The national reaction to the death of Roger Ebert signaled the film critic's ultimate victory in his long-running competition with cross-town Chicago rival Gene Siskel, whose fatal 1999 brain tumor provoked few front-page tributes or sentiments like the Los Angeles Times' headline anointing Ebert as "First citizen critic and father to us all."
In part, the mourning surrounding the loss of Ebert, whose funeral is today, honors his courage and grace in a long battle with cancer, but it also reflects his status as the last of a breed of celebrity film critics.
I met Roger when he interviewed me for the Chicago Sun-Times in 1978 about a silly book I had co-written called The 50 Worst Films of All Time. Seven years later, after he and Siskel left their PBS show Sneak Previews for new programs in commercial syndication, I took over the "aisle seat" he once held. Inevitably, I ran into Roger repeatedly and we "slugged it out" in a 1993 public debate over my argument that Hollywood had broken faith with more traditional, conservative segments of its audience. The Florida Sun Sentinel reported: "Ebert, performing before a genteel but hostile crowd, kept his composure and argued his case well. Medved, with the audience on his side, showed restraint, affection and respect for his opponent."
Of course, the participants in this high-profile event bought tickets to see a pair of contemporary TV stars, not just a couple of bookish movie geeks. At that time, the TV industry sustained three national dueling critic shows while major networks featured colorful critics of their own, including NBC's Gene Shalit and ABC's Joel Siegel. No reviewer today enjoys comparable influence or prominence. Networks and local stations rarely employ regular critics.
The problem doesn't reflect an absence of informed opinion or entertaining observation, but stems from the surplus of such opinion and its unlimited availability on the Internet. Instead of waiting to catch weekly broadcasts of Siskel & Ebert & the Movies, potential moviegoers simply visit Rotten Tomatoes for a quick summary of reviews and a consensus verdict that influences box office results above any individual voice. Twenty years ago, film fans watched critics on TV for our unique ability to give brief tastes of new releases by showing clips as part of our reviews. Today, they can access a far more extensive selection of scenes at the click of a mouse.
One more factor undermines the importance of leading critics: the declining significance of the audience that treks to the multiplex to see a film in the first few weeks after its debut. When Roger and Gene first emerged as celebrated media figures in the 1970s, movies earned most of their revenue in their theatrical American release. Today, films bring in far more through the combination of digital distribution and "physical media" such as DVDs -- not to mention drawing bigger audiences overseas, which further reduces the importance of opening day reviews.
Ebert's passing doesn't signify the end of a richer era of movie-making. Last year's Oscar nominees offered an array of distinguished selections. But it does demonstrate the definitive conclusion to a golden age of movie talk on TV. Even with Jurassic Park stalking screens in its fresh 3D version, no one will bring back the roaring dinosaurs of broadcast film reviewers who once shook the earth with their footsteps.
Syndicated talk-radio host Michael Medved, a member of USA TODAY's Board of Contributors, for 12 years co-hosted Sneak Previews on PBS.
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