Preface: Henry Edgar, who has held positions both as press agent and newspaper journalist, left the following very insightful information as a comment. I bring it to your center-ring attention, for I think it sheds light on the vexing issue of circus reviewing. Its honesty from an insider's point of view is admirable.
david - regarding your comment about Ringling encouraging features rather than reviews -- this seems to be a general trend with newspapers today. they prefer to send someone to do a feature rather than an interview. i think it's a combination of both improved journalistic standards and taking the easy way out. the feature enables the paper to cover the circus without the inherent problems of a review. few papers have staff members who are even semi-qualified to review a circus, and the editors know it. at the same time, any good reporter/writer can do a good story on something/somebody without knowing anything about the subject. it's win/win -- the show gets a story without taking a chance on a review, the newspaper gets a quality piece without taking heat from readers about the writer's opinions, one way or another. also, the feature can usually run earlier, while the show is more likely to be in town. a review often runs after the show is gone or nearing its final performance unless it's at least a 4-day stand. the writers also prefer this approach because they aren't going out on a limb on something they know nothing about. Cirque du soliel is an exception; it's theatrical nature puts it within the qualifications of a theatre critic rather than somebody trying to analyze the bungee poles or how good an aerial act with a mechanic might be (ie is the mechanic really necessary or covering for a performer afraid to go into the air without one)
I've always been suspicious of small town reviews. i know how easily writers can be fed info -- i did it on a regular basis and it worked extremely well, particularly if i sat with the reviewer and made sure his family had plenty of popcorn, cokes, cotton candy, etc. it resulted in great reviews with "inside knowledge" as i spoon-fed info . on the other end of the spectrum, once i made the switch from press agent to entertainment writer, i was sometimes subjected to second guessing. for example, an editor outranking me saw the show and says "I hope you say nice things about that act because my kids loved it." even if i knew the act was a badly-done firstie act. one incident i will never forget involved one of the burn-the-town circuses, which i gave probably the worst review i ever gave a circus. i gave more space to the band than anything else because the band was much better than the show, which was lousy. i turned in the review about 2 am and went home. i was awakened at 8 by my editor, who said she had received so many negative calls that she couldn't run a review that was sugar-coating a circus just because i loved the circus. i was forced to turn a harsh review into something vicious because my editor -- without seeing the show -- decided it was absolutely horrible. the same editor who backed me up on so many things, who fought for extra money for out of town trips, etc. it's easy to complain about journalistic meddling, but the reality was that if i had refused, she would have rewritten the review anyway. in that case, wouldn't a feature story have been better than a review?
newspapers are sometimes caught in bad situations because of the complexities of reviewing a circus, the variables that can determine quality from one day to the next (does the lot make the riding act and the other horse acts unsafe? losing them is often the difference in a good show and a bad show) and add in the increasing sloppiness of today's circus performances overall, and most shows might be better off without reviews.
-- from Henry Edgar