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File photo of Roger Ailes, chairman and CEO of Fox News  in Pasadena

Last summer I recounted the time that Roger Ailes tried to get me fired from Nielsen, claiming I had leaked Fox Business News’ bad ratings to The New York Times.

But that wasn’t the first time I had run across Ailes and his modus operandi.  An earlier encounter was almost as revealing of the Ailes ideology of enemies, revenge and hate.

In the mid-1990s, I worked for a PR agency that did a lot of work for NBC, which came to us with those in the business called an “executive transition” assignment. Ailes, then the head of CNBC, had expressed his displeasure with the way things were going. Among other grievances, “America’s Talking,” the cable network he created for NBC, had been taken from his control and changed into MSNBC through a partnership with Microsoft.  He’d indicated that he planned to leave CNBC at some undetermined time in the future. But NBC didn’t want to wait until he jumped.  They were going to push first.

So we created a PR plan announcing that Ailes had resigned and that Bill Bolster, the head of NBC’s New York affiliate, was taking his place.  On January 7, 1996, NBC informed Ailes he was resigning that day, and the day after that we made the announcement.

As executive transitions go, this was pretty benign.  NBC said very nice things about Ailes, and the media played it as we wanted: that this was his decision, which was mostly true.

Ailes, of course, was quickly hired by Rupert Murdoch to create Fox News, a competing cable channel, proving that NBC had been right to force the issue when it did.

So everyone should have been happy, right?

Apparently not, because someone started planting negative stories about the new CNBC management in the New York tabloids — personally nasty stories about the new executives and how much everyone at CNBC hated them.  Whenever Ailes hired someone new away from the CNBC newsroom, this would be the occasion for another negative story. Reporters soon told us that Ailes’ PR guy was behind these stories.

There was really no strategic reason for this vindictive campaign against CNBC.  Ailes gained nothing from it other than revenge. The new Fox News was not going to be competing against a financial news network like CNBC.  It was just nastiness for its own sake.

Ailes went on to create the juggernaut of Fox News and changed American politics forever (it’s also worth mentioning that CNBC itself became an immensely more profitable asset after Ailes left).  You have to wonder, though, the extent to which Ailes’ rage powered his success — and whether it actually was a good thing for the political causes he supported.

The day Ailes died, Ross Douthart tweeted that there were two eras in conservative journalism: the William F Buckley era and the Roger Ailes era.   Buckley’s form of journalism was rooted in intelligent argument, wit, and sunniness.  The Buckley approach to politics reached its climax with the Reagan presidency.  Reagan was considered by his opponents to be an amiable dunce, but he was actually a man of ideas and a Buckley acolyte.

By contrast, Ailes began his career advising Richard Nixon and ended up as a consultant to Donald Trump.  What these three had in common was a burning resentment at real and perceived slights.  They passionately hated anyone who dissed them, starting with the political and media elites.

The Buckley era resulted in the most successful implementation of conservative ideas in a century. And the Ailes approach?  The New York Times’ Bret Stephens made a good point about Ailes and Fox: that they were really in the business of hating the Left, not in pushing conservative causes. Ailes-style candidates gave us one disgraced presidency that resulted in a huge expansion of government, and another presidency on its way to disgrace and the potential destruction of the Republican Party.  That’s some legacy.

Here’s the thing. Ailes was a genius to recognize there was a huge audience for a news network that was not dominated by the liberal elite.  For the Right, Fox news coverage actually was “fair and balanced,” for a change.

But a lot of conservatives can’t stand to watch Fox, with its nastiness, conspiracy theories, anti-intellectualism and endless grievances.  Liberals sometimes conflate conservatism with populism, but they are two entirely different things.  Fox’s goal was to generate huge ratings by stoking resentment, decidedly not a conservative approach.

So when Ailes launched his vengeful campaign against his successors at CNBC in 1996, none of us could understand why he couldn’t just move on.  Little did we know that he was in the process of constructing a network explicitly dedicated to not moving on – to being perpetually outraged.  And maybe it made business sense to keep his audience of older white men in a state of fury.  But let’s not pretend he was successfully making the country more conservative.

