'We Were Definitely Tweeting Before Twitter'

A Q&A With Television Without Pity Director Daniel Manu

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It's TV Week at Ad Age -- you've already devoured our special TV Issue package, right? -- and to extend the festivities, today we present a conversation with Daniel Manu, director of Television Without Pity (TWoP), which is part of Bravo's portfolio of digital properties. This is the third in a series of follow-up interviews with selected winners of the inaugural Media Vanguard Awards. (Esquire Editor in Chief David Granger was the first; Entertainment Weekly Managing Editor Jess Cagle was the second.)

Simon Dumenco: Television Without Pity's Media Vanguard Award citation read, in part, "Right from the start the site -- which actually began as a 'Dawson's Creek' recap site back in 1998 -- dramatically elevated the discourse about pop culture and, in doing so, showed web publishers how to build vibrant communities of smart, witty, loyal commenters." Which is nice claim to fame and a noble bit of history, but it also suggests a huge challenge, because now a zillion sites are doing smart talk about pop culture and specifically doing TV-show episode recaps. So how do you keep TWoP at the center of that conversation and fend off the copycats?

Daniel Manu
Daniel Manu

Daniel Manu: Well, you're certainly right that we do have more competition than ever before. I think where Television Without Pity still remains distinct is that we cover more shows than anyone else, and we're much more fan-centric -- we don't just cover shows that we think are somehow worthy from a critical point of view. Some of the shows we cover are by objective criteria terrible shows but incredibly entertaining and very fun to recap, while on the other hand there are some show that are very good but hard to recap, uninteresting to recap, that we don't cover.

We certainly recap more reality shows and sci-fi shows than anybody else out there, any one site. We also still pride ourselves in having the longest recaps out there. I mean, some of our writers can go 15 to 20 pages on an episode of a show, so we still do that incredibly in-depth, almost minute-by-minute snarking that the site was famous for from the beginning.

Mr. Dumenco: Ever calculate the word-count ratio? Like, recap-to-script-length word count?

Mr. Manu: No, but certain ones we've definitely tipped the scale. We definitely have more words in some of our recaps than a 43-minute scripted show does, for sure. Definitely. Our stuff is just incredibly fun to read, which is why it continually generates so much traffic for us. People who are hardcore fans of these shows aren't just looking for dry synopses, because they've already watched the show, they know what happened. What they love is the minute-by-minute commentary that site is famous for -- because that's the way people watch a lot of the shows we cover: either with your friends or in your head or talking online with people, you sort of snark on a minute-by-minute level. And if you go on Twitter during broadcasts, you see that people are commenting minute-by-minute. That's something that Television Without Pity was doing years before Twitter.

Mr. Dumenco: You really anticipated a lot of the conversation that would eventually be on Twitter, pre-Twitter.

Mr. Manu: We were definitely tweeting before Twitter. But to your larger point, it's still a constant challenge that we relish in terms of differentiating ourselves from our competition, which is why we're constantly expanding and thinking of new ways to take the brand, take the sensibility, to places it hasn't gone before. In the past year we've done a lot with mobile, with apps, we've done a lot in the social-media space. We've started doing a lot in the last couple years with movies. The Movies Without Pity Awards was a big success for us earlier this year. And we created a section called Talk Without Pity, which is a very unique social-media dashboard specifically created for TV fans.

Mr. Dumenco: The divide between 140-character-or-less tweeting and what Television Without Pity does is really interesting to me because, at their best, TWoP recaps, as funny as they are, can almost come off scholarly, like a master's thesis, in terms of depth. I mean, showrunners have even been known to read TWoP to understand their own shows better. [In a 2008 interview, Tina "30 Rock" Fey said, "I've been known to check Television Without Pity sometimes after an episode airs because I feel like those people who post on there are generally very thoughtful and it's not like a site where people are just saying 'That sucked'.... They really kind of review the episodes from an intelligent place. So sometimes it'll just affirm, or if I wasn't sure about an episode, how it went over."] So on the one hand, the audience is sometimes interested in just sort of drive-by snark about TV, and on the other hand it's almost like they come to you for a master's class on the deconstruction of pop culture.

Mr. Manu: That's a perfect analysis. You're right about the scholarly thing. Many of our writers over the years have been, in fact, graduate students. We have very smart writers who have a very broad frame of reference that goes beyond just what aired on TV last night or last week. Depending on the writer, some of the flights of fancy and the references get very esoteric, very academic and very different than what you're going to see on other sites.

