A Q&A With HitFix’s Alan Sepinwall on the art of the TV review, how his job has changed, and being a Knicks fan

Every so often, I’ve decided to drop in a Q&A with a reporter of my choosing to talk about what’s right and wrong with journalism, their interests and random other stuff. Some are friends. Some are just people whose work I really respect. Some cover sports. Some don’t. Hopefully all will be interesting.

This week, it’s with Alan Sepinwall. He’s the television critic at HitFix and the best in the business. He also has written two books (The Revolution Was Televised and TV (The Book)). We talked about the art of the TV show review, how his job has changed over the years, the value of objectivity, and his Knicks fandom.

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The questions are in bold. The answers are not.

1. How did you get into journalism and get to the job you’re at now?

I had always wanted to be a movie critic, going back to all those Sunday nights spent watching Siskel & Ebert on TV. I went to college at the University of Pennsylvania and began writing for the Daily Pennsylvanian’s weekly arts magazine 34th Street. At the same time, I was part of the first Penn class of non-engineers to be given an email account and easy internet access, which I took advantage of to begin writing about my favorite show at the time, NYPD Blue, on Usenet, and then for my own (now very tacky-looking) website. The combination of my 34th Street clips and printouts of some of my online pieces (which were pretty novel for 1996) helped get me a summer internship in The Star-Ledger features department, and when the paper’s veteran TV critic couldn’t go to the Television Critics Association press tour that summer, my editor, Susan Olds, decided to take a gamble and send me. A month after graduating college, I was basically a full-time TV critic, and have been doing it ever since, first at the Ledger, now at HitFix. I’m very lucky. Right place, right time.

2. Your weekly recaps of shows are, for myself included, must-reads after watching a show like Mad Men or Silicon Valley. Slate called you the “king of the form.” What’s the art to writing something like that?

It varies depending on the show. With some shows, it’s much more of a thumbs-up/thumbs-down paradigm, where I look at whether an episode worked, or didn’t, and why. With a Mad Men or a Wire, the greatness of the series, and of most episodes, is virtually a given, so what you’re looking for there is to find deeper meaning, whether it’s the symbolism on Mad Men or the connections between all the characters on The Wire.

3. As a television critic do you see your job and your criticism as being self-contained to the shows that you watch and write about, or do you also try to look at them through a more cultural prism and as social commentary too?

Other critics like James Poniewozik and Alyssa Rosenberg do the latter, and do a great job at it. That’s not really how I’m wired, though, and while sometimes the social point of things is impossible to ignore (earlier today, I wrote about an episode of UnREAL that used a Black Lives Matter plot for cheap shock value), my main focus is on the show as a show.

4. Do you think television has kept up with the changing demographics and social beliefs of its viewers or do you think it’s moved more slowly? Why do you think that is?

That answer probably depends on one’s own political beliefs. If you just look at the wave of shows featuring trans characters, for instance, you’re going to find some people who wish TV would stop talking about the subject, and others who feel like those handful of shows (notably Transparent and Orange Is the New Black) aren’t nearly enough.

Demographically, TV is getting better, but it’s still not great. What’s been heartening to see is the success of ABC’s diverse family sitcoms, which are a reminder that if you filter the same old sitcom stories through the kinds of perspectives that have rarely been shown on sitcoms, the stories feel brand new again.