Dear White People

Netflix recently debuted the first season of “Dear White People,” a sitcom about the micro-aggressions visited upon African American students at a fictional Ivy League University.  Almost simultaneously ABC’s “black*ish” spun off its own college show starring the show’s oldest daughter Zoey, who leaves the nest to become a college freshman next year.

In other words, after decades of TV not paying attention to a frequently transformative experience that more than half the population goes through, we suddenly have two series about college.

What interests me, though, is not why we now have two shows about college but why we’ve had so few in the past.  There are 20 million people in college at any one time.  Yet in television history there have only been a handful of series set at college.  There was “A Different World,” in which Lisa Bonet, the eldest daughter on “The Cosby Show,” was spun-off into her own show (almost exactly what’s happening with the “black*ish” spinoff).

Then there was “Felicity,” a highly regarded drama set at a New York university that followed the ups and downs of Keri Russell’s title character from her freshman to senior year.  Also there’s the cult classic “Undeclared,” the before-its-time Judd Apatow series about a group of college freshmen at a northern California university.

FELICITY, Scott Speedman, Keri Russell, Scott foley, 1998-2002

And that’s about it, unless you want to count “Community,” which I don’t because it’s really a workplace comedy in which the workplace is a community college.

Television’s reluctance to create shows about college contrasts with the cinema, where some of the most successful comedies (“Animal House,” “Pitch Perfect” and “Legally Blonde”) and dramas (“Good Will Hunting,” “The Social Network,” and “The Paper Chase”) are set on campus.

And why not?  College is frequently one of the most intense, dramatic and ridiculous times in a person’s life.  A writers’ room would be able to come up with enough real-life material to produce dozens of scripts.  And there’s a built-in narrative too.  Students usually start out callow and insecure, proceed through a sometimes-disastrous, sometimes-triumphant period of self-discovery, and graduate as much more mature adults.

Part of the problem might be that although most people go to some kind of college, not that many attend the elite colleges that factor so significantly into the upward mobility aspirations of the upper middle classes.  Millions of students attend two-year community colleges; millions more commute to state colleges and universities.  Many drop out burdened with debt.  It’s hard to depict a college experience that is relevant to a large section of the population when there are so many different ways of attending college.

Then there’s the problem that actors quickly age out of their roles, precluding the possibility of a long run.  Even if the series begins with a group of freshmen they can credibly play their characters only four or five years before viewers start asking why they aren’t graduating.  This was a bigger problem back in the days when a production company dreamed of extending a series to seven or eight years and then cashing in on syndication.  Today, when the name of the game is creating a content library that can be accessed forever or monetized on a streaming service, you don’t need a hundred episodes to turn a profit.  In fact, I’d bet that the single season of Apatow’s “Undeclared” is far more valuable on Netflix than most of the other longer-running series that debuted the same year.

Something else that perplexes me about college TV shows is that they are usually told from the perspective of the students, not the professors or administrators. A show with adult staff at the core (a professor, dean, or admissions officer) would provide anchor characters that could be supported by an evolving cast of students.  Probably the most successful college series was “Coach,” starring Craig T. Nelson as a put-upon college football coach, which lasted nine seasons.  Yet even with the success of “Coach,” most college series focus on student life.

It wouldn’t surprise me if the excellent “Dear White People” were to spark renewed interest in this tiny genre.  A series doesn’t need to attract 20 million viewers to be a success these days.  It just needs to attract a loyal audience who will keep subscribing for the one show they really love.

So I’m looking forward to shows about fractious basketball teams, crusading student newspapers, bored faculty wives, university chaplains who have lost their faith, unrestrained political correctness, and kooky campus security officers.  There are a million stories to tell about college life and a thousand platforms to tell them.

 

 

April tv

On Friday April 7, the New York Times Crossword offered this clue for a six-letter answer at 36-down: “When people meters are used.”  I am embarrassed to admit it was my wife who solved it for me: SWEEPS.

