Television Without Pity

Will corporate ownership ruin a cult Web site?

Last week, the Bravo network (which is owned by NBC Universal, which in turn is a subsidiary of General Electric) announced that it had added the Television Without Pity Web site to its “portfolio of linked digital assets.” In the same eye-glazingly jargon-filled press release, Bravo President Lauren Zalaznick describes TWoP as an “online brand destination.” That inert chunk of corporate media-speak can’t help but send a chill down the spine of the many readers—about a million unique visitors a month—who treat the site like a frayed and lumpy couch on which to plop down next to their funniest friends and heckle the show of their choice. Will the conversion of TWoP into a network brand smooth out the idiosyncrasies that make the site such a grumpy, stubborn, and endearingly unnavigable place?

Far be it from me to bemoan TWoP’s good fortune in landing the Bravo deal, or Zalaznick’s good taste in snapping them up. To lament the acquisition as a surefire sign of the site’s imminent decline would be ungracious, like refusing to celebrate when your brilliant but perpetually broke friend finally lands a high-paying job. But—to paraphrase what Woody Allen said to Mariel Hemingway, his disturbingly underage girlfriend, at the end of Manhattan—I just don’t want those things that I like about TWoP to change. Here are a few of them:

1) Rambling recaps. The episode summaries that constitute the site’s main body regularly exceed the 15-page mark (though exactly what constitutes a “page” is no doubt jiggered to encourage page views). This sky’s-the-limit word count gives recappers the freedom to go nuts and develop the unique voices that assure them such passionate reader followings. Some recaps are detailed enough to read like a storyboard. Others transcend series-specific mockery to poke fun at the medium itself, like this riff on a moment from 24: “In casual civvies, Aaron carries a grocery bag along a row of neat little bungalows, in blatant violation of the federal ordinance requiring that all TV grocery bags have a giant baguette and a leafy stalk of celery sticking out of the top of them.”

Because of its sheer length, the recap genre can give rise to shaggy-dog flights of fancy that re-create with eerie verisimilitude the experience of sitting in front of the TV with a pop-culture-savvy and possibly bong-wielding roommate. Recapper Alex Richmond, in her blisteringly funny recaps of Sex and the City, free-associated on Sarah Jessica Parker’s outlandish wardrobe: “Carrie is wearing yet another goddamn oversize knit rasta hat, this time in gradations of earth tones, as if Fraggles got in a turf war with Smurfs and wrestled away all the bright colors and demanded that now, under their rule, all large cartoonish hats mimic the colors of the earth, because everyone knows Fraggles are pagan and Smurfs ravers so respect it, yo.” After the sale to NBC, will TWoP recaps be allowed to stay this weird?

2) Talmudic forum commentary. Comment threads on TWoP can easily run into the hundreds of pages per discussion, with a dozen or more separate discussion threads per show. Clubby cult shows with small viewing audiences tend to develop larger TWoP apparatuses than smash hits: By far, the two most-commented-on shows in the current TWoP lineup are Veronica Mars and Gilmore Girls. Nor are the boards reserved for snark alone. Fans known as “shippers” (short for “relationshippers”) earnestly root for the eventual reuniting of their favorite TV couples (Luke and Lorelai on Gilmore Girls, for example). Watchers of Lost and 24 sift through past episodes to speculate about the shows’ master narratives, or to argue about which tie-in novels, online games, and other Lost para-phenomena constitute a legitimate part of the show’s “canon.”

Sure, obsessive fan-chat exists everywhere on the Web, but I don’t know of any place that catalogs it as extensively and precisely as the Television Without Pity forums. And thanks to the iron fists of the forum moderators—more on that below—the caliber of the discussion remains consistently high, whether or not you give a damn about the show in question. To quote a recent poster in the Lost forum titled “Bitterness Fiesta” (a destination for viewers disgusted with the show’s increasingly senseless plotline): “I’m going to rely on the good people here at TWoP to keep me updated on this trainwreck of a series. And, honestly, reading the boards is INIFITELY more entertaining than sitting through an hour of this show.”

3)Rigid forum moderation. Thanks to a less-than-elegant search feature in the forums, you might have to click through a dozen or more pages of commentary to read feedback on even one episode. Indeed, you’re all but required to navigate the site’s backwaters: A tip on the Forum Dos and Don’ts page advises that new posters refrain from posting in a thread until they’ve read “at least the last fifteen pages or days of content.” This stern admonition is typical of the didactic, at times authoritarian, tone that TWoP takes toward its readers—a rarity in the democratic free-for-all of Internet boards, where poorly spelled iterations of “OMG Tayler Hix is sooo lame!!!” pass as meaningful cultural dialogue.

The site’s founding editors, Sarah D. Bunting and Tara Ariano (known on the site under the screen names Sars and Wing Chun), are former lit majors who met in a Beverly Hills 90210 chat room. They run a tight ship. The recapper of each individual show—currently, about 40 series are actively followed—doubles as the moderator for that show’s multiple discussion threads. Every few pages, the author/moderator will check back in like a den mother—not to rid the threads of bad language or, as some TWoP-haters have contended, to censor posts that disagree with their own views, but to police the boards for repetition, digression, and sheer inanity. And stinging though it may be to receive a rap from a moderator’s ruler, that level of intervention is what keeps TWoP threads free from the semiliterate trolls who tend to hijack online message boards. As one TWoP reader posted in a forum on the Bravo sale, “I like brains on my boards. Poor spelling and grammar make baby Jesus cry.”

In this recent discussion of The Amazing Race, note how the moderator, Miss Alli, smacks down a discussant who threatens to veer OT (off topic). Even more surprising is the poster’s chastised response: “I’ll watch it next time.” When they’re told to mind their Ps and Qs, TWoP readers listen. That, or they defect from the site entirely and go elsewhere to gripe about the moderators and their authoritarian “power trips.”

Personally, I’m charmed by the sadomasochistic dynamic between TWoP and its readers. The site’s expectation that its readers be thoughtful writers, too, is a refreshing change from the usual blog ethic of egalitarian mediocrity. But how will these quirks play with the far broader base of viewers the site seeks to attract in its post-Bravo incarnation? In order to appeal to a mass audience, will Television Without Pity have to show a little pity after all?