5. You wrote earlier this month very evocatively just how much TV has changed in form and in platform over the 20 years you’ve done the job. How much has your job changed in that time? Obviously you have to write more often, I assume, and the internet’s effect is well-stated, but what else has changed on the job for a TV critic?
There’s just so much more of everything: things to write, things to watch, platforms on which to discuss and promote things. If I were to go back and tell my 22-year-old self how much more work there would be to do, he’d probably be terrified. Well, no, that’s not true. He’d be 22, and thus young and cocky and stupid, and eager for the challenge.
6. Netflix seems to have the most out-sized effect on television. We can now consume TV shows like candy and just binge-watch them. I think it’s kind of turned their shows into almost movies because of how the shows are constructed and meant to be watched consecutively. Do you think that’s made TV better and is it eradicating the self-contained TV episodes and turning every show into a point on a story arc?
I think the Netflix effect on storytelling hasn’t been great, overall. There are some great Netflix (and Amazon and Hulu) series, but most of those tend to be the ones with a stronger command of how to construct individual episodes, or else are simply shorter. (“Stranger Things” was basically an eight-hour movie, and worked at that length; the 13-hour version would have been unbearable.) The episode has value as a unit of measurement, and unless you’re working at the level of a David Simon on The Wire, you probably don’t want to get too cocky about simply filling 13 hours worth of stuff and hoping the audience is thrilled with it all.
7. How much time and interaction do you get with your sources — whether it’s actors, show runners, network executives, others? If you’re covering a sport, you’re in the locker room or clubhouse almost daily for months at a time. But you don’t have that luxury/burden so how much access do you get and how does that affect your writing?
I go to LA twice a year for press tour, occasionally do other travel there, and sometimes do interviews in New York. But the Internet’s been a great equalizer in that regard. A lot of the strongest relationships I have with sources arose before we ever met in person, and just came from me emailing them (or, in some cases, them emailing me out of the blue).
Besides, my primary focus is the criticism, and that part of the job can really be done without ever meeting any of the people who make or star in the shows. I like hearing about how the sausage gets made, and feel that informs my writing, but I completely respect the approach of guys like Poniewozik or, back in the day, Tom Shales, who wanted to keep separate from the people they were covering. Bias is built into the job — artistic opinions are subjective by nature — and if nothing else, not meeting or interacting with actors and showrunners can insulate you from accusations that you’re being more positive or negative based on personal feelings. I don’t let that stuff influence my writing — I don’t get along with the creators of some of my favorite shows, and am friendly with people whose shows I don’t much care for — but it becomes an easy club for people to hit you with if they don’t agree with a review.
8. You’ve been credited with helping save the show “Chuck” – including by NBC CEO Ben Silverman – what’s the line for you between being an activist for a show, a fan and a neutral critic? Do those lines even need to exist anymore, from television criticism to political reporting and commentary, if you’re open with your biases?

Again, it’s a subjective job: I like this, I don’t like that. There’s no neutrality in criticism. On those rare occasions when I’ve agitated for a show to be renewed, it’s been out of some sense of fandom, but mainly out of my desire as a critic to be able to keep watching and writing about that show. I have found, though, that because I’m very enthusiastic about some shows, fans of other shows expect me to be just as enthusiastic about theirs, so when I’m critical of an episode of, say, Game of Thrones, they’re taken aback by it.
9. Who are the writers you read and who people should read who you don’t think are getting enough due? (And don’t work at HitFix — because that’s not fair)
A lot of it is the usual suspects: Poniewozik, Emily Nussbaum, Mo Ryan, Todd VanDerWerff, Tim Goodman, my old pal Dan Fienberg, my once and future partner Matt Zoller Seitz. I enjoy the way Previously.tv (a site run by the founders of Television Without Pity) finds different ways to cover TV so it’s not just the now-traditional recap or advance review.
10. You’re a Knicks fan. Would you call that a more painful or numb sensation now? How did you get to be a Knicks fan and is there a TV parallel for it?
My best friend Mike was a Knicks fan, so I became a Knicks fan. I would be mad at him, but I imagine the alternative would have involved becoming a Nets fan, and that would have brought with it its own heartbreak and agita. Being a Knicks fan involves a lot of willful denial and unfounded optimism. I wrote a column once about hope-watching, where you stick with a series that isn’t very good because you feel like it could become good at some point. That’s basically been Knicks fandom since the Ewing trade. Just recently, I despised the Derrick Rose deal (he was one of the very worst players in the NBA last season) and felt the team should be gathering young assets to build around Porzingis, and to hell with appeasing Melo’s desire to win. (He can always waive his no trade clause, after all.) But a few weeks later, I’ve talked myself into most of the team’s other moves, and am already convincing myself that Rose can be a decent placeholder for a free agent point guard to be named later next summer. Because it’s what we do.

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A Q&A with The MMQB’s Jenny Vrentas on developing sources, covering the NFL, and when she thought she almost burned down Giants Stadium

Every so often, I’ve decided to drop in a Q&A with a reporter of my choosing to talk about what’s right and wrong with journalism, their interests and random other stuff. Some are friends. Some are just people whose work I really respect. Some cover sports. Some don’t. Hopefully all will be interesting.