I have three reactions to this clue:

  1. Are People Meters really so well-known for delivering TV ratings that they can be used in a general interest crossword puzzle, even on a Friday?
  2. Not to get too nerdy, but People Meters are not used for sweeps. “Sweeps” are used to measure local markets that don’t have year-round measurement so local markets with People Meters by definition don’t have sweeps.  Paper diaries produce sweeps in non-People Meter markets. No wonder I didn’t get it! I was overthinking it.
  3. Huh. Sweeps. I haven’t thought about sweeps in years.

There was a time when TV was obsessed with sweeps.  The networks would cram all their best programming into the four sweeps periods of November, February, May and July because the ratings for these months would set advertising rates for local TV stations for the rest of the year.  If you had a character who was going to be killed, married or born, you’d do it during sweeps.

Not anymore.  Sweeps ceased to be a major factor a dozen years ago when Nielsen implemented Local People Meters in the largest local markets. And when Nielsen finally phases out diaries next year, sweeps as we have known them for decades will essentially cease to exist.

The clearest indication of the anachronism of sweeps is all the good programming now being aired in April, which is not a sweeps month.  I would go so far as to argue that the week of April 16-23, definitely not a sweeps period, is the best single week for scripted television in years.  Consider the shows running last week: “Girls,” “Veep,” “The Leftovers,” “Silicon Valley,” “Billions,” “Better Call Saul,” “Dr. Who,” “The Americans,” “Fargo” and “Archer.”  My DVR is about to explode.

None of those series are affected by sweeps since they are on cable, but even the networks are serving up a cornucopia of quality programming this month: “Modern Family,” “blackish,” “New Girl,” “Saturday Night Live,” “The Daily Show With Stephen Colbert.” NBC is debuting its new Tina Fey show “Great News” later in the month.

And of course April has seen the return of the baseball season, the launch of the NBA and NHL play-offs, and the Masters.  That’s a lot of TV to watch considering that spring is here and those of us in northern climates are starting to enjoy longer, warmer days.

It’s not just a coincidence involving production schedules that so much great television is airing in April; TV’s evolving business model and its award schedule are responsible.

Until pretty recently, the average TV season comprised 22-26 episodes and the big money came when the series had accumulated about 100 episodes that could be sold for syndication.  So the traditional TV season would kick off in September and end in May, with the episodes essentially spanning those nine months.

A lot of network shows still aim for 22-week seasons but not all.  Season one of NBC’s “The Good Place” comprised only 13 episodes and seems destined for Netflix instead of syndication.  And 13-episode seasons are the norm on cable, although “Girls” and “Veep” have only ten.  When you have 10- or 13-episode seasons you might as well concentrate them in the fall or spring instead of stretching them through the year. If by the end of the series you only have 40 or 50 episodes you can sell it to Netflix or Amazon, which need the content.

Then there’s the impact of the Emmys.  To qualify for an Emmy at least half a season’s episodes need to run by May 31, so April becomes to TV what December is for the movies – the launching pad for award contenders. Presumably the thinking is that Emmy voters are more likely to remember prestige shows that recently aired than ones that ran last fall.

So what we really have now are two seasons of TV: the Money Season, filled with highly rated procedurals, football, prime time soap operas, awards shows, reality shows and other programs that pay the bills; and the Prestige Season, with critically acclaimed but low-rated “quality” television that bring honor and acclaim to a network.

I guess I shouldn’t complain but after months of desperately searching for something interesting to watch, I am now overwhelmed by the bounty of great shows.  I’ll probably still be catching up in July.

 

child-watching-tv

The events of November 8, 2016 delivered a severe psychological blow to many corners of American society, including the boardrooms of television executives.

The election’s impact on TV news, with its higher ratings and Twitter feuds, has been much discussed.  So has the effect of the new president on the increasingly politicized award show category and the re-energized late night segment.

