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TV Critic David Bianculli Still a Breath of 'Fresh Air'
March 18, 2014  | By About TVWW  | 3 comments

USA TODAY (See original story here.)

by Kevin C. Shelly, (Cherry Hill, N.J.) Courier-Post 8:40 p.m. EST March 5, 2014


Their skepticism is understandable: His house is like a randomly organized Blockbuster store frozen in time, where every elevated flat space is crammed with books, CDs and videotapes.

The pool table has disappeared in piles of packages and projects, much like the dining room table. Bianculli, 60, insists that's a good thing, cutting down on possible distractions from writing.

An unused treadmill — "Shut up!" the blocky Bianculli responds good-naturedly at its mention — is obscured by a pile of boxes. A manic mix of TV show CDs fills the boxes: Gilmore Girls, Ponderosa, Superman and The Mickey Mouse Club.

Desks throughout the house are so overflowing that the kitchen table has been pressed into service for his must-do-now writing for the college classroom and the radio.

"Just finding out what's not findable is tricky," he admits.

Asked how he juggles his duties — writer, academic, radio personality and Internet publisher — amid the welter, Bianculli, 60, breaks into a broad grin.

"I'm still looking for an answer. It's triage. I wake up and deal with it," he says.

Watching for the rest of us

Bianculli's been dealing with finding an answer to deadlines, detritus and overlapping duties for a long time, paid to watch TV for a living for nearly 40 years. His career began while still in college, earning $5 for a story on the premiere of a new show named Saturday Night Live.

"I've seen a shameful amount of TV," Bianculli says without a hint of remorse.

The TV critic has contributed pieces about the medium to Fresh Air for nearly 30 years, more recently guest-hosting regularly.

He also is a professor of television and film at Rowan University, and the founder and editor of the website TV Worth Watching, which he began the day he walked away from daily newspaper journalism, disenchanted.

"I was there at the last glory period. I had a great ride," he says of his newspapering days.

Bianculli's at work on his fourth book, tentatively titled The Best Television Ever Made.

He's wondering how many books — and more precisely book contracts — he has left in him.

"Books are like babies. It's great to have given birth, but the process is nothing but a pain. I do book writing rarely; usually in 18-hour bursts on the weekends. It is like writing the world's largest term paper," he says.

Though he hasn't written for a paper in more than six years, Bianculli is still essentially a newspaper writer — with stints at the Philadelphia Inquirer, and New York's Post and Daily News. The writing speed and discipline he honed cranking it out for daily papers is now reflexively applied to whatever writing task at hand.

"I'm an old fart. I grew up reading books and newspapers and I like writing for books and newspapers," he explains. "I write for myself."

Mission control

The desktop screen of Bianculli's basement iMac computer, where he works on his books, has dozens and dozens of files tightly lined up across the screen, like so many domino tiles ready to fall. Bianculli has them arrayed on his desktop because he wants to at least see the files if he can't actually touch them.

"I'm like the old man of the Internet. I don't trust technology. I have Luddited my way through the past 20 years," says the man who still has a bank of analog TVs in his basement, where he simultaneously watched every news channel during the attacks of 9/11.

His technology is more current upstairs, in the living room. A plump recliner faces a giant flat-screen. The TV table to the chair's right holds 10 separate remotes, plus two flashlights. Up on the roof there are three satellite dishes and a huge conventional antennae.

Bianculli looks at ease in the recliner, mission control for his real job: watching TV before analyzing it.

While not an apologist for television, he's tweaked some pop culture writers for their "laughable ignorance" of television, including one who claimed, "Everybody watches (TV), but no one really likes it."

Bianculli scathingly responded to that comment in the introduction of one of his earlier books:

"That's the comment of someone who writes about TV a lot more than he watches it — or, at least, of someone who watches all the wrong things … I'm not saying all TV is good; the majority of it isn't. I'm arguing that the best of TV is very good indeed, and that the idea of indiscriminately ridiculing or avoiding the medium of television displays no more intelligence than denouncing all movies as fluff or holding a 'Don't Open a Book Day.'"

'Forensic criticism'

That approach leads to both the name of his website and its method, which focuses exclusively on good and great TV — no Kardashians, no Honey Boo Boo.

It also explains his "forensic criticism" of television, based on the "evolutionary DNA" of new shows that bridge, build and borrow from their antecedents.

To understand Bianculli's approach to what truly matters in television, consider some of the shows that most influenced him in his youth: The Bullwinkle Show, The Muppet Show, Saturday Night Live, The Great American Dream Machine, and The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.

As different as these shows are, what ties them together is a feel and appreciation for language, wit and cleverness, along with deep-seated irreverence, a bit of anarchy and a tendency to poke authority.

That desire to provide context and explain television history, plus a promise of complete access with no conditions, led to his most recently published book, Dangerously Funny: The Uncensored Story of the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.

The book details the comedy duo's meteoric rise and fall at CBS, their show's influence on music, culture and politics, and the lasting legacy they created through the many careers they kickstarted.

While Bianculli's not ready to quit any of his day jobs, the 2009 Smothers Brothers book is under option for a film adaptation by George Clooney's production company. While few optioned works actually make it to screen, the fact that Clooney's company filmed Good Night, and Good Luck, the story of radio-to-TV pioneer Edward R. Murrow, has Bianculli feeling optimistic.

"It's an honor that (Clooney) read it and saw enough in it," to consider making a movie, says Bianculli.

Taking TV seriously

Bianculli began at the NPR show by happenstance, just as the show was transitioning from a local show to national.

The national launch coincided with a strike at the Philadelphia Inquirer, where he was then working. Bianculli got invited to contribute TV pieces as something of a fill-in for the void left by the strike-bound Inquirer. He's never left Fresh Air and his role has expanded, with him guest-hosting regularly.

"We've always thought of TV as something integral for Fresh Air,'' says Miller, the show's producer. "We wanted to cover television as seriously as we do books and movies.

"He has a really good eye for trends and what will be important," says Miller, mentioning that reality TV and the rise of cable were two of the trends Bianculli wrote about early. "And he has abundant enthusiasm for that handful of shows that are truly great."

With that kind of review, perhaps Bianculli's plan to declutter his house, sell it, and move nearer to WHYY will happen after all.

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I admire what you have done here. I like the part where you say you are doing this to give back but I would assume by all the comments that this is working for you as well.
Jul 9, 2023   |  Reply
C.Jeff Breen
David, I have a film stuck at the National Film Archives. It was my Master's thesis in 1974. I am trying to get it back so I can digitalize it. Palmer's film send me the wrong film when I requested they send back my original. They sent me film of a nude dancer on stage at Cal State Humboldt. I shot my thesis project in Indonesia. National Film Archives is telling me they do not have man power to go through stacks of Palmer stuff to give me back my film!
I also happen to be a Vietnam Vet. I am willing to fly to DC and go in and help go through stacks. Can you help me find several other folk to walk in the door and spend a day or two working their tails off. Ideas appreciated.

Tomorrow is already here for me and I would love to digitalize this stuff before I stop counting tomorrows.

Most film makers would love to have their film in the National Film Archives.
I can't get mine out!

C.Jeff Breen
Aug 24, 2018   |  Reply
I haven’t checked in here for some time in view that I thought it turned into getting uninteresting, but the closing handful of posts are clearly properly pleasant so I guess I will add you back to my regular bloglist.
Feb 17, 2024
David, sorry for bugging you not in Hawaii, what's with the clogged up mail? S.
May 23, 2016   |  Reply
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