This week, it’s Jenny Vrentas of The MMQB. Jenny covers the NFL for the site. We used to work together (where we resided on polar ends of the staff depth chart) for a few years at The Star-Ledger, where she was among the best beat writers in NFL media. Now, she’s one of the best and most creative writers out there, period. We talked about how she builds relationships, nearly burning down Giants Stadium, how she got into the room for a Draft Combine interview, and a gluten free diet.

The questions are in bold. The answers are not.

1. How did you get into journalism and get to the job you’re at now?

Well, I’m the black sheep of the family. Just kidding (kind of!). Both of my parents are chemical engineers, and my sister is a molecular biologist. I spent most of high school doing science projects and competitions; I went to Penn State to study biochemistry and molecular biology. My freshman year, I also tried out for The Daily Collegian on a whim. I thought it would be a fun sidebar to all the hours spent working in a lab. I’d inoculate a bacterial culture, and while I waited for it to incubate for a few hours, run downtown to the Collegian office to work on a story. But I found myself enjoying the storytelling more than anything else. Russ Rose, the Penn State women’s volleyball coaching legend, was the first one to predict I’d end up as a journalist. Two years later, he wrote a recommendation letter for my graduate journalism school applications.

When you’re doing something as a side thing, not your main thing, you’re kind of blissfully blind to how much you don’t know. That’s why I’m grateful my career started where it did. While I was completing the master’s program at Columbia’s School of Journalism, I applied for an internship through the Association for Women in Sports Media. A week after graduation, I was commuting to The Star-Ledger office in Newark, N.J. (somehow, I thought it was a great idea to leave my car in the Ledger’s parking garage, take the PATH train to Newark from Manhattan, and walk 1.5 miles to the office every morning). You know what it was like, Mike—you’re an intern in your young 20s, thrown into the pressure cooker of the New York media market. One of my first assignments was a sidebar at a Yankees game; the night desk had to totally rewrite it. I was mortified. But it was the best place to learn. There was a wonderful mix of young and experienced writers; there was Bridget Wentworth, the longest-tenured female sports reporter on staff, who also happened to be the biggest badass in the room.

When the Giants made it to Super Bowl XLII, I was like the 12th reporter out of the 12 they sent. I drew the distinguished assignment of being the “scene blogger.” But I was 23, headed to the Super Bowl, and sandwiching myself into the media gantlet on the Playboy party red carpet seemed like a very important task. After that week, Mike Garafolo, the newspaper’s Giants beat writer at the time, suggested me to be his No. 2 on the beat the next season. I marveled at the way he worked the locker room for the next two years; how, whenever something happened with the team, he always had someone to call in his trusty Blackberry. When the Jets beat opened up in 2010, I was nervous I couldn’t do what I’d watched Mike do. But I didn’t tell anyone that. I made a ritual of calling our editor, Drew Van Esselstyn, on my morning drives to the Jets’ Florham Park facility to brainstorm, vent, strategize. Honestly, that was the toughest beat I’ve ever been around. I was lucky that during this time, Peter King lived in Montclair, N.J., and was a Ledger subscriber. I didn’t know anything about this new website he was planning to launch, The MMQB, until he asked me to join his staff in early 2013. I met him for breakfast at 6:45 a.m. at the Combine, and he explained his vision. It was a different, exciting opportunity. By the way, my first story at The MMQB was rewritten, too. If you ever think you’ve got it figured out in this business, you’re wrong. 

2. The access you got for this story on what an interview during the scouting combine is actually like was fantastic and unprecedented, I believe. What’s the process of making that happen and how much wrangling is there before or after the fact for what can go into the story and what stays out?