TV critics have been eager to view scripted entertainment through the same political lens.  About “The Americans,” the FX show about Soviet spies operating in the U.S. in the 1980s, The New York Times wrote: “In the light of today’s headlines, this Cold War drama feels newly relevant.”

When “The Man in the High Castle,” an alternate reality show about a 1960s America occupied by Nazis, returned last December, Newsweek said: “Watching in the aftermath of the recent presidential election, on the precipice of Trump’s America, the series feels different.”

And Slate called the new season of “American Crime,” which is focused on an illegal immigrant from Mexico searching for his son in America, “a worthy, Trump-Era successor to ‘The Wire.’” Looking ahead, you can be sure that when “Veep” and “House of Cards” return, we’ll hear similar commentary about their relevance to our time.

Given how long it takes to conceive, write and produce a season of scripted television, it’s a sure bet that none of these shows was intended to be a commentary on Trump’s America.  This is especially true since these shows were mostly written when everyone in Hollywood expected Hillary Clinton to win.

Eventually there will be TV shows that actually do reflect the Trump presidency. That has always been the case.  The disputatious “All in the Family” seemed to embody the Nixon era, while “Dallas,” with its celebration of buccaneering capitalism, could only have been a massive hit during the Reagan presidency.  And “24,” which preyed upon America’s apocalyptic fear of terrorism, provides essential insight into the George W. Bush presidency.

When television finally does deliver a Trump-era show, I doubt it will be an overt political series, which we are already drowning in anyway.  Seriously, how many dramas, sitcoms, soap operas and satires about the White House can television sustain?  And besides, the conventional wisdom about the Trump administration seems to change weekly.  In just three months the Establishment’s view of the Trump presidency has gone from potentially dictatorial to inept to laughable.  Who knows what’s next?  Any show that attempts to deliver direct commentary about Trump runs the risk of quickly getting stale.

A smart television producer would instead wonder how a complete outsider like Trump got elected in the first place and try to figure out what’s in the mind of his supporters.  That would require a pivot away from the upper-middle class lifestyle that was the focus of so much television programming during the Obama years (think “Modern Family” and “black*ish.”)

In another words, a true Trump-era show would dramatize or satirize the lives of middle- and lower-middle-class Americans who are anxious about their status, culture and economic prospects.  This could be a 21st century “Rosanne” with an even more pointed edge. Or a police drama about an immigration and customs enforcement (ICE) squad operating at the border.

If showrunners can’t wrap their heads around what it would be like to be a Trump voter or ICE agent, they could still do a Trump-era show about anti-Trumpers.  This could depict the lives of refugees or undocumented immigrants trying to adjust in America.  There have been recent shows about immigrants (“Fresh Off the Boat” and “Jane the Virgin”) but the characters were (mostly) legal.   I don’t think there’s ever been a show about refugees or the undocumented (unless you count “American Crime,” which is more about the crime than immigration per se.)

It looks like the TV industry is getting the memo that it needs more cultural diversity in its programming.  Last November, ABC’s president of entertainment, Channing Dungey, said at the Content London conference, “With our dramas, we have a lot of shows that feature very well-to-do, well-educated people, who are driving very nice cars and living in extremely nice places.  There is definitely still room for that … but in recent history, we haven’t paid enough attention to some of the true realities of what life is like for everyday Americans in our dramas.”

If ABC and the other networks see a market opportunity among the 63 million Trump voters, then there’s a real potential for a wider variety of stories and perspectives.  And maybe our television entertainment would get even better — even if our politics doesn’t.

 

 

 

welcome-to-twin-peaks-1200x628-facebook

Watching “Twin Peaks” back in 1990 used to fill me with dread, but it’s a different kind of dread I feel now at the show’s impending revival on Showtime.  Do we really need to revisit this series and potentially spoil our memories of one of the weirdest and most original TV shows of all time?

I sure hope series creator David Lynch has something more to say and is not just looking for a paycheck, because it sure seemed that he had already squeezed more out of this tale than it could reasonably bear. Even before it went off the air after 29 episodes, it had run dry of ideas and been reduced to gimmicks and increasingly bizarre plot twists. And then there was a reunion movie, the less said about the better.

