Today marks the start of the winter 2017 Television Critics Association press tour, as a few hundred TV critics and reporters from across the U.S. and Canada descend on the same hotel in Pasadena for two weeks of press conferences, interviews, parties, and the occasional milking of a goat.
I’ve been attending press tour for over twenty years now (though won’t be arriving at this one for a few more days), and the event itself goes back decades before that in one form or another. Like a lot of things about the TV business (see also upfronts, sweeps, and even the very idea of the broadcast networks), it’s an idea born in a very different era adjusting on the fly to a new one where its original purpose doesn’t entirely make sense.
Press tours began in a time pre-Internet (even when I began going in the mid-’90s, there was a press room filled with typewriters and landline phones so reporters could call in their copy to their editors back east) with the idea that the critics in attendance would spend their weeks in the hotel squirreling away story acorns for the long, cold months ahead, so that an interview with Ed Asner about transitioning Lou Grant from sitcom to drama, or press conference quotes for an “Is the sitcom dead?” trend piece (say, just prior to the launch of The Cosby Show) could be gathered in July and run in September or October without anyone noticing or objecting.
Since the TCA was formed in 1978 to allow the press to exert a measure of control over the event, the tour’s two participants have always had competing agendas: networks eager to turn the press into another arm of their publicity machine (and preferably as close to the premiere of a show as possible), and press pursuing their own interests and expressing their own opinions. For the bulk of the TCA’s existence, this uneasy alliance had its tricky moments (NBC boycotted the tour back in 1982 due to a “lack of civility” from the critics towards Peacock executives) but has mostly held firm. Every now and then, there would be rumblings that one network or another wanted to pull out of tour and save a chunk of money (critics pay their own way to tour, but networks are still on the hook for renting out the ballroom, providing rooms for all the talent attending their day, feeding the TCA members so the press doesn’t all go on an In-N-Out Burger run in the middle of a panel) in the process, but no one actually went through with it out of institutional inertia, as well as a fear that they’d be losing out on a press cycle that their competitors were all enjoying.
In recent years, though, the meaning of press tour, and the relationship between the TCA and the networks, has gotten a lot more complicated. Laptops became a familiar presence in the ballroom by the early ’00s(*), and as more online-only outlets joined the TCA, quotes from the press conferences that would have once had a shelf life of months now had to be published in less than a day — and preferably in less than an hour — to have any currency. By the time most of the TCA was on Twitter, that shelf life was down to minutes. If a few hundred writers simultaneously tweeted the same Shonda Rhimes quote about killing off McDreamy, who would care to read it closer to when Grey’s Anatomy returned to ABC’s schedule?
(*) Even before everyone brought a MacBook to tour, TCA members had other ways of tuning out the event. One veteran critic was infamous for bringing a broadsheet newspaper into the room with him, and if a panel started to bore him, he would take out the newspaper and — with a lack of shame and a great deal of fanfare — methodically go through it page by giant page.
The networks always resented the ways that the press would question, if not outright mock, the spin their executives and producers delivered from the ballroom stage, but when the anti-spin started happening in real time, combined with the shrinking of the publicity window, well… let’s just say there’s been a lot of soul searching on both sides about the value they get out of tour, which led to the unusual circumstances of this month’s version of it.
The most unique, and valuable, part of press tour has long been the executive sessions, where the heads of various broadcast, cable, and streaming networks have had to stand before the TCA and take all questions without filter. If a network’s on a big winning streak, and/or the network president has a good relationship with the press (say, John Landgraf at FX), the executive sessions can turn into victory laps. More often, though, they involve very powerful men and women being forced to answer questions they’d really rather not, about poor decisions they made, shows they regret having ordered, stars behaving badly, etc. And while many of them develop methods of running out the clock (Jeff Zucker always liked to filibuster at the start of his NBC sessions, while former ABC boss Paul Lee was notorious for giving vague answers to almost every question), they all still got up there and faced the press, because it was a tradition to do so, and because everyone else did it, too.
