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MB Q&A: Michael Ausiello

TV Guide's favorite spoiler is an admitted "TV-fan-slash-journalist"

By Joel Keller - March 6, 2006

Michael Ausiello loves television. As a senior writer for the print and online versions of TV Guide, Ausiello delivers news items and spoilers on hot shows including Lost, Grey's Anatomy, and Gilmore Girls.

A 1995 graduate of the University of Southern California, New Jersey native worked PR jobs for Entertainment Tonight and a non-profit before turning to the more creative field of entertainment writing. He freelanced for TVGuide.com for six months before joining the site permanently in 2000.

His personality shone through early in the site's "Entertainment News" column, where catty throwaway lines at the end of each item soon helped drive traffic and increase reader feedback. His signature column, "Ask Ausiello", not only provides juicy scoops, but gives Ausiello a chance to tell readers about his obsession with his favorite shows, his still-simmering Felicity fixation, and his love of Smurfs, Snapple, and Mariska Hargitay.

Mediabistro: So when you started working for TVGuide.com, did the magazine and the website have separate staffs?

Ausiello: When I first came on board, the staffs couldn't have been more separate; they were just like almost completely different brands. Over the course of the six years I've been here, the two platforms have merged more, and you see a lot of people working for both.

Mediabistro: How your star rose at TV Guide, as far as I've seen, is that your writing style came through a lot in the "Entertainment News." Is that your natural humor coming through or is this something your editors told you to play up?

Ausiello: All that seemed to come naturally to me over time, and I became more comfortable with the column, and I developed my own voice. It just all happened very naturally.

Mediabistro: Did your editors tell you to cut back on the humor or were they encouraging all the way?

Ausiello: No, they were encouraging, you know? Because I think they saw the response was really good, and the traffic for that particular column seemed to trend upward, the more personal voice I injected into it. It's really all about the traffic and the hits; that's really what counts. There were times when they asked me to pull it back, when I just took something too far. I'm the first person to admit there are times when I take things too far (laughs), so it's good to have sort of a watchdog there, but for the most part they're really supportive and encouraging.

Mediabistro: How did the "Ask Ausiello" column come about?

Ausiello: About two years after I started doing "Entertainment News", they gave me a feedback box, which enabled readers to write in to me and comment on my stuff. The more I read the emails from readers, and as the volume of emails increased, I decided there's an opportunity here, because some of the emails were so funny and intelligent and wacky, I was like, "there's something I could use here." So I pitched them an idea. For a while I knew I wanted to do a Q&A column, but my workload was just so intense it was adding something else just seemed daunting. But for whatever reason, I was like, "I'm ready to do this." But that's really how it was born; I knew I wanted to do it, and for whatever reason I felt like it was a good time to tackle it.

Mediabistro: It's not like a Q&A column like Matt Roush's, where he answers questions like a critic; there's a lot of you in it.

Ausiello: Yeah, "Ask Ausiello" is more me than anything I've done in my entire career. I think initially it was more personality than news and scoops. Initially, I wasn't really sure what it was going to be; I just knew they were asking questions and I had answers to some of them. It would be a mix of personal and TV stuff, and then it sort of evolved to where I think it's more scoopy than personal, but I think the mix is what's important.

Mediabistro: Did you have any kind of trepidation openly fawning for people in the entertainment industry? Did you think this was just something natural for you or were you afraid to do it at first?

Ausiello: No, I wasn't really afraid to do it. I feel part of what makes "Ask Ausiello" work and what people like about is, at the core, I'm a TV fan, and I get obsessed with certain shows and certain actors and actresses. I didn't feel like I wanted to stifle that. And it came naturally, and the thing is, I think that's what really bonds me with my readers is that we like the same stuff. We like Felicity, we like Gilmore Girls, we like Veronica Mars, Lost, it goes on and on, and we like a lot of the actors, too. I just think it's fun.

Mediabistro: Do you think this is something that's allowable in entertainment journalism?