That’s nice of you to say, Mike. That was a neat opportunity, and it came up sort of by happenstance. I was talking with Mike Tannenbaum, the Dolphins EVP of football operations, on another topic in late January. One of the things I really like about Mike is that he’s a knowledge-seeker, someone who will visit with the Spurs GM or the Under Armour CEO to become better in his own field, and in return he likes to do the same for other people. I’ve known him since I started on the Jets beat in 2010, and he knows I’m always trying to understand how things really work. With the Combine around the corner, he started describing the scene inside the interview room. “You should really find a team who will let you sit in,” he said casually. Pause. “Well, uh, you happen to run a team…” I said. He had to think about it for a few weeks. The Dolphins have a great PR staff, too, and I had several conversations with Jason Jenkins and Matt Taylor about how this might work. In any situation like this, there’s risk. Most likely, everything will go smoothly, but there’s that one percent chance that something will go really haywire in the interview room, and you’re going to be in there, and you’re going to write about it. I think one thing that helped was that the Dolphins had a new GM, Chris Grier, and a new head coach, Adam Gase, that Mike was really confident in, and he thought people would respond well to seeing the new staff work together. He was right; they did work really well together. Plus, the Dolphins had some measure of control in that they got to pick which of the 60 interviews I’d sit in on, so it didn’t have to be someone, say, with a lot of off-the-field questions to answer. Really, the only condition was that I wouldn’t name the player, and in keeping with that, I didn’t include any of the questions or answers that would reveal his identity. I was glad it was a quarterback, since I thought it made the film session more tangible, for readers and for me. But I couldn’t believe how fast the 15 minutes went. It was exhausting just trying to keep up with one interview, and teams can do as many as 20 in one night. No wonder they need midnight Steak ‘n’ Shake runs!

3. I think it’s clear from your writing (and knowing you a little bit) that you’re able to build strong relationships with the people you cover. I mean the Bills just put in a draconian media policy and then Rex Ryan and his brother go out and ether every ghost in their past in a Q&A with you. How do you go about building these relationships and sources and just become a people person in a league where organizations seem to want the media at a greater distance and blindness than any other pro sport?

Honestly, building relationships is something I always worry I’m not good enough at. Nowadays, it feels like many of the people we cover have less trust in the media than ever, or at least less use for the media. And there are so many of us, you might not even have the chance to prove that you are trustworthy. I still lean a lot on relationships I built slowly, over time, while covering the Jets and Giants beats. That’s part of the reason why, after I did the Q&A with the Ryan brothers, I was so frustrated to see one media outlet label it a “press record and get out of the way” interview. A lot more goes into any interview than that, particularly one with someone whom I’ve known for six years and have invested a lot of time in getting to know and understand and appreciate. Relationships in our business are no different than any other kind of relationship, in that for them to be meaningful, they have to be two-sided. You can’t just be milking the people you cover for every last drop of information they have. I want them to be getting something out of the conversation, too. I talk to coaches and players pretty often about how they can better interact with the media in a way that helps everybody. Other times, it’s just offering a willing ear to listen to them vent (trust me, that goes a lot farther than you might think). And if someone goes out of his or her way to help me with something big, I’ll often send a handwritten thank you note. But I still really miss that daily interaction you get when you’re on a beat and see the same people every day. One of my favorite things when I covered the Jets was spending time on Friday afternoons with Rex or one of his assistant coaches back in their offices, asking them to explain some football concept to me. Building relationships outside the context of a beat has been the toughest challenge for me in the three years I’ve been at The MMQB.

4. I admittedly have trouble watching football now after years of learning about the brain injury dangers running through the sport. When I see a big hit I sometimes cringe and wonder what it means for the player on the receiving end now and in 10 years. Do you take into account the very equally balanced risk/reward proposition the NFL present in terms of health and wealth — NFL players can earn lots of money and fame but their likelihood of substantial or chronic injury seems to far outpace baseball or NBA players — and does that color your coverage?

What’s so hard about covering the sport today is that it is in this perplexing purgatory: We know enough to know that head trauma in football can have long-term consequences, but we don’t know things like the dose-response relationship, why some people are more susceptible than others or what percentage of football players develop degenerative brain disorders. What’s the middle ground between total ignorance and CTE panic? Last fall, I was talking with a former player who is an assistant coach now, and after someone walked in the room and interrupted our conversation, he forgot the point he had been making. “Maybe I have CTE,” he said casually. Or, did he just lose his train of thought? To really assess the risk-reward relationship of football, we need to be better able to quantify the risk, but the speed of scientific research can’t keep pace with the public discourse. What does that mean for media who cover the sport on the daily basis? I guess I just try to see all sides of the game—the violent side, the entertaining side, the beautiful side, the big-business side—and cover them all. And you write what you know; what the facts of any particular situation tell you, nothing more and nothing less.

