The Most Famous Thumbs on TV

In the days leading up to the Oscars, I thought about which movies I had seen and which movies I had interest in seeing. When both of those lists were short, I thought about what a sharp contrast this was to several years ago when Siskel and Ebert had a near monopoly on televised film reviews, and even if I didn’t see many movies, I was very much aware of them – their plot, their stars, their likelihood of success.

Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert were pioneers of film criticism. Long before the internet prompted millions of amateur critics to endlessly discuss films, there were Siskel and Ebert. Two newspaper guys from Chicago: Siskel wrote for the The Chicago Tribune and Ebert for the cross town rival paper, the Chicago Sun Times. Their television series, with several different names, ran from 1975 to 1999.

The set was based on a movie theater, and Siskel and Ebert sat in balcony seats where they discussed and debated the latest releases.

They disagreed a lot.

They gave movies a thumbs up or thumbs down as a summary line review on the movie, to indicate whether it was worth seeing. This was a split from longstanding movie review tradition of rating a movie by a number of stars or another symbol. As the show gained traction and viewership, movie studios proudly advertised when one of their movie received the rare “two thumbs up” endorsement from Siskel and Ebert. The phrase was trademarked in in 1995.

When they argued, it was often an enjoyable conversation between two longtime colleagues who knew and respected one another. Perhaps Ebert would find a movie poorly written, and the movie would not hold his attention, where Siskel by contrast indicated he was drawn into an actor’s performance.

The uncertainty, the question of whether the movie would get two thumbs up, two down, or a split vote, was the high point, and sometimes the only point, of drama and suspense in a show that defied many conventions of TV.

Here they are discussing the Oscar nominees in 1990:

Ebert, who died in 2013, and Siskel, who died 1999, were not typical TV hosts. They were not exceptionally well groomed nor well dressed. They were newspaper critics, and they dressed like the working journalists they were. They spent most of the show talking, first to the camera and then to each other, about what they had watched that week. The hosts made the viewer feel they were real discussions, not two actors playing to the audience. The series was an unlikely hit, and an influential TV program. Siskel and Ebert’s show reached a wider audience than their combined newspapers did.

Film criticism is tough to make into a TV show. It exists more comfortably in a written form, in order to accommodate a back and forth between viewpoints. Nothing about it demands a visual, so reviews do not make naturally good TV. But here we had two guys on TV, talking movies, with authenticity and passion.

More recently, online marketing and social media has replaced the movie reviewer. Readership of reviews is down, viewership of trailers is up. This is in part due to a decline in the readership of newspapers and other print publications. There are fewer film critics on television and radio in the last thirty years, and the conversation has changed. Now reporters put a focus on the box office sales. In general, arts criticism does not hold the same place it once held. I am watching fewer movies. I miss Siskel and Ebert.

Leave a Reply