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The Siskel and Ebert Wannabes

In this excerpt from The Ringer’s narrative podcast series ‘Gene and Roger,’ Brian Raftery examines the Siskel and Ebert effect on film criticism—and the many shows that tried to copy their winning formula

When Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert first teamed up in the ’70s, no one had seen—or heard—anything quite like them before. But throughout the ’80s, the small screen would become full of movie critics trying to imitate Gene and Roger’s style—and replicate their success.

Whenever Gene and Roger became frustrated with their job, or their bosses, they’d simply take their business elsewhere. It happened in 1982 when, after growing unhappy with PBS—the company that had launched their TV careers—Gene and Roger signed a syndication deal with Tribune Entertainment. And it happened again a few years later, when they fled Tribune and landed million-dollar contracts with Walt Disney’s television division to start a new show, which would eventually be titled Siskel & Ebert.

Every time Siskel and Ebert quit their gigs, they left behind a pair of empty chairs—chairs their ex-bosses were eager to fill. But that was easier said than done.

In 1982, not long after Siskel and Ebert announced they were leaving the original Sneak Previews, its producers began hunting for their replacements. The show was so popular that nearly 300 critics applied for the job. Eventually, producers settled on film critics Michael Medved and Jeffrey Lyons. Their setup was nearly identical to Gene and Roger’s: two people sitting in a theater, showing footage from the latest releases, and arguing whether the movie deserved a “yes” or “no.”

But something about the formula for the new Sneak Previews just felt ... off. Medved and Lyons didn’t have the long-running relationship Gene and Roger had. Without that history, Medved and Lyons were just two guys talking about movies on TV. And they did that in a way that was much more scripted, and much less loose, than Gene and Roger did it.

A similar feeling hung around the other show Gene and Roger had left behind in the ’80s, At the Movies, which was relaunched with new hosts: Rex Reed and Bill Harris.

These new hosts may have struggled to replicate Siskel and Ebert’s success, but that didn’t stop lots of other people from trying. By the mid-’80s, movie critics were popping up all over: on local newscasts, on showbiz “news” shows, and even on kids’ TV.

To be clear: Many of these on-screen critics were actual film critics, like writer and historian Leonard Maltin, who reviewed movies for Entertainment Tonight. Maltin had credibility. But some of the new on-air movie critics were total amateurs—Nickelodeon’s Rated K for Kids By Kids simply featured teens reviewing movies—and that was supposedly part of their appeal. Hosts like this stood in stark contrast to Gene and Roger, sophisticated critics who’d broken through by presenting themselves as relatable, semi-average-joe film lovers.

It wasn’t just Gene and Roger’s chemistry—their ability to make every conversation feel spontaneous and combustible—that allowed them to remain the most popular critics on TV. It was the fact that, after a decade together, they’d become a trusted brand. In 1986, Siskel and Ebert’s syndicated Disney series debuted in nearly 90 percent of the country’s TV markets—an impressive number for a new show. And in the years ahead, none of the replacement critics could ever match Siskel and Ebert’s ratings. Their millions of viewers simply followed Gene and Roger wherever they went.

This glut of sorta-kinda movie critics on TV was partly a result of Hollywood economics. By the ’80s, studios were spending more of their time and money promoting their films on TV. Publicists were happy to supply footage from their latest blockbusters to any show that would take it, free of charge. Movie-review shows were easy to make, and impossible to avoid. And they had their own critics, many of whom took out their frustrations on Gene and Roger.

Throughout their career together, Gene and Roger had enjoyed a mostly cozy relationship with the press. But that was set to change as more and more critics filled the airways.

Brian Raftery is the author of Best. Movie. Year. Ever.: How 1999 Blew Up the Big Screen. His work has appeared in Wired, New York, and GQ.