Erik Adams: There are plenty of places to read about the purpose of the Television Critics Association press tour. You can get TCA info in the “explainer” style proffered by the current employer of our former co-worker Todd VanDerWerff, or in the complainer form undertaken by the anonymous exec who penned this poisoned love-letter to the event in 2012. And Alan Sepinwall keeps a rolling version of this guide to the semiannual gathering of the TV press on his HitFix blog, a reflection of how the event is always changing, while staying essentially the same.
The basics of the event are holdovers from its 1970s origins: Twice a year, critics, reporters, and editors (and, increasingly, hyphenated permutations of the three) gather at hotels in the greater Los Angeles area so that makers of television product (and, increasingly, television-like product) can show off their wares. These press conferences are the main event; the post-conference scrums—the closest you’ll ever come to seeing an old-school gaggle of journalists pitching questions at a single subject—and the star-studded post-session parties are the sideshow where you might score a scoop if you ask the right question. More than likely, however, nearby publicists will make sure their clients stay on-message and positive about the project. Bend the ear of longtime TCA members, and they’ll tell you that the rambling sessions of press tour’s three-network days could fill a newspaper column for most of a new fall season. Today, with the increased number of networks and streaming platforms presenting, the amount of outlets attending, and the ability to disseminate the big news from network heads via social media, what once took weeks to trickle out of the Beverly Hilton now gets out in a matter of seconds.
What got out this year was an overwhelming “eh.” That general sentiment is defined by the “overwhelming”: There’s so much TV to watch these days, meaning there’s so much TV being presented to the TCA, and I don’t think I spoke with anyone during my 10 days at tour who’d seen everything that was paneled. The end result of that was a difficulty in finding anything to be excited about. For me, the highlights came early: Going Deep’s David Rees mixed up the Q&A format at the end of National Geographic Channel’s day in the ballroom by conducting a hands-on, paper-airplane-folding demonstration between questions. That kind of energy—or the genuine enthusiasm exhibited during sessions for Amazon and Hulu—would’ve come in handy deeper into the event, when the latest slates from the broadcast networks failed to elicit anything more exciting than live sparring and digital retaliation from Kevin Williamson, creator of The Following and Dawson’s Creek. Williamson was there with the cast of his new CBS series, Stalker, the closest thing to a consensus pick for “least favorite pilot” among this fall’s middle-of-the-road offerings.
Sonia, you joined the TCA just this past spring, so I’m interested in your first impressions of press tour. What did you think of this vestige of the days when newspapers and magazines roamed the earth? Did you find it useful to have brief, microphoned opportunities to ask questions of the most powerful people in television? Can you even imagine what it would be like to attend this thing in a time before Fox, let alone Amazon Studios, which gave its first-ever TCA presentation during this press tour’s “digital day”?
Sonia Saraiya: Well, Erik, I’m always down for an event that promises to feed me for 12 days, heap my desk with promotional swag, and invite me to air-conditioned events featuring people I recognize from TV. It does get a little tiresome—at some point Monday night, the prospect of a room full of celebrities made me feel exhausted—but I’ve found this to be an enormously helpful experience.
I’m the type of person who likes to ask questions, so maybe that’s another reason I’m into it. After weeks and months of writing about Kevin Williamson’s The Following, it was so amazing to be able to ask him about Stalker—not to antagonize him, but to get a sense of what he’s thinking. That came up too for Tyrant, a new show on FX I’m critical of. When else would executive producer Howard Gordon answer my questions about decisions made in the pilot? Not until next year’s press tour, most likely. The panels are all transcribed, so if you don’t have a question yourself, you can at least see the dialogue after the fact. Six months from now, I might not remember what was said in the Downton Abbey panel, but the transcript will be there for me to reference.
And when the panels are over, there are parties—not really wild Hollywood parties, but cocktail parties, where you can walk up to someone and ask a question or two. Or just chat about the show. Or talk about the network. So much of what we do is behind one screen or another—a TV or a computer—so being able to exchange words with Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s Melissa Fumero on how her husband changed his ringtone for her to the show’s theme song humanizes the process.
I agree with you that most of the programming presented didn’t impress me much. Amazon’s pilots had an enthusiasm and originality to them that a lot of the other networks lacked—maybe because they’re all just tired of this game. Scripted programming has exploded so much that we’re seeing clones of the same good thing instead of one or two truly original, standout shows. There are some, but they’re harder to find.
I cannot imagine what it would be like to attend this before Twitter. What did journalists do at panels when they couldn’t live-tweet the entire time?
EA: Incidentally, live-tweeting is one of the biggest spots of contention between the two sides that make press tour happen. Twitter puts hundreds of ears to the walls of the Beverly Hilton, but that might make the TV professionals onstage more guarded with their answers. (It also makes reporters less willing to ask questions in a press conference setting, lest they lose a scoop.) Look back at the #TCA14 hashtag on Twitter and you’ll find a mix of news, running commentary, and maybe even a little hostility, the last of which caused internal tensions during the first tours I attended. But even well-meaning social-media bullshit can get turned around in unexpected and uncomfortable ways at press tour. During a session for Warner Bros.’ new syndicated talk show, The Real, a representative from WB TV stepped to the mic to read aloud some of the things that were tweeted during the Q&A—all made in jest, and all easily misinterpreted as malicious by the panelists.