5. What is it like to cover the NFL right now as a woman? The NFL certainly has a perception issue right now with its many bunglings — to put it generously — of domestic violence punishments, as well as the pedestal it still presents them, and what’s seen as pandering during breast cancer awareness month in October, amongst other things. What, if any, effect does that have on you and covering the league, not only on a day-to-day basis in the locker room, but also on the macro level?  

That’s a good question, and a tough one to answer. Nearly two years after the fallout from the Ray Rice incident sent the league into crisis, I’m not sure that I would say there is any tangible effect on my day-to-day job as a female reporter covering the NFL. I’ll backtrack for a second and say that everything that happened two years ago was certainly a floodlight on the dearth of female voices in and around football, which led to an acute response. In the league office, several women were added in senior adviser or executive roles, including the very well-qualified former sex crimes prosecutor, Lisa Friel. The NFL also held a women’s summit this year at the Super Bowl in San Francisco and introduced a Rooney Rule for women to be interviewed for executive positions at NFL headquarters. (As a side note, I know there are mixed opinions on rules like this for race or gender, and while I hate we’re still in a place where we need such rules, we do need them, so I think they’re a good thing. I know, for example, when Peter King was assembling his MMQB staff, he made a point to not just have a homogenous staff. He wanted people with different perspectives and life experiences, which is something I appreciate). In the fall of 2014, it seemed like radio and TV talk shows were reaching out to any and every female reporter they could find, and there were definitely instances when I felt like I was being pitched a certain story because someone wanted a woman to do it. I’m always in favor of more importance or attention being paid to female voices, because I feel like there are too many occasions when the opposite is true, for no good reason. But I’m just not sure there was any impact on how I do my job as a reporter. It’s the same way I feel about any other topic: If there is something I can add on a subject, I will add it. If not, I won’t chime in just for the sake of chiming in.

6. NFL writers seem more aggressive in tone and personality than other sports’ reporters. NFL Twitter can be rough-edged space comparatively. The Jets beat, which you were on for many years, is known industry-wide as a rather jagged ecosystem. Do you think that’s true, and why? Is it something about football’s own ethos trickling down to the people who cover it?

Love that phrase, “jagged ecosystem.” I think that is very true of the Jets beat, for a lot of different reasons. One of them is that I think teams and markets where they have not had success in a long time lose all benefit of the doubt. In New York, the Giants have won two championships in the last nine years; the Jets haven’t won since Super Bowl III. No matter what the Jets do, they will always be criticized more harshly than the Giants, because of this long-standing skepticism. Overall, I’m not sure it’s about the nature of the sport itself as much as it is about the sheer size and popularity of the NFL in America. In the course of my reporting for an upcoming story I am working on, someone made the point to me that the opposite of love is not hate, it’s apathy. That really is true when it comes to football: The criticism is just as much a reflection of passion as any celebration would be. Just look at how tough the media markets are in Cleveland and Buffalo, where the football teams have struggled this entire century. Those cities love their football teams. The criticism is a byproduct.

7. This year a video of you reacting to Jerry Jones as he defended Greg Hardy went viral. I think pretty much everyone agreed your incredulity was right. What were the next few hours, days and weeks like after that video got popular and start circulating around?

I have one of those faces that is very expressive, which can often be very problematic! At least in this case, my face accurately represented what I was thinking in that moment. It’s a cardinal rule for reporters not to be caught in the back of a shot, but in a post-game scrum where you’re trying to get in wherever you can, you often don’t have a choice. I certainly didn’t expect it would spread the way it did. In the days and weeks afterward, I probably heard from someone on one-third of the teams in the NFL—players, coaches, execs and even owners. Most said some version of, thank you for expressing what we were all thinking. Those reactions convinced me that the Cowboys would be Hardy’s last chance in the NFL. Maybe something will change in camp or during the season when a desperate team has injuries. But I’d be surprised if he plays anywhere in 2016. As an addendum, I have interacted with Jones on a couple occasions since, and he recently spent nearly an hour of his time talking to me for a story. There are plenty of people in this business who have a distaste for media and criticism, but give Jones credit in that he is not one of them.

8. You made the move a few years ago to The MMQB from the Newark Star-Ledger. Journalism isn’t the most stable business to be in right now so what it was like to be at an outlet from its inception and as it has built brand-recognition? Obviously The MMQB had an affiliation with a well-known magazine and you already were a known commodity as a writer but were there any hiccups or pressure to make sure the site succeeded?

