December 4, 2002: Perspective

Talking TV
The boob-tube road to punditry

By Sarah D. Bunting ’94

It happened so gradually that I didn’t notice. I didn’t plan for it; I didn’t daydream about it as a child. But last week, in the process of giving an entertainment report a windy analysis of why Push, Nevada got canceled, I heard myself talking, and it hit me. I have become A Television Expert.

It’s not a completely unfathomable turn of events; I do run a Web site devoted to scrutinizing TV (read: mocking it mercilessly). It’s my job to know about bad television, and occasionally to come up with pithy remarks on it – whether The Anna Nicole Show does in fact signal the beginning of the end of human civilization, for example (not quite, but close), or why the networks greenlighted so many mediocre cop shows for the fall season (execs take fewer chances on content in a slow economy). By now, my parents have stopped using my first name and refer to me almost exclusively as “the pundit.” How did I get here?

When I was a kid, my parents didn’t permit me to watch more than one hour of pre-approved television per week. I could have lived with the time limit, or at least not whined too strenuously about it, but Charles Manson would have had an easier time getting freed on parole than I had trying to get non-PBS programming past the Bunting Audiovisual Advisory Board. And I tried heroically: crying; sulking; emotional blackmail; monologues outlining the deleterious social and psychological effects of being the only kid in the ENTIRE WORLD not allowed to watch The A-Team; slide shows of my classmates, accompanied by a voice-over: “The board will note that the symptoms of irreversible brain rot allegedly induced by exposure to Mr. T are entirely absent in the subject. Lights, please.” None of it worked. If I wanted to see a single frame of Fantasy Island, I had to pray that my parents went out for the evening and left me with one of the “good” babysitters who spent most of the night on the phone with her boyfriend.

Faced with a similar barrage of begging and pleading, I would have broken down and let my kid watch whatever she wanted, if only to get her to stop telling strangers that her parents were Amish. But Ma and Dad held the line, and I now admit that they may have had a point. With TV largely off-limits, I had to amuse myself with construction paper and glue, arranging elaborate spy games with my best friend, killing off my Barbies with exotic tropical ailments, and reading. One hour of TV a week leaves a lot of time for reading and studying, and that seems to have gotten me into Princeton, so I guess their fiendish plot worked.

The plot kept working, too, throughout my years at college. Among other things, the freedoms of undergraduate life include hours of unmonitored downtime, the better to sit like a slug in my dorm’s TV room and marinate in blue-light laziness, but the years of privation meant that I just didn’t care about TV that much by that point. Toward the end of my college career, I developed an unhealthy dependence on a certain soap opera, but only the eating club’s peanut gallery made it worth watching; I wouldn’t have bothered with it otherwise. Besides, as an English major, I had more important things on my mind. I had big plans, plans that involved critically acclaimed poetry and book tours. Television did not figure in my pretentious conception of myself as A Future Literary Personage of Importance (But Not Too Much Importance, Because Nobody Likes a Show-Off). Serious writers do not watch Melrose Place, and that’s that.

Well, life doesn’t always go according to plan. After college, I started working with my father and watching more TV, out of boredom more than anything – bad TV, most of it. On my lunch hour, I went on the Internet to crab about a bad TV show. Then I launched a little Web site to crab about the bad show more officially, and then I launched another, bigger Web site about a bunch of bad shows. Now the bigger Web site is a full-time job, and when a drive-time radio show wants an authority to weigh in on The West Wing, the producer calls me. When friends want to know if a show is really “undergoing a creative overhaul” or if it’s canceled outright, they ask me. It’s a strange feeling, knowing that when it comes to a verdict on the current season of The Sopranos, my opinion is somehow considered official. In fact, it’s a little bit embarrassing. TV doesn’t get much respect, and strangers will often assume that my work entails sitting in front of a bank of TV sets in my pajamas all day, which, sadly, it doesn’t. It’s one thing to command volumes of information on copyright law, say, or the effects of an earnings report on financial markets. But about TV?

After thinking about it, though, I’ve decided to take pride in my punditry. My two partners and I have worked hard to turn our site into a leading source of TV analysis – amassing a talented staff, managing all the content, predicting how our sought-after 18- to 35-year-old, mostly female audience will respond to certain shows, and fostering a community where viewers all over the world can air their grievances with TV. When a newspaper wants me to weigh in on the state of reality programming, it’s nice to feel appreciated. Cracking jokes about John Ritter is a tough job, but hey, somebody has to do it.

So, if you’d like to know why Push, Nevada got cancelled, drop me a line and I’ll fill you in – just let me change into pajamas first.

Sarah D. Bunting ’94, a former PAW student columnist, is coeditor-in-chief of the website Television Without Pity ( She lives in Manhattan, and is probably watching a Law & Order rerun right now.


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