The issue of sarcastic tweeting will never be fully resolved, but press tour doesn’t help itself by ignoring fundamental shifts in the way people watch, read, and learn about TV. TV’s still a mass medium, but it’s increasingly not a one-size-fits-all medium, and the interests and coverage of the TCA’s membership reflects that. The catch-all television column hardly exists now; viewers have a greater number of options, which makes it imperative for us to be choosier about what we cover.
ABC helped itself out in its presentations when network honcho Paul Lee spoke openly and honestly about his desire for quality shows that represent a diverse group of perspectives, then stressing that this would make the series no less relatable across the board. Panels for new ABC comedies Black-ish and Cristela would’ve been entertaining regardless (always a positive sign for a comedy, even when, like Cristela, the pilot’s a bit shaky), but they were particularly engaging in the context of Lee’s remarks. Would they expose the boss’ intentions to be a cynical grab for viewership, or would they truly stand out as unique (or, to use Lee’s preferred term, “authentic”) voices in what’s still largely a white, male game? Fortunately, it was the latter, which gave ABC’s new programming slate a more united, thoughtful look than what NBC brought to the Hilton. On that day, it was much easier to ignore shows that would be nonstarters with an A.V. Club audience, while paying more attention to potential TV Club fodder like the Ken Marino-Casey Wilson rom-com Marry Me or the small-screen adaptation of DC’s Hellblazer title, Constantine.
Plenty of the TCA members I spoke to this year ended their time at press tour and headed directly to San Diego for Comic-Con. It’s worth noting the enthusiasm those people reserved for the second half of what’s otherwise a month-long, nonstop work marathon. Because at Comic-Con, there’s choice: You can cover the big, mass-appeal panels at Hall H, or you can opt to focus on the more niche side of the convention. I think the networks’ press-tour presentations could take some pointers from how they approach and program the second big TV happening of July. In recent years, FX has taken to booking TCA sessions with panels of behind-the-scenes talent in addition to its show-centric talks, extending press tour’s ability to inform and educate its out-of-town guests about the processes of assembling a cast or directing an episode. Why couldn’t something like that occur at the same time as a series presentation, providing options that reflect the different purposes TCA members have for coming to press tour? Do you think you’d get as much (if not more) out of an event like that, Sonia?
SS: It’s possible. It’s hard for me to say. I’ve only been to TCAs once, and I’ve never been to SDCC (and can’t see the point, from a critic’s perspective, to try to cover that particular circus). The barrage of panels can be enervating; there are just so many TV shows now. Every network that can stand on its own two legs is producing a scripted show, and it’s impossible to keep tabs on all of them. I brought back a whole reusable grocery sack filled with DVD screeners, and that is just a fraction of what was given to me via flash drives or online streaming services. When am I going to watch any of these, let alone all of them (and gather enough coherent thoughts to review them)?
At the same time, I understand the networks’ point of view. They’re just trying to get our asses in the seats and their particular production in front of our eyeballs, and they will do lots and lots to make that happen. A short list of things that were offered to me for free on this press tour: breakfast, espresso drinks, fancy cocktails, spatulas (twice!), reusable coffee tumblers (several), half-bottles of wine (four), and once, memorably, a manicure and massage. If anything, I feel like the promotional game is amped up because they know just how hard it is for us to commit to any one half-hour when there are a bazillion other things competing for our attention.
I really do want to write about it all, on some level—about all these new reality shows, like MTV’s new Virgin Territory, Oxygen’s Nail’d It!, and VH1’s Dating Naked. I’d love to take a look at the dozens of dark, male-centric dramas on fringe cable networks, if only to find the obvious emptiness at the heart of all of them. But I don’t have time—which is why, Erik, those pulled-back panels about casting, comedy development, and ratings are so helpful. The main difference between Comic-Con and TCAs is that the latter holds on to the myth that all the TV can be watched. Comic-Con has so much going on simultaneously because it knows no one could possibly do all of it.
It would be great if the networks at TCAs accepted that a bit more—but as they’re all so invested in their slate of programming, and how that all fits together, it’s unlikely they’ll do so any time soon. Many of the networks—particularly NBC, in my view—want their programming to be the only programming, and that makes for a difficult and grueling schedule featuring dozens of near-identical, mediocre pilots. (This year seems to be the year of cinematic miniseries à la True Detective and comedies that are really rom-com screenplays massaged into sitcom pilots.) But until networks loosen their idea of what it means to produce television—and accept the waning attention spans of everyone on the planet—the band of promotion, swag, and spotlit panels will play on.