I’m so grateful that I’ve gotten to be part of something from the ground up. Seeing a vision come to life is a pretty cool thing. When I interviewed in the spring of 2013, all they could show me was me mockups on paper of what the site might look like. I remember being in Fort Lauderdale for Dolphins camp a few months later, on the morning of July 22, so antsy for the site to go live so that everyone else could see it, too. (Of course, then I opened up my author page without my laptop on mute, and in the middle of a crowded press room, it blared: “HI I’M JENNY VRENTAS FROM THE MMQB.” Still cringing about that one.) Looking back, it was probably a risk to join a totally new venture, but it never felt like one. The fact that someone I respected in this business as much as Peter was willing to give me the kind of opportunity I didn’t even know was out there is something for which I will always be appreciative. I did feel pressure, and I still do. You want to validate their reasons for hiring you. I had the worst form of writer’s block I’ve ever had when I sat down to write my first story for The MMQB. I actually drove four hours to my parents’ home in Pennsylvania to try to shake it. In some ways, Year One was the easiest for the site. We were still working out kinks, but people would check us out because we were the new thing out there. Keeping people interested now heading into Year Four is a totally different matter. The last two years, the reporters have been involved in upfronts with the advertisers, trying to help them see why we love what we do and why they should, too. It’s a different business nowadays. But the opportunity that Peter promised when he approached me about joining his team, to cover the NFL in a different way, has always remained the same. At our first staff offsite retreat in May 2013, he just said offhand during one meeting, “Why don’t you try to find a player who will let you sit in on his ACL surgery?” A few months later, I went down to Pensacola, Fla., where then-Giants safety Stevie Brown was kind enough to let me watch James Andrews repair his knee. That’s one example of how Peter thinks differently and pushes you to do the same. He’s helped me take a huge step forward in my career, and a big part of the pressure I feel at work is wanting to do everything I can to help make his vision for The MMQB as successful as it can be. 

9. Who are writers you read and people should read who aren’t getting enough due? (And don’t work at The MMQB or SI — because that’s not fair)

This answer might not be fair either, but it’s the truth: All the reporters I worked with at The Star-Ledger. During the six years I was there, that was one of the most talented staffs I have ever seen, and I get so much out of following the careers of my fellow Ledgerites, whether they’ve stayed or gone. Steve Politi, Mike Garafolo, Conor Orr, Jorge Castillo, Marc Carig, Andy McCullough, you—I am going to stop, because now I am worried that I am going to forget someone totally unintentionally. I learned so much reading your Mets pieces after I left, and I’m not sure if I told you this, but before I went to Cleveland in April for a story on the Browns draft, I re-read at least twice your VICE Sports piece from January in which Paul DePodesta gave you his first interview explaining his decision to join the Browns. I made notes from your story to help inform my understanding of what Cleveland’s draft would be like. That’s just another reason why I am so grateful to have started my career at the Ledger, because it was such a wonderful network of journalists that I still learn from to this day.

10. You have to keep a gluten-free diet, but you also travel a lot and press boxes usually aren’t the best places for any type of special diets. How do you maintain that on the job and on the road? Any interesting stories to share?

I probably should buy stock in Larabar. I have boxes of those things at home (Lemon Bar, Choco Chip Brownie, Pumpkin Pie…) because I stuff my bag with them when I travel. I went through a phase where I packed meals everywhere I went, but now I have become lazy and will in some cases subsist for an entire day off of coffee and Larabars. I do have a story that came as an unfortunate byproduct of packing my meals: That time I almost set fire to Giants Stadium. This was the old Giants Stadium, back when the Giants didn’t have a practice facility, and the media workroom during the week was in the bowels of the stadium. In between the open period at the beginning of practice and post-practice locker room, I went to microwave a plastic mug that, unbeknownst to me, included a metal strip that was not microwavable. There was a funny smell, and then full-blown black smoke billowing out of the microwave. No, the stadium didn’t actually almost burn down, but we had to evacuate the media room. I recall telling Pat Hanlon, the Giants PR boss, that I would pay for the microwave. Of course he told me no. I guess I owe the Mara and Tisch families a microwave.

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