Until this time.
At the January tour, none of the original Big Three broadcast networks (ABC, CBS, NBC) will have an executive panel. Fox also intended to have its executives sit this tour out, but abandoned that plan after press outcry. (The CW was always going to have an executive session, and several cable networks will do the same at different points in the tour.)
The networks who bailed have said it’s a scheduling issue, because they want to devote as much time to discussing upcoming shows; they claim they will all do executive sessions again at the summer press tour. Some reporters speculated this was a response to the fiasco CBS’ Glenn Geller walked himself into back in the summer, when nearly half his executive session was devoted to pointed questions about the network’s lack of diversity among its new fall shows; who would want to risk their executive getting the Geller treatment?
But it’s felt like the event was trending this way for a while, and it was almost surprising in recent years to realize the networks were still willing to leave their top suits exposed on stage like that every six months, just because that’s the way it had always been done. There’s great value to being up there, too — as The Hollywood Reporter‘s Tim Goodman argued in the wake of the executive session cancellations, if you take the stage, you have a much greater chance of controlling your network’s public narrative than if you don’t —but as networks become more corporate and more managed, it’s a wonder no one tried backing out of one of these panels before, except in extreme cases where the head of the network was brand-new to the job. (And even then, they would often do a panel, just so they could smile and shrug off every difficult question by explaining, “I just got here. I’ll look into that.”)
This January tour will still happen, featuring dozens and dozens of panels on shows appealing to every demographic (panelists range from Ken Burns to Nicole Kidman to Andy Cohen), plus many non-broadcast executives. I’m still happy to go to get better insight into this thing we call television, and I appreciate the efforts that both the TCA officers and the various networks have made to figure out how to make the tour work in the age of social media. But it’s a process, and one complicated by the fact that the TCA membership isn’t a hivemind, but a large group of people with different interests and agendas. Some people are there to chase scoops about development and casting, others to look at the whole TV business through a socio-political lens, while others like me are just curious about how the sausage gets made.
That, more than anything, is why I keep going to tour; I may not write much out of the press conferences these days, but the answers that showrunners and executives give about the decisions they made provide useful insight when I’m writing about specific shows, trends in the business, etc. And — like a lot of the membership at this point — I’ve found ways to bank plenty of stories for later use, even if it requires way more effort and creativity than it did in the days where what was said in the ballroom stayed in the ballroom for at least a few months.
There’s still value on my end, and there should still be a ton of value on the networks’ end, since it’s a huge megaphone for shows that need every bit of help they can get grabbing people’s attention in the age of Peak TV. Like the TV business itself, press tour is evolving — never fast enough to satisfy all the parties involved, or to keep up with the many changes to the medium, but as fast as all involved can make changes happen.
I’m hopeful that the Big Three keep their word about executive sessions at summer tour — even if it’s much more important (for both sides) to having them appear in January, when their story for the season hasn’t yet been written and there are more questions about what they’ll do next — and that Netflix comes back after sitting out this January tour. But even though parts of tour are relics of something dreamed up during the Jimmy Carter administration, the event as a whole is still incredibly valuable to anyone who writes about, or simply cares about, TV.
And with that very long piece of inside baseball out of the way, here’s the latest modified version of the glossary from the guide to press tour I originally wrote in my Star-Ledger days (with a lot of help from Matt Zoller Seitz), with explanations of the more common events:
The Press Conference: The staple of the tour. Each day features eight or more of them, ranging from 30-60 minutes. The cast and creators of a show are led onto a stage so brightly lit that they can’t see anyone in the audience, and reporters fight for the microphone to ask questions — some smart, some dumb, some inexplicable. (“Your sons, they’re both boys?”) If you want a better idea of what a press conference is like, Linda Holmes’ one-act play on presenting an appendectomy at press tour captures it well.
