When it comes to television—good or bad—Cherry Hill’s David Bianculli never misses an episode.
Ask David Bianculli to guess how many television shows he’s watched in his 40 years as a renowned TV critic and you’ll get a wry answer in response.
“Way too many,” he says with a laugh. “Some unforgettable ones—and some I wish I could forget.”
Still, Bianculli, a longtime resident of Cherry Hill, doesn’t regret having to sit through any of them. After all, watching TV shows—the good, the bad and the ugly—is what he signed up for all those years ago when, as a college student, he convinced an editor at the newspaper he was interning at to let him review a new TV show geared toward college kids: Saturday Night Live.
While Bianculli only made $5 for that quarter-page article back in 1975, he was “absolutely thrilled” to earn anything for his writing, and even more excited to see his name in print.
“That was a big deal; to actually get paid and have some clips to show for myself,” he recalls. “That’s when I realized I could maybe get somewhere with this.”
“This” being his lifelong dream of becoming a professional TV critic.
Fast forward to late 2014, when Bianculli’s decades-long love affair with television became the subject of a six-week-long exhibition at a Apexart, a Tribeca art gallery in New York City. The show—Bianculli’s Personal Theory of TV Evolution—recounted his personal connection with television as a medium, spanning back to his childhood diary entries (“Today on TV, they took off FUNDAY FUNNIES. I love that program, and I don’t like it being taken off,” reads what is possibly Bianculli’s first piece of actual TV criticism, written when he was nearly 7 years old.).
The gallery exhibition also featured many original TV treasures, like a trademark Fred Rogers cardigan sweater, and Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling’s Royal 440 typewriter. Some of the items displayed were Bianculli’s own—including his father’s original 1946 Raytheon TV—but others were loaned to him by everyone from Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan to famed documentarian Ken Burns, a longtime friend.
“It was an incredible experience,” Bianculli says. “It grew into something bigger than [the gallery ] or I could have imagined.” And beyond the physical growth of the exhibit—as more and more items were collected for display—Bianculli says it transformed from something “just for fun” to something “much more contemplative than I could have imagined.”
“I could see all sort of things from my life, as it relates to my love of television, connecting in ways I’d never really thought about before,” he said. “It was really something to experience my history in that context.”
Bianculli’s mad-juggle of a career—which includes running his web-based magazine, TVWorthWatching.com, (featuring no less than 35 of his “Best Bets” critiques weekly) to ongoing appearances on National Public Radio’s Fresh Air; a longtime stint as a Rowan TV and film history associate professor, and his work as a book author—could put a younger person to shame. But, at 61, Bianculli’s career has never been busier, or more rewarding. And there hasn’t been a more exciting time in the history of television itself either, he says.
“It’s better than it’s ever been. There are all these networks, and streaming services, all trying things to help them break out and be noticed. That means that they’re looking for off-beat, unusual and quality shows,” Bianculli says. The American TV viewing public, he says, has benefitted most from this shift in direction.
From Breaking Bad—which Bianculli calls “the best show ever,” to Downton Abbey, Modern Family, Justified, and The Good Wife—there’s plenty of fantastic stuff on TV to choose from, he says.
“I sometimes say that you earn your money as a TV critic by having to watch the bad shows all the way through,” he says. “But there’s a lot of great stuff out there, too.” And by focusing on what Bianculli calls “the top 10 percent,” of shows on TV today, he is able to use his writing and broadcasting skills to “turn people on to TV shows they might not discover on their own.”
“I find that very rewarding—it’s probably the best part of the job,” he continues. After four decades of critiquing television shows, Bianculli says that “most of the time, I have a pretty good track record” of pinpointing the winners and clunkers. There have been times, though, that he’s been off-the-mark, like when the success of 1970s hit The Dukes of Hazzard left him “absolutely astounded.”
“I thought so little of it, that I gave it a two-word review: “Kinetic Rednecks,’” Bianculli recalls. But, people’s taste in TV has evolved over the past two decades—keeping up with the increasingly sophisticated programming—that he’s still surprised when a show he predicts for greatness does well.
“It’s really weird, but for the first 20 years, if I really loved a show, it often was endangered. … They would be the ones that took a while to catch on, if at all,” he recalls. “Now, it’s almost the opposite, and I’m sort of still caught off-guard when I like a show immediately and it ends up that a lot of other people do, too.”
Bianculli’s fascination with television goes back to his childhood in Florida, where he grew up alongside the exciting new medium. The younger of two children, his earliest TV memories include Fred Rogers performing with his puppets—this was pre-Mr. Rogers—and watching the annual airing of The Wizard of Oz. By age 6, Bianculli was keeping a diary that focused primarily on TV shows he enjoyed. By high school, Bianculli and his then-widowed father bonded in the evenings over the family’s small black and white TV set.
“It’s going to sound geeky, but it’s a favorite memory. After dinner, and before prime time, my dad and I would play chess and whoever won, got to pick the shows we’d watch that night,” Bianculli remembers.
Attending what was then an experimental high school that had its own TV studio, Bianculli got his first taste of TV production in the early 1970s. He was also an avid writer, contributing to the school newspaper, and interested in theater.
“By the time I got out of high school, I was so excited by journalism, by television and by the arts,” he recalls. He was a student at the University of Florida when he decided to set his sights on a career as a TV critic.
“Since there was no major in that, I took courses that I thought could help me, like statistics, so I could understand ratings; and law, so I could understand FCC regulations,” he says. “I had the desire to do it, but I didn’t really know if it would be possible.”
Things started to come together when, as a senior, Bianculli landed an internship at the Gainesville Sun, working under the auspices of a journalism professor to put out the state news pages.
“It was the greatest internship you could possibly have,” he says. It was also where Bianculli landed that first paying gig as a TV critic. During the internship, his college offered to pay for Bianculli’s graduate degree in journalism in exchange for him teaching an undergraduate writing class. It was a busy two years as he continued writing TV reviews for the Gainesville paper, while teaching and working on his graduate degree.
“By the time I got the master’s [degree in 1977,] I had two years’ worth of clips, which helped me land my first job as a full-fledged TV critic at the Fort Lauderdale News,” he said. After three years at that daily paper, Bianculli moved on to stints at the Akron Beacon Journal (1980-83), the Philadelphia Inquirer (1983-87); the New York Post (1987-93) and finally to its rival, the New York Daily News (1993-2007).
During his years as a full-time newspaper TV critic—where he says he might still be if the world of print journalism were more stable—Bianculli wrote two well-received books, 1992’s Teleliteracy: Taking Television Seriously, and 1997’s Dictionary of Teleliteracy: Television’s 500 Biggest Hits, Misses, and Events.
In 2009, he took on the subject of one of the TV shows that made a huge impression on him as a teenager, the provocative Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, which was cancelled after two memorable seasons. The resulting book, Dangerously Funny: The Uncensored Story of The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, examined how the show—with its mix of comedy, social satire, political irreverence and generation-spanning musical performances—impacted television, and how the Smothers Brothers themselves fared after it was canned.
He’s now at work on a new book that explores how television has continually evolved into a “true art form,” as he calls it. Called The Platinum Age of Television, it sums up “where we are right now … beyond the Golden Age.”
While plenty has changed from the days when Bianculli would drive to local TV stations and watch video cassettes of new shows, to the days when he had 12 analog TVs running simultaneously in his basement, what’s remained constant is his love of the small screen.
“One of the reasons I wanted to be a TV critic was because I figured that everything I cared about—politics, musical theater, journalism, documentaries, sitcoms, dramas—sooner or later, all of it would show up on TV. And it has.”
Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Magazine, Volume 12, Issue 1 (April, 2015).
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