Ausiello: If I worked for The New York Times, I think it would be a more of a conflict and more of something that would be scrutinized. But because most of my stuff is web-based, I feel like I'm given a little more leeway with that. I feel like I'm given more leeway, because I don't really look at myself as this hard news journalist, you know, although I can be that and I can do that. I think I'm sort of like a TV-fan-slash-journalist.

Mediabistro: When did you start with the print column, "The Ausiello Report"?

Ausiello: I've probably been doing that for about three years. They saw I had a nose for news and they liked the tone of my column, so the magazine came to me and said, "We'd be interested in having you write a weekly column, do you want to write up a test?" And I did it and they really liked it. Initially it was called just "TV News by Michael Ausiello," but it sort of evolved into "The Ausiello Report."

Mediabistro: How is it different from "Ask Ausiello?"

Ausiello: It's a lot less me, and it's really all about the news. It's got a little personality in terms of my sense of humor, but it's not me talking about what I did the night before, or how I got an office at TV Guide. It's just news with a fun sort of edgy slant to it.

Mediabistro: Is the subject matter different in the magazine column? I would imagine that the demographics for the website are different than for the magazine.

Ausiello: Definitely. I just did a little item on Out of Practice, about how Henry Winkler and Marion Ross are going to reunite in an episode. Those are stories � Out of Practice and the Happy Days reunion � that's a story I'd only put in the magazine. I'd never put that in either of my online columns, because I don't think my readers really care about that. The online folks are more into the cult shows and the serialized shows like Lost, Gilmore Girls, and Veronica Mars, and I feel like the magazine readers are a little broader audience.

Mediabistro: How have things changed with the change of format (TV Guide changed from a digest with local listings to a standard trim size with national listings in October)?

Ausiello: I have more space, for one; my column is bigger, so I have more room. I actually feel like there's more personality in my column now than there was before. The whole magazine I feel like is a little looser since it's gone larger. So with that, I feel like I've been given more leeway. A lot of my jokes got cut out when we were in the smaller digest, and now rarely if ever does stuff get deleted or changed.

Mediabistro: How did you feel when a joke got cut out?

Ausiello: I wasn't happy about it. But also, that was a different regime at the time. My jokes almost always got cut out and I hated it. You take out the jokes, you take out the personality, then what's different or unique about the column?

Mediabistro: Where do you think this new format's going the next few years? Is it going to develop and form and change?

Ausiello: I don't know. Personally, I love it. Every week, I love the new magazine more. I think we've struck on a successful formula. It's doing really well, it's selling, people like it. I don't know if it's going to be drastically different than the magazine we're putting out now.

Mediabistro: Where do you see the magazine in the whole entertainment space of People, Life & Style, Entertainment Weekly, and In Touch? Where does it fit in?

Ausiello: I think it's probably more toward an Entertainment Weekly than it is to a People, but somewhere in the middle of the two. I don't think it's a tabloid; it's not like Us Weekly, it's not like it at all. I feel that the best comparison is that it's like Entertainment Weekly, but just focusing on TV, and maybe a little bit more photo-driven.

Mediabistro: What do you say to people like my parents, who were getting the magazine for the local listings, but now they can't see what's on Ch. 2, Ch.4, or Ch.11?

Ausiello: I would tell them if they liked the editorial section of the small TV Guide before than they'll love the new magazine because there's 10 times more of it. Yes, there's much fewer listings, but the editorial side of it is like 80 percent of the magazine now, and if you're a TV fan, there's a lot in that magazine to love.

Some people complain, well, "How can you call it TV Guide if there are no listings?" But I feel like it is still TV Guide; even more so, because we're recommending and pointing you in the direction of what you should watch and what we think is worth watching. Because there's obviously six million options every night. So now more than ever you need more than just a listing, you need guidance.

Mediabistro: When did you start putting in the spoilers and scoops in "Ask Ausiello"?

Ausiello: Probably about six months after I started, I got a little bit more into the spoiler side of things. It was what people were asking for.

Mediabistro: How did you get your spoilers in the beginning as opposed to how you get them now?

Ausiello: In the same place ... in the alley outside of our office (laughs). I'm in a trenchcoat, and I'm walking in the alley and there's a trade-off (laughs).

