I saw the future through a two-way mirror in November 1990. I had just started a new job as a senior editor at Entertainment Weekly, a magazine then less than a year old, and I was sitting in a darkened room with nine or ten other members of the staff, watching a focus group. Page by page, an amiable, den-motherly facilitator led half a dozen of the magazine’s subscribers through a discussion of the latest issue, the cover subject of which was John Lennon, on the occasion of the tenth anniversary of his death. (I would like to think of that cover choice as evidence of the young magazine’s mavericky resistance to the forces of hype, though the truth is that the top editors, veterans of People, thought of dead celebrities as good for newsstand sales.) Toward the end of the session, the focus group got to the back of the book, the pages devoted to reviews of movies, TV shows, CDs, and books—my chief area of responsibility—and I flipped to a clean sheet on my notepad.
The group was asked about the lead piece, a movie review by Owen Gleiberman, a transplant from the Boston Phoenix who was the magazine’s sole film critic at the time. I no longer remember what movie he had reviewed for that issue, or what the assembled readers said about it. What I recall most vividly from that day is what most surprised me: how the people in the focus group brightened when they came to a small box of type set in the corner of the first page of Gleiberman’s prose.
Identified as Critical Mass, the box contained a list of ten movies showing around the country, followed by grades (A-plus, A, and so forth, down to F) assigned to those titles by six movie critics polled by the magazine. Typically, the roll call included Gene Siskel, Roger Ebert, Peter Travers of Rolling Stone, a couple of critics from the big-city dailies, and, always at the end of the list, Gleiberman. The grades tended toward the low side, and C’s were not uncommon. In fact, to check my memory for this article, I went through the EW archives online, and I found the grades to be even lower than I had expected. (Home Alone: two Ds, two C-minuses, a C, and a C-plus.)
Readers treasured this little box, because they perceived its bitsy contents as having great value. Here, handily collated for comparison shopping, was a sampling of expert opinion, instead of one writer’s point of view. Even better, the feature presented those multiple judgments as quasi-rigorous data, rather than words and phrases that might call for the application of thought and might allow for interpretation. Critical Mass was something other than criticism for mass consumption; it was an alternative to criticism, and it suggested that popular artworks should be consumed just like any other goods. A mechanism for the aggregation and the quantification of creative judgment, it prefigured Web sites such as Rotten Tomatoes, Metacritic, and Critic-O-Meter, which have become the go-to places for countless members of the contemporary pop-culture audience whose older brothers and sisters went to places such as Entertainment Weekly.
From that box tucked under the text of a movie review, the conception of arts coverage as a kind of ineffably digestible, data-driven form of service journalism steadily expanded within the pages of EW, and it has since spread far beyond them. The arts criticism in most national magazines, in nearly all newspapers around the country, and even in the arts weeklies has become shorter in length and lighter in tone—where it has survived at all—and the concerns of much of the critical writing published both in print and online have grown progressively commercial: What to watch? What to buy? Is the movie worth the cost of admission? Is the book worth the cover price?