Television Without Pity, the website that taught the Internet how to talk about TV, was born in 1998. It was the brainchild of Torontonians Tara Ariano, an editorial assistant, and web designer David Cole, along with Sarah Bunting, a New York records clerk.
In its heyday, the site was a vast repository of TV obsession, a must-read for fans and TV insiders, and a frequent launching pad for writing careers. But at birth it was just dawsonswrap.com, a website where Ariano and Bunting—who met online—wrote about episodes of the teen soap Dawson’s Creek.
Cole, Ariano’s husband, built the site’s infrastructure. Traffic was strong from the outset. “Female-fronted sites were pretty rare back then,” says Ariano. A year in, the three launched Mighty Big TV, an expanded site that recapped more shows. Mighty Big TV soon became Television Without Pity, or TWoP.
TWoP relied on a large team of freelancers to recap episodes of shows like The West Wing, The Amazing Race and Gilmore Girls. The tone of the site’s coverage—now ubiquitous on the Internet—was revelatory at the time. It involved a mix of love, hate, sarcasm and obsessive detail summed up by the site’s motto: “Spare the snark, spoil the networks.” The subjects of that snark didn’t always react well to it. Aaron Sorkin, creator of The West Wing, was an argumentative frequent poster on TWoP forums. Others embraced the feedback. The Russo brothers, who went on to direct the second Captain America movie, say they turned to TWoP for input when directing episodes of the cult comedy Arrested Development.
Eventually, the site became too large for the founders to handle on their own, says Bunting. So in 2007, they agreed to sell it to Bravo, the cable network owned by NBC. It was a brief, uncomfortable marriage of corporate and blog culture. A year after the sale, Cole, Ariano and Bunting left the site. TWoP carried on without them for six years, until a few weeks ago, when Bravo finally shut it down. It turned out that what set TWoP apart was not the name or the infrastructure Bravo bought, but the people behind it—and when they left, the audience followed. (The trio now run Previously.tv, a website dedicated to dissecting TV culture.)
Today, TWoP’s influence lingers in the dozens of websites that now run TV recaps and in the overall “hate, love, love-to-hate” voice of online cultural writing. “It really did literally set the tone of pop culture conversation on the Internet,” says Adam Sternbergh, the culture editor at the New York Times Magazine, and a friend and former collaborator of Ariano’s. It made it OK for a generation of critics and fans to write about TV, long considered a stupid medium, in a very smart way.