How is it different? I have more sources now, for one. I mean, when I started it was tough; it's really just what I heard, and if I was interviewing someone, an actor or a producer would let a spoiler drop out. That's really where I would rely on stuff. Now I have more covert means of acquiring spoilers. In addition to obviously getting stuff from producers and sources at networks, I've had to do more work and I've had to do more digging, because it's really hard; the competition with spoilers is insane, there are a million sites on the web where you can get spoiler information, so it's all about timing.

Mediabistro: Is it all primary sources like producers and actors or do you have secondary sources, like someone who has a spoiler that they're willing to give to you for some credit?

Ausiello: It's a combination. I think it's still more about sources, it's about who you know, it's about people being in the right place — as I call them, "my moles" — that's a lot of it. Also, here working at TV Guide there's a lot of access to information, so I always try to talk to other people see what they're doing, what they're working on, see if they've uncovered anything. So there's obviously a good infrastructure here.

Mediabistro: Where did you think the hunger for spoilers came about? Because it's still a big no-no, in some circles.

Ausiello: Yeah, and that circle's called Grey's Anatomy (laughs). That's the main circle where it's a big no-no. But how did it start? I don't know how it started. Why do people enjoy it? I think people are impatient I know that's why I enjoy them. I'm impatient; more times than not I want to know ahead of time what's going to happen. And most times it doesn't really ruin the enjoyment of the show. Sometimes it does, but most of the time it doesn't.

Mediabistro: Do you think the value of a shocking moment gets ruined by a spoiler? Like if some major character dies in a surprising way on a show?

Ausiello: Yes, I feel that does take probably some of the enjoyment out knowing, instead of being surprised. But my feeling is, if you have the info and you sit on it, the network themselves are going to promo the hell out of it anyway, so if you don't put the information out there, the network's going to do it in the promos. A couple of times I've been asked to not report things, and then I turn on the TV and I see the network pretty much giving away the entire secret in one of their promos. And I'm like, "Why am I not giving it away? The point is to not ruin it for the viewers and you're going ahead and ruining it for them."

The difference with what I do and what some other people do is that I try to make it fun. I don't come out and say, "This is what's going to happen." I try to make it fun and tease it so it's more of a game. One thing I've been playing around with more and more is I sort of have a little Hangman game going in "Ask Ausiello" where I have this big spoiler and I'll make it sort of like a Wheel of Fortune thing, and you'll have to fill in the blanks and figure it out yourself. I try to make it fun, sort of the thrill of the chase.

Mediabistro: What do you think about the role of blogs — entertainment blogs, gossip blogs — that are around today? What do think their role is and what do you think it's going to be? Do you think that they do different things than you do at TVGuide.com?

Ausiello: We're going to start doing blogging very soon, in a major, major way. I can't really speak to the frequency, but I will have a blog on TVGuide.com in probably less than a month. I think blogging is huge. It's changed entertainment journalism; it's changed TV journalism and I think it's only going to get bigger.

Mediabistro: Do you think some of the mainstream media or even TV Guide are scared of the approach of blogs?

Ausiello: I think the more traditional media types are scared of anything new and revolutionary. Just doing the press tour, I think people were very resistant to doing blogging themselves because it's just so different than what they normally did.

Mediabistro: Where do you think entertainment journalism is going? Your own magazine, for instance, from the 1960s through the 1980s, was harder-hitting than it is now. Do you think entertainment journalism is still going down that fluffy path or will it go back?

Ausiello: I think that trend we're seeing now is going to continue. I can't imagine we're going to go back to the days when you open up TV Guide and see an 8-page feature with one picture. Just the popularity of the celebrity weeklies — it's sort of almost a cliché to talk about it now — that's indicative of where we're headed. Articles are going to continue to get smaller and pictures are going to continue to get bigger. I do think it's all about the scoops and TV news than big investigative pieces.

Joel Keller is a freelance writer from New Jersey. His writing has appeared in Salon, The New York Times and The Washington Post, among other publications and websites.



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