk is as ever present as the physical danger, and–by pushing workers to go faster and harder–one feeds the other. The workers know precisely how much everything costs, not just the crab and the crude but also their family time, their rest, even their safety.

Oooh, I thought I nailed it! Wow, was I full of myself!

So the column was edited and nailed down and lo and behold, I look at TV Tattle and see that Mary McNamara at the LA Times just did basically the same column. Now, in fairness—fairness to myself, that is, isn’t that big of me!—we take somewhat different approaches; she writes more about big-network primetime, I analyze the cable shows more. But she got there first, and thus she wins.

Fine. Second chance. An editor asked me if I would pick a primetime show and look at its performance in the strike-shortened season. Me being me, I picked Lost, and wrote this review-essay on how settling on its end date (and even losing a couple hours to the strike) revitalized the show by allowing it to make decisions with consequences and focusing its narrative. (To you hardcore Losties, it’s pretty much Lost 101, so you may want to skip it.)

Wrote it, closed it, sent it to the presses. And a day or two later, checked out TV Tattle and… Damn you, Tim Goodman! Damn you to Hell!