Mr. Dumenco: Remind me how long ago was it now that Bravo bought Television Without Pity from its creators [Tara Ariano, Sarah D. Bunting and David T. Cole]?

Television Without Pity is part of Bravo's portfolio of digital properties.
Television Without Pity is part of Bravo's portfolio of digital properties.

Mr. Manu: Bravo purchased it in March of 2007.

Mr. Dumenco: So over four years now. You know, at the time I remember fans of the site were worried about it being ruined not only by conglomerate ownership [Bravo is a unit of NBC Universal], but there were concerns about how TWoP would cover its parent company's shows. But it's pretty clear that you're more than happy to trash Bravo shows if they deserve it.

Mr. Manu: Right, and other NBC Universal shows. It's definitely been an incredibly unique situation for me. I previously worked at places like TV Guide, AOL Television and Sony Online and I can honestly say I've never had this amount of editorial freedom in any place I've worked. We've never, ever been asked to go easy on something, to change something because it offended somebody internally. Our editorial integrity has been respected in ways that I never even imagined it could be.

Mr. Dumenco: So Bravo and NBC Universal leave you alone editorially, but they don't ignore you -- because clearly they keep reinvesting in the site. I mean, the backing from a conglomerate has certainly been nice as you've expanded aggressively into mobile platforms, for instance.

Mr. Manu: Yeah, exactly. Bravo has given us so many resources in terms of being able to do all the things that we've done over the past few years. Apps take money to develop, and we've completely changed our publishing platform over the last couple of years. Nothing we've done in the last few years would have been possible without the resources afforded to us by Bravo and NBCU.

Mr. Dumenco: What's your audience now?

Mr. Manu: Every year since Bravo bought the site has been the site's biggest year ever. I can email you specific numbers later.

[Here's what Mr. Manu sent: "TWoP had its best year ever for unique visitors in 2010, with 1.3 million average uniques per month, an 8% increase over 2009, the site's previous best year ever. Source: Omniture. TWoP averages 40 to 45 million pageviews per month, with fluctuations dependent on the month/season. Source: Omniture. TWoP users average 8 minutes per day on the site, making TWoP's audience the most engaged among its competitor set, which includes EW.com, TV.com, TVGuide.com, Zap2It, IMDB, E! Online, AOL TV, Yahoo TV, Futon Critic, etc. Source: comScore.]

Mr. Dumenco:Hey, what's your personal TV obsession right now?

Mr. Manu: Wow. I watch 50 or 60 hours a week, so I'm not necessarily a typical user, but like a lot of people I'm definitely entranced by HBO's "Game of Thrones." I'm following "The Killing" on AMC. There are a ton of reality shows I watch, I'm a huge fan of FX and I think the CW's "Vampire Diaries" is one of the best and most underrated shows on TV. Of course, gotta have my "Gossip Girl" every week. And "Community" and "Parks and Recreation" are flat-out brilliant sitcoms.

Mr. Dumenco: Actually, I think "Gossip Girl" is a pretty great sitcom, too.... OK, one last question: What show needs to exist that doesn't yet exist? To put that question in context, as part of Ad Age's TV Issue this week, I wrote a sort of crystal-ball future of television, and I predicted that NBC Universal would launch something called The Dancing with the Pregnant Teen Children of Real Housewives Network. Since that was published, people have said to me, basically, "That sounds entirely possible."

Mr. Manu: Yeah, I agree, and then if you throw Mormons and ice-road truckers into that mix, then people having a lot of babies, you might have the highest-rated network of all time. You may want to put a copyright symbol after that one.

Mr. Dumenco: I didn't think of ice-road truckers! And you're right, Mormons!

Mr. Manu: I feel like Mormon Ice Road Truckers would be a great show to watch. All the wives could help drive the trucks in the convoy and then they could maybe have dance-offs at pitstops and things like that.

Mr. Dumenco: Yeah, definitely. And there's room in the back of the truck for the whole family.

Mr. Manu: Exactly. You've gotta transport all those kids somehow.

Edited and condensed from a longer interview.

Simon Dumenco is the "Media Guy" media columnist for Advertising Age. Follow him on Twitter @simondumenco.

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