As I said, the purpose of tour originally was for the critics bank quotes and story for later usage, whether as a standalone piece or part of a trend story. The internet in general, and Twitter in particular, changed all of that. Once upon a time, we sat in the ballroom, took notes, picked up copies of the transcripts (prepared, even today, by trained stenographers at the front of the room) of each session, and waited for the right day to deploy a story about why Kim Delaney wanted to work with David Caruso on CSI: Miami. Now, the ballrooms have wifi, and we’re all tweeting out the most notable news, quotes and weirdness from the room almost as soon as it happens.
The problem, of course, is that most of the smarter reporters in the room have recognized how quickly everything said on that stage becomes obsolete, so they’ve stopped asking questions altogether during the press conferences. This can lead to awkward gaps in conversation, even in shows we’re all clearly interested in, and it can lead to terrible questions that even the most cursory of Google searches would render unnecessary, or weird digressions that baffle everyone in the room but the writer with the microphone.
But as alluded to above, the press conferences remain invaluable even when I know I won’t be able to use a single quote from them. TV criticism — at least, the traditional pre-premiere review kind that I still practice a lot — is part analysis and part prognostication. You’re reviewing the first episode of a show that in success will run for 100 episodes or more. As a result, we have to guess which shows will improve from their pilots, which will get worse, and which will stay the same, and the answers the creative team give in these sessions are often blinking neon arrows towards whatever direction the show is going. One year, both NBC and FOX had long-form dramas about kidnapping (Kidnapped and Vanished, respectively) that seemed like they might be hard to sustain for more than a handful of episodes. The Kidnapped producers were smart and confident and had lots of answers for how the show might work if it came back for a second, third or fifth season; the Vanished creator looked terrified at every question about where the series might be by episode 4. Both shows ultimately failed in the ratings, but Kidnapped was good (and did, in fact, have a foundation that future seasons could have been built on) and Vanished was a mess, and I could tell which way each was going to go by the end of those two press conferences.
The Question That Will Not Die: Every tour, an early session sets the tone for all that’s going to follow, as someone asks a question that will be repeated over and over again, from session to session. Sometimes, it’s the same critic, doing prep work on a story; more often, it’s a feeding frenzy, with critic after critic asking The Question or, when panelists refuse to answer it, trotting out variations of it. (A popular tour phrase: “If I could come at that from a slightly different angle…”) The Question occasionally appears at more than one tour: “Why aren’t there any minority actors on your shows?” is a perennial. (This year, because the networks have cast so many minority actors in lead roles, we’ll get the inverse of that question.) And sometimes, The Question becomes an odd joke. A while back, every critic was working on a “Are there too many new serialized dramas?” column (short answer: yes), but the first network to make an appearance was CBS, which only had two serial dramas on its schedule and was still known for traditional procedurals like CSI and Without a Trace. Still, The Question had to be asked, and asked, and asked some more, and CBS president Nina Tassler was completely befuddled by the whole thing. At one point in the session — possibly multiple points — I believe the phrase “You’re kidding, right?” was uttered.
The Filibuster: A phenomenon that usually pops up at press conferences for struggling networks executives, wherein the exec uses up a third to a half of the allotted time giving a speech about useless demographic trivia, a strategy designed both to trim the time for Q&A and bore the critics so much that they’re too sleepy to ask the appropriate “Why do you still have your job?” type questions.
Sometimes, though, The Filibuster comes from a panelist who has nothing to hide, but who also is very fond of the sound of their own voice and not prepared for the idea of a give-and-take with reporters. The most famous example of this was in January of 2011, when Oprah Winfrey replied to an innocuous question about her childhood dreams with an 18 minute and 15 second marathon answer that only occasionally had anything to do with the question that was asked. (This was also a classic example of the critics using Twitter as a coping mechanism; without the ability to tell the world what was happening as it happened, and to crack jokes with one another, someone surely would have shouted for Ms. Winfrey to pipe down already and let us ask another question.)
