Recapping also trains writers to combine snark and a conversational tone with insight and information—a desirable skill to have these days. The style of writing in the best recaps—relaxed and personal, with more commentary than reportage—has become increasingly common in journalism, especially in pop-culture coverage (which has itself become increasingly common in journalism). Since news outlets no longer have a monopoly on information—minutes after one breaks a story, it’s been re-posted and aggregated all over the Web, easily available, usually for free—what makes a site and its writers distinct are their voices. Take it from Daniel Manu, TWoP’s site director since 2007: “How you write things is often as important as what you’re writing about.”
The origin of the recap dates to 1994, when Daniel Drennan started writing “wrapups” of Beverly Hills, 90210 on the pioneering New York City online bulletin-board system called ECHO (short for East Coast Hangout, a sister of the Well). His take was entertaining; users clamored for more. The wrapups snowballed in size and scope, incorporating opinions on bad writing and terrible acting and commentary on the decadence of the shows’ characters and the pettiness of their problems. He pointed out receding hairlines and terrible outfits and told personal stories tangentially related to what was on the TV screen. Drennan moved the wrapups to his own website the next year. He wrote thousands of words every week; the length, he says now, was intentional: “I do remember everyone talking endlessly about the lack of attention span of online readers, and so I attempted to challenge this, seeing instead the website as providing bottomless pages for me to attempt to fill.” Readers didn’t seem to mind. “To this day, the website gets tons of hits for the wrapups,” he says.
Sarah D. Bunting and Tara Ariano met on Drennan’s site’s forums and quickly became friends, bonding over their shared love of pop culture and TV. When nascent broadcast network The WB began airing a 90210-esque show called Dawson’s Creek in January 1998, Bunting and Ariano added commentary about that show to Drennan’s forums. By the time the second season of Dawson’s Creek began in October 1998, they’d struck out on their own with DawsonsWrap.com. Ariano’s husband, David Cole, did the design; Bunting and Ariano provided the content.
Bunting says they were “inspired” by Drennan; Drennan says they “outright stole” his style. Bunting hired me, so I’m in no position to say who’s right. In any case, though the results were similar, their mindsets couldn’t be more different. Drennan says his wrapups were a “proto-Marxist analysis of American culture,” which was becoming increasingly homogenized due, in part, to television. The Princeton-educated Bunting thought television should be taken seriously as an “artistic medium and valid topic of discussion.” Says Bunting wryly: “Like, I read books also. But I have a bunch of opinions on Real World: Boston.” Drennan’s wrapups asked people to do something better than watch TV; Bunting and Ariano’s recaps asked TV to do something better for the people watching.
Dawson’s Wrap was picked up by an ad portal. In those dotcom boom days, it generated enough traffic to make the portal money “hand over fist,” Bunting says. So they scaled up. The WB had a lock on teen dramas—perfect recap fodder—and the other networks (both broadcast and, increasingly, cable) had plenty of guilty pleasures as well. Dawson’s Wrap became MightyBigTV.com in 1999 to reflect its expanded roster of shows. The writing staff grew accordingly. The new site also began calling its content “recaps” instead of “wrapups.”
One of the first shows on the expanded site’s roster was a new NBC series that seemed destined to be a ridiculous mess. Bunting recalls thinking: “A show about the White House with Rob Lowe in it? Like, that’ll be killed in three episodes.” The West Wing ran for seven seasons and won 26 Emmy Awards, and its popularity on the site showed that there was demand for (and a way to write) recaps of quality shows. Then Survivor debuted in 2000, and networks began rolling out reality shows. The site had plenty to work with.
By the time Mighty Big TV changed its name to TWoP, its success was well-documented (Time rated it as one of the 50 Best Websites in 2002). Other sites wanted a piece of TWoP’s action; soon Salon began recapping shows. Josh Wolk started his “Real World Watch” column on Entertainment Weekly’s EW.com in 2001. One of Wolk’s first orders of business when he moved to Vulture in 2009 was to “multiply” its TV-recap output so the site would become a destination in its own right. “They’re good for traffic,” Wolk says, “provided it’s A: the right show, and B: the right writer.”