The weirdest thing about “Twin Peaks” is that it was on the air at all.  TV in 1990 was dominated by the four major broadcast networks with their paint-by-numbers dramas and prime time soap operas. No one had seen anything like this moody and discursive show, where plot took a back seat to atmospherics, dream sequences and raw emotion. And yet the pilot attracted 34 million viewers and “Who killed Laura Palmer?” briefly became a national obsession, justifying a hilarious parody on Saturday Night Live.

In anticipation of the revival and to see whether the show was actually as good as I remembered, I recently watched the original series on Netflix. To revisit “Twin Peaks” after all these years is to be transported back in time.  The show was so intense and out of the ordinary that even the opening notes of the theme song evoke specific memories of people and places from that era.  (And what a great theme.)

While rewatching “Twin Peaks,” the thing that struck me immediately is how much “Stranger Things,” that recent Netflix homage to the eighties, owes to it.  They were both creepy small-town mysteries with handsome sheriffs trying to combat the evil supernatural forces that thrived out in the dark woods.  Both shows deal with parental angst, class divisions, and bullies.

The difference is that “Twin Peaks” turns up the volume to eleven in every aspect and preys insidiously on the cultural anxieties of the late 1980s.  There’s a sweetness and innocence running through “Stranger Things” that is entirely missing in “Twin Peaks,” where unbridled sexuality, greed and drugs threaten to snuff out all that is good in small town life.

And speaking of small towns, I’ve lived in a few and I can tell you that the percentage of drop-dead beautiful girls is much higher in the town of Twin Peaks than it is anywhere else in the universe.

Twin Paks girls

Twin Peaks Girls 2

This is not what the girls looked like when I was in high school

Even 27 years later, “Twin Peaks” has the power to shock, and not just through the murder of a beautiful girl, which is now a commonplace trope, but through Davis Lynch’s eerie direction and Angelo Badalamenti’s otherworldly musical score.  Lynch also got more disorientation out of oddball casting than anyone, except for perhaps John Waters. He resurrected former “West Side Story” co-stars Richard Beymer and Russ Tamblyn from obscurity, and gave major parts to “The Mod Squad’s” Peggy Lipton and “Carrie’s” Piper Laurie.  Seeing them all in “Twin Peaks” was just plain weird, then and now.

And yet, to be honest, the emotional impact of some scenes is undercut by the overwrought acting.  I actually laughed out loud at the wailing at Laura Palmer’s funeral, which was so over-the-top.  And throughout the whole series the characters show little nuance or depth – they are either good, bad, delusional or perceptive with no grays.

The real man of mystery at the center of the show is FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper, played by Kyle MacLachlan.  Outwardly, Cooper is a model FBI bureaucrat – straight-laced and playing it by the book.  But he’s full of quirks, including his over-enthusiasm for coffee and pie and a habit of dictating his every thought into a tape recorder for an unseen “Diane.” He’s also remarkably intuitive, able to tell at a glance who’s sleeping with whom, and prone to dreaming about dancing dwarves.

As great as it was, “Twin Peaks” is a cautionary tale about extending a series beyond its natural life.  Once Laura Palmer’s murder was solved, there was no reason for the series to continue, but in those days, TV shows ran until their ratings got low enough to be cancelled, which happened just 15 episodes past the murder resolution.

“Lost,” that other popular show with a supernatural mystery at its heart, lasted far longer than “Twin Peaks,” but still tried its viewers’ patience to the breaking point.  More recently, “Mr. Robot” fell into the “Twin Peaks” trap, with a wildly original debut and an audience-displeasing sophomore season.  In the same vein, I am worried about the upcoming second season of “Stranger Things,” given that the first season was a near-perfect extended movie on its own with no need of a sequel.

