Who dissed “Driving Miss Daisy”? Solving the mystery of onscreen movie reviews

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by Jay Gabler

A few weeks ago I was at my parents’ house in St. Paul, and my father was watching Driving Miss Daisy on Comcast digital cable. Summoning the onscreen program description, he was disgusted to read a capsule review that gave the movie—winner of the 1989 Academy Award for Best Picture—three out of four stars. “Come on!” he exclaimed. “Why would they give Driving Miss Daisy only three stars when they give so many other stupid movies four stars?”

My interest was piqued. Not about why “they” would give the Jessica Tandy film only three stars—I had some ideas about that—but about who, exactly, “they” were. Who writes those onscreen reviews? Tens of thousands of people across the metro area must give those reviews at least some credence, at least some of the time, without having the slightest idea whose judgment they’re trusting.

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I started with an e-mail asking Comcast who wrote their onscreen movie reviews. “Good question,” responded spokeswoman Mary Beth Schubert. After a few days of investigation, she determined that program information came directly from the TV networks. That sent me to WFTC, “My 29,” local affiliate of myNetworkTV. A WFTC spokeswoman promptly returned my voicemail, and seemingly carried her phone around the office trying to find someone who could solve the mystery of the movie reviews. Ultimately the WFTC staff agreed that they sent basic program information (running times, cast members, MPAA ratings) to Comcast, but they swore that they did not supply any editorial reviews.

So it was back to Comcast. After more digging, Schubert discovered that “the two primary providers of guide data for TV networks (including program synopsis and ratings) are TV Guide and Tribune Media Services; we use TV Guide as our data source. It is my understanding that basic program descriptions are based on information provided by the networks themselves; additional descriptions and reviews/ratings are done by editorial staff at TV Guide.”

Progress! I went to the TV Guide Web site, where sure enough, there’s a freely accessible database of movie reviews. And the mystery (wo)man is…anonymous! That’s right: unlike many of TV Guide‘s reviews, the Driving Miss Daisy review is unsigned. I made a stab at getting the TV Guide staff to track down the identity of the secret reviewer, but they seemed to have better things to do.

So we’ll never know who, exactly, dissed Driving Miss Daisy—but at least the online review provides a little explanation as to why the reviewer’s opinion of the movie differs from my father’s. (In point of fact, the online review shows that the onscreen review was rounded down from its original three and a half stars. Still, three and a half ain’t four.)

“Driving Us Crazy that this flick won all those Oscars,” begins the TV Guide review. “Driving Miss Daisy is a blandly liberal if touching and dignified depiction of decent human beings who must live their everyday lives amid the turmoil of historical events.”

Bland? What would my father think of that? I called him and read the review over the phone.

“This guy’s a putz!” cried Dad. “He doesn’t know what he’s talking about! All he wants to watch is Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.” The beauty of Driving Miss Daisy, said Dad, is that “it’s not overstated. It just takes a string of small, mundane, everyday events and puts them together to show you how they led to the growth of this tremendous relationship. It doesn’t speed along—it’s like normal life. Normal life is bland.”

Published on 12/27/08.