Why the Television Critics Association press tour still matters 

Why the Television Critics Association press tour still matters 

For two weeks in January and again in July, TV critics and journalists sequester themselves in a hotel ballroom to listen to presentations from the five broadcast networks, their various cable offshoots, and the independent cable broadcasters. Those presentations are meant to convince us that these networks’ upcoming product is going to be good and worth our coverage. What we get in return is a great deal of access. Interviews are conducted. Panels are held. Parties are thrown, ostensibly to put us in the same room as the people we might want to ask questions. It’s called the Television Critics Association press tour, and it’s somewhere between absolutely vital to doing my job and the most pointless thing I do all year. 

Even as I type all of this, I realize it sounds like complete bullshit, like there’s no way any journalists worth their salt could keep from being influenced, at least a little, by the things that happen at the press tour. There’s free food and cocktails, and swag all over. Plenty of reputable outlets don’t send their reporters, and it’s easy to imagine that the old concerns about journalistic integrity are behind that decision. The networks, for their part, often seem as if they’d rather be rid of it altogether. It’s an expensive, complicated mess, and many of the presenters blend international and electronic press days in with the press tour. (This means the actors from the new shows head off to other parts of the hotel to film those little five-second interviews that play on the local evening news.)

Every so often, someone will post an article like the anonymous one from January in the Hollywood Reporter, which said the press tour is no longer what it was when it began in the ’70s. Fox executive Preston Beckman, who tweets under the name @MaskedScheduler, is fond of saying that though he does not believe it should be done away with completely, the press tour as it currently exists is broken, presumably more about the journalists trying to prove their cleverness on Twitter than about said journalists doing their jobs and reporting on what’s coming up on TV in the months ahead.

While neither of these arguments is completely meritless, they both contain some inherent sour-grapes attitude. Network marketing departments are all about creating massive narratives that will carry their shows to hit status. The TCA press tour is the most significant place where a wrench can be thrown in that narrative, where it can completely change from “NBC is attempting to broaden its comedy brand!” to “NBC is shooting the beloved cult comedies it fostered all these years in the foot.” Yet the networks keep shelling out, for two simple reasons. For one, they don’t terribly want the headache of an angry press (even if the effect might end up being nonexistent), and this is still the best way to get free publicity. And for another, the press tour remains the best way to cement in writers’ minds that the networks’ product is worth taking seriously.

At least 50 percent of television criticism is soothsaying. This statement tends to provoke contention among people who aren’t TV critics, but sometimes, it isn’t enough to have a good pilot. Here’s a for-instance: I really enjoyed the pilot for ABC’s new submarine drama Last Resort, which is cheesy and over-the-top, but has a strong sense of momentum and is anchored by a great Andre Braugher performance. Yet the more times I watch it, the less convinced I am that its weird blend of influences—roughly The West Wing, Battlestar Galactica, and The Love Boat—will hang together from week to week. If this were the first hour of a popcorn movie, I’d be on the edge of my seat. As the first hour of a TV show, though, it raises the question, “They’re going to fill 100 hours with this?”

This is the sort of thing that gets even more contentious when applied in reverse. When Erik Adams and I reviewed the 2 Broke Girls pilot last fall, it was based on the idea that a lot of the show’s elements could make for a promising and funny comedy, if given time to gel. I still stand by that today. I look at that pilot and see a talented cast, with some good gags and a solid premise underneath them. With better writers, that would have taken off into the stratosphere. Instead, it became one of the worst shows on television. Now, with the benefit of hindsight, my early review looks ludicrous, like I was high on my own imagined version of the show. This whole concept of suggesting people review a pilot because, while rough, it could turn into something good feels like one of the most bizarre parts of the job to those on the outside looking in. It’s essentially asking everybody to make a bet that those involved don’t screw up, and it feels a lot better when writing about a 30 Rock (as I did in that show’s early, contentious days) than a 2 Broke Girls.

To that end, as someone who primarily writes about TV’s creative strengths and struggles, and not someone who often covers the business end, the press tour is absolutely vital to getting a sense of whether the people involved in the show know what the hell they’re doing. My friend Linda Holmes, who blogs about television and other pop culture for NPR, says that at the TCA press tour, she can often tell when the casts of shows have simply given up, when they’ve realized they’re going to collect a few paychecks, then head off to whatever project arrives next, post-cancellation. Last summer, she cited the session for ABC’s Charlie’s Angels reboot, a show that seemed dead on arrival already, and even more so after a lifeless panel. These sorts of assessments can play into consideration of a pilot that previously might have seemed simply mediocre. If nobody involved is terribly proud of what they’re doing, why should we in the audience care?

What’s even better is when the opposite happens, when a panel is so solid, it reveals the people behind the show know what it wants to be and where it’s going to go. For example, the one comedy this fall season I feel any degree of excitement for is Fox’s Ben And Kate, which has essentially no premise (it’s about a brother and sister who had to raise themselves) but plenty of laughs. These sorts of comedies can be dangerous, since there’s no immediate place to draw stories from, and the attempts to do so can feel strained. Yet the show’s panel, featuring creator Dana Fox, an effervescent, immensely funny presence, put many of those fears to rest. The Ben character, as it turns out, is based on Fox’s own brother, and she can draw from his real-life exploits if need be. Everybody else on the panel seemed jazzed to be working on this show. The pilot isn’t perfect, but the show has a good chance of pulling itself together. (For what it’s worth, the Last Resort panel filled me with similar hopes.)

And it’s events like that that make the press tour worth it, when panels abruptly take right turns and reveal that an upcoming show has some substance, or an interview with a celebrity reveals that, yes, they’ve thought about some of the more troubling implications of the series they’re involved with, and they believe there’s a plan. The downside of this is that attendees can buy too much of the hype. In retrospect, I should have realized that Michael Patrick King, who handed out awful answers to questions about 2 Broke Girls’ problems with racial stereotyping at last summer’s press tour, was staying with the show, while Whitney Cummings, who handled those questions with aplomb, was going off to her own series. Similarly, there’s always the danger that a panel that charms the room will blind critics to serious flaws in programs, so they keep hoping those programs will improve to match the fun they had watching the cast bounce off each other onstage. There are probably no ways around these problems, other than hoping all involved can develop impeccable bullshit detectors. 

Yet the press tour is great for that, too. It builds up better defenses against the hype machine. It allows critics to better calibrate for the differences between people who really know what they’re doing, and those who are just good at faking it. And it allows for a show with a good beginning but no visible, clear direction to give a sense that somebody somewhere knows what they’re doing. In an age of Twitter and live-blogging, the press tour may be slowly evolving into something different from the days when it was primarily a way to put local newspaper reporters in touch with Tony Danza, but the core of the thing—that chance to get a better sense of what’s coming in a business that relies almost entirely on gazing into crystal balls—is absolutely vital and will continue to be so, so long as they’re putting stories up in half-hour or hourlong chunks, week by week.