Despite my reservations about what a contemporary “Twin Peaks” will bring, I’ll definitely watch it.  David Lynch is too great a filmmaker to blow him off.  My curiosity is mounting day by day.   I don’t expect lightning to strike twice, though.  And to be honest, I just hope I can make it through the end of the run.

meryl-streep-golden-globes

Remember those halcyon days when you could turn on a football game or awards show and not worry that you were going to be assaulted by someone’s inane political opinion?  Those were the days, way back in the early 2010’s.

We now live in a world where even a feel-good Budweiser ad can’t be shown during the Super Bowl without splitting the country in two over its purported political message.

As for the awards shows, they have become increasingly mouthy.  Even back in the Age of Obama, when award winners adored the president, they still found something to gripe about.  But now that Donald Trump is in the White House, Hollywood is melting down and the awards shows have become a major platform of dissent.

Meryl Streep, the industry’s grande dame, opened the floodgates with her anti-Trump tirade at the Golden Globes.   Then the SAG awards unleashed nearly a dozen speeches condemning the Administration.  The subsequent Director’s Guild Awards took it easy on the president – only five direct attacks.  As recently as last Saturday night, Streep doubled down at a fundraiser for the Human Rights Campaign and called Trump’s supporters “brown shirts,” a commonly used term for followers of Hitler. And then at the Grammys on Sunday, Busta Rhymes blasted “President Agent Orange.”

And into this environment comes the Academy Awards, the biggest stage of them all.  The Oscars show is usually the most-viewed non-football broadcast of the year.  It’s one of those special live events that keeps some people holding off on cord-cutting just a little while longer.

But while there is no official anti-Hollywood Oscar boycott in the works (not yet at least), there does seem to be considerable word-of-mouth chatter among Trump voters that this is the year to skip it.  I’m surprised by the number of people who have told me they won’t watch because of the politics.

This could be more than an idle threat.  In 2008, the left-leaning Jon Stewart delivered the least watched Oscar broadcast in history, drawing just 31.7 million viewers.  By 2015, the number of viewers had climbed back to 37.3 million but last year, in the middle of the #OscarsSoWhite controversy, viewership fell back to 34.4 million.

Even if ABC and the Academy would like to see politics kept out of the ceremony, and they probably do, there’s no way for them to accomplish that.  For starters, there’s the case of the Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi, whose film “The Salesman” is nominated for best foreign language film.  As a foreign national from one of the seven countries from which the Trump Administration suspended travel, Farhadi would have been prevented from coming to the U.S. if the travel pause hadn’t been suspended. He still might not attend in protest (and of course if the pause is reinstated by February 26, he will be officially shut out again).    Given that he is someone directly affected by a government policy, Farhardi becomes a potent symbol for Hollywood “resistance.”

Farhardi won the Oscar in 2012 for the excellent “A Separation” and would have been a favorite again this year, even without the martyred status.  Now, if there’s anything more certain than “La La Land” getting the best picture it’s an Oscar for “The Salesman” and a righteous speech by whomever is designated to accept on his behalf.

But if Farhardi has a legitimate reason to make a political statement, what’s the excuse from the fine folks who brought us “La La Land”?  If Ryan Gosling wins Best Actor is he going to mention that he’s an immigrant (albeit from Canada)?

“La La Land” is a lovely movie, but it’s a self-reverential paean to the movie-making industry itself and the fact that it is poised to win a slew of awards demonstrates what’s so aggravating about the political posturing at the Oscars.  After all, this is a movie about a white guy who wants to save Jazz from bastardizers like the African American bandleader played by John Legend.  Its hands aren’t exactly clean on the political correctness front.

The entertainment business is as brutally capitalistic as any industry in America, with a price tag applied to everything and executives who are as richly rewarded as you can get.  Male actors are routinely paid more than females.  By constantly portraying Muslims as terrorists Hollywood has done more to shape negative perceptions of Islam than any other institution in the country.  It doesn’t take much courage to stand up before a group of film colleagues and criticize Donald Trump.  It would take a lot more courage to criticize the industry itself.

