i-9e8e9d4c663c2c5832a08483e2dde68f-Virginia Heffernan.jpg
Anyone who has spent an afternoon at a site such as iFilm Viral Video or YouTube can attest to how addictive online video can be. Some of it’s funny, some of it’s stupid, some of it’s classic. But the problem is finding the good stuff, as the most popular videos and the ones with the highest user ratings aren’t always the best videos.

When it comes to the vast wasteland of 500-channel TV, at least we have the army of TV critics to help shepherd us to the good stuff. Or at least try. But can we convince this rambunctious, skeptical bunch of critics to get up from their overstuffed couches and start critiquing our favorite online material?

Luckily, we have one champion in the making, and she works at one of the most important news outlets, the New York Times. Virginia Heffernan, a TV critic for the Times (pictured above), has started to dip her toes into the interactive waters.

First she looked at MTV Uber, a broadband channel filled with “vaguely depressed” young adults, according to Heffernan. Then came a full-on review of AOL Coaches, a self-help series of online workshops. And finally, Heffernan struck gold with a look at “Brokeback Mountain” parodies and mashups.

“I noticed that the one thing people were forwarding me the most was the ‘Brokeback’ parodies,” Heffernan told me. “And I thought my parents haven’t seen these. I figured people might be sick of these by now, but after I wrote about them, people just loved that article, and they forwarded around that article, and I heard a lot about it. No one had written to me at all about the other articles.”

Heffernan might be in the right place at the right time — with the right yen for convergence media. She already experienced the boom and hype of the dot-com era, working at the spectacular synergistic bust, Talk magazine, the failed project of Tina Brown and Miramax. But she counts herself as a true believer, someone who sees convergence as finally becoming a reality for TV and the Internet.

“They told us about convergence — what, 11 years ago? — and that it was right around the corner,” she said. “And I thought it was never going to happen, or never be as exciting as people had hoped it would be. And then eight months ago, it was suddenly here. Broadband opened up, and there was all this video on the news sites, and you could get ‘Desperate Housewives’ and ‘Lost’ on iTunes, and people were forwarding random video by email.

“I have enthusiasm for all that. Maybe other people feel more cynical about it, but I am excited about it, and I love reading about it. And now that there’s YouTube and GorillaMask.net, I’m on them all the time and it’s cutting into my television watching. I wanted to find a way to write about it.”

So far, her pieces in the Times have an exploratory feel about them — part lifestyle piece, part review. It’s possible that she might end up doing capsule reviews of online content — on the Times website, naturally.

Do TV critics have the bandwidth?

While Heffernan has the luxury of an editorial staff that is starting to “get it” when it comes to online video, other TV critics have to battle for space in the newspaper, or must somehow find the time to sift through all the online content.

Rob Owen, the TV editor at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and the president of the TV Critics Association, thinks newspapers will have to review online content, but he’s not sure exactly who has the time to do it.

“The criticism of online is only going to grow,” Owen told me. “But at some point you start to run out of hours in the day. If you’re a TV critic, you’ve already maxed out those hours because of cable. And you might also cover local television, as I do and many others do. Then getting to look at anything on the Internet is difficult. I think there’s going to be more of it, but it remains to be seen who will be doing that coverage.”

Diane Werts, the New York Newsday TV critic, said she would love to cover more online material, but her editors aren’t clued in quite yet to the viral video revolution. Werts likened the situation to cable TV’s rise in the mid-‘80s. So far, her reviews of online material have been limited to bits in a Saturday “Off the Wall” column.

“I would love to do more [reviews of online material], but the problem is…it’s sort of like when cable became big, and you had these editors who didn’t understand what this cable thing was and didn’t want you to cover it,” Werts told me. “I feel like I’m at the same point. I wanted to do a series on the migration of content to iPods and online, but my editors were like, ‘That’s fine but first you need to write about these 15 network shows.’ And these shows are mostly not good and won’t be on the air for more than three weeks.

“The issue is time and space and convincing an editor that 100,000 people downloading something is as important as 10 million people watching ‘American Idol.’ It’s hard but I think a lot of critics are like me, and the most fun thing is finding good stuff and letting readers know that it’s there — not just expounding on things that everybody knows. But that’s what most editors want.”

Werts told me that after she got a video iPod and discovered the video-downloading technology BitTorrent, she was wowed by the content online. She realized that a lot of creative people were doing content for the web, as a cheap way to strut their stuff versus having to spend $7 million to do a full-blown TV pilot. She’s convinced that the Internet will become a breeding ground for new TV talent, just as the cartoon “South Park” started life as a pass-around video clip.

“I think we have to write about this,” Werts said. “I think that if TV critics don’t start writing about it, we’ll be obsolete. I think that’s where it’s going. But we’re still in this ecomony of the mass, and we have to write about the hits that everyone knows about. At a certain point, those are not going to be as relevant to a new generation — kind of like newspapers, unfortunately.”

Do you think newspaper TV critics should start spending more time watching and reviewing online video instead of mainstream TV? What should they discontinue covering to make room for online reviews? Should papers employ a critic that only looks at interactive programming? Or should we look for a new online-only venue for editorial reviews of online video? Tell us your thoughts in the comments below.

UPDATE: Aaron Barnhart, who is the TV critic for the Kansas City Star and blogs at TVBarn.com, told me that he doesn’t review online material yet, but will in time.

“Nothing out there has grabbed me yet,” he said via email. “I’m going through the publishing process with my wife and discovering a TV critic’s job is increasing becoming like Publishers Weekly…thousands of titles out there, but only a fraction even get looked at…For sure, TV critics should review [online material]. We need to be shifting our reviews online anyway. There’s a tendency to aim for the heavily publicized shows when preparing print reviews. Online, not so much. I enjoy reviewing worthy shows regardless of stature, and will do so on TV Barn when the paper isn’t interested.”

Related