Until now, conservative viewers have responded to the Oscars’ political speeches with bemused eye-rolling but in today’s hyper-politicized environment they might now be so forgiving.  We’ll know whether they voted with their eyeballs on February 27, when the ratings come out.

westworld

Is it fair to pop off about a television show you’ve never seen?  Must you remain silent at the water cooler when your colleagues are discussing a series that has never graced your TV screen?

In a world with 500 scripted TV shows and countless reality series, this is more than an academic question.  No one has the time to watch more than a sliver of contemporary TV content, but chatter about TV is everywhere — and who wants to miss out on the fun conversations?

The extravagant lead-up to the debut of HBO’s “Westworld” and my subsequent aversion to it got me thinking about this.  Initially intrigued by the premise of an adult theme park in the form of an old West town populated with humanoid robots, I was soon repulsed by warnings that the misogynistic male visitors raped, tortured and killed the female robots. I watched exactly one-minute of the series premiere before deciding, nope, don’t want to watch robot rape.  And yet a lot of people were talking about it.

But not watching the series hasn’t stopped me from having a strong opinion about it.  I know the show has intellectual and artistic ambitions and is ultimately supposed to be a meditation on artificial intelligence and the definition of humanity.  And I gather that the violence perpetrated by the flesh-and-blood characters raises questions about whether humans are really all that great in the first place.

So based on watching just one minute of the show, my official opinion is this: All the intellectualizing in the world doesn’t justify the soul-deadening depiction of brutality that is central to the show.  I just don’t want to become inured to violence by watching too much of it on TV.

Is that a valid opinion?  I don’t know for sure, because, you know, I’ve never actually watched the show.  The point is that I have a fairly well-informed opinion in the first place.

The reason I’m confident in my judgment is that when a new series makes a play to be a cultural event, a whole buzz-making industry swings into action.  First comes the in-network promos, teasing the show months ahead of time. Then come the traditional media ads, followed by the online ads.  Multi-episode screeners are mailed to the critics, who dutifully write reviews, first in legacy print publications and then online.

Then the podcasts begin – just about every critic has one, and if the show is important enough, it will get chewed over on dozens of them.  There will be tweets while the show is airing, and about a week or two later the thumb-sucking opinion pieces will start. maybe there will be one in the New York Times Arts section, followed by a commentary on that piece in Slate.  And if the network is really lucky, the show runner will be interviewed on “Fresh Air.”

In other words, if you’re interested in TV, you cannot escape knowing a lot about shows you don’t watch.

And once the buzz-making machine starts, there will be in-person discussions at work, at dinner parties, and family gatherings, when people desperate to find a connection start asking what each other TV shows they watch.

At this point you can either 1) interrogate the people who are watching the show and ask what they think, in order to make your opinions more fact-based, or 2) you can throw caution to the wind and start telling everyone else what YOU think, while carefully avoiding the fact that you don’t even watch the show.  I’ve followed both strategies, and found that you can definitely get away with faking it, because there’s a chance that your interlocutor is faking it too.

How many people have opined about “Downton Abbey” even though they gave up during the first season?  These folks probably have something to say about whether it was good idea to kill off Cousin Matthew regardless of whether they watched that episode.  Similarly, leading up to the “Mad Men” series finale, everyone seemed to have a point of view about whether Don Draper should die at the end.

This strategy doesn’t work for just scripted shows.  I’ve watched not a second of a “Real Housewives” episode, nor learned to tell the Kardashians apart — but I’m more than happy to weigh in on the merits of those shows. It’s not strictly ethical, but it’s not that different from commenting on “Fifty Shades of Grey” without cracking the book.

There are worse sins in the world than stealing other people’s opinions (maybe we should call it “plagiar-pining”).  You could, for example pretend to have read “Moby Dick” in your book group.  Somehow literary fakery seems worse than telling people what you think of Rick Perry’s performance on “Dancing With The Stars” without the concomitant viewing.

So I say, what the heck?  Jump into the conversation. But don’t lie outright about watching something you haven’t seen.  There are so many other ways to fake it.  Just act like a politician.