The Scrum: For 5-15 minutes after each session, reporters surround one or more of the panelists to ask follow-up questions. Once upon a time, this was for parochial stuff the local reporters wouldn’t feel comfortable asking in front of the group. (“How did growing up in Duluth shape your acting?”) Nowadays, though, it’s the place where the reporters who didn’t want to speak up during the sessions wait to get their questions in. The problem, of course, is that many of the scrums have started turning into mini-press conferences, and in a much more uncomfortable environment where everyone is pressed together in a circle, holding out their phone or voice recorder and trying to get the attention of actors and executives who don’t have eyes in the back of their heads.
If you’re lucky, though — usually if you’re interested in the non-J.J. Abrams producer of a J.J. Abrams show, or the fifth banana on a show built around a former movie star — you can get several minutes of one-on-one or two-one-one conversation, and the answers tend to be much better as a result than most of what’s said into the blinding lights of the panels themselves.
The Scrum Evacuation: Sometimes when the press conference is over, the producers and writers will beat a hasty retreat through the backstage door rather than loiter onstage or come outside to take follow-ups. This is usually a sign that 1) the show is in trouble, 2) the network is terrified that the talent might say something unflattering about the network, or just plain dumb, 3) we have a star from another field (usually music or movies) who considers themselves above one-on-one contact (Diana Ross once stationed bodyguards in front of the stage to prevent a scrum) or 4) the network is blowing off the print and internet reporters in order to get their people across the hotel in time to do pre-scheduled puff piece interviews with TV and/or international outlets, which attach themselves to press tour as remoras attach themselves to the underbellies of sharks. These days, official TCA business is only half the day for most of the actors and producers who attend, as the networks try to take advantage of having everyone in one place to churn out as many electronic interviews as possible.
The Working Lunch: While the critics pay to travel and stay at the tour hotel, the networks make breakfast, lunch and dinner available for free, mainly as a means of keeping every critic from fanning out to the restaurant of his or her choice and losing attendance for the sessions. Some meals are just meals, but lunch often includes a press conference in order to maximize a channel’s time that day. Also, most lunch sessions are devoted to shows that the critics might be inclined to skip if there wasn’t the promise of convenient nourishment attached.
The Non-Party Party: Press tour is a dawn-’til-midnight affair, and most nights end with a “party” thrown by that day’s network that, in theory, is designed to give the critics more informal access to the stars, producers and executives. Problem is, in order to get their top talent to come to the thing, the networks try to throw actual parties, complete with music so loud that it’s all but impossible to conduct an interview. One year, a critic on the verge of retirement entered a WB party filled with interchangeably attractive 20-something actors all talking amongst themselves while the reporters who hadn’t already left in disgust stood along the walls; the critic waded into the middle of the room, held up his notebook and loudly asked, “Does anyone here have a personality?”
Some networks also go out of their way to entertain the critics themselves. PBS in particular does this a lot (in part to get critics — many of whom rarely cover public television when Downton Abbey or Sherlock isn’t around — to come to their events) by scheduling concerts with people like Sting and Tony Bennett at the ends of their days. But even the more commercial networks will sometimes try to get us to enjoy these working parties. A while back, NBC let critics pose for pictures with Animal Practice star Crystal the Monkey (aka Annie’s Boobs from Community). Fox often stages their tour party at the Santa Monica Pier, which provides an opportunity for critics to win stuffed animals for their loved ones, but isn’t a particularly ideal venue for interviews. And a few years ago, HBO brought the Iron Throne from Game of Thrones for critics to pose on if they wanted to.
The Very Special Unscheduled Guest Star: Every now and then, a tour party gets overtaken by someone who’s not supposed to be there — or, at least, isn’t supposed to be getting any attention. During the first year of Ally McBeal, David E. Kelley brought wife Michelle Pfeiffer with him to Fox’s tour party – much to the chagrin of both Pfeiffer (who was mobbed with questions on a night she was just expecting to hang with her husband) and the Fox publicists (whose stars were being ignored in favor of an actress not on the network). At that same party that featured Crystal the Monkey, an even bigger distraction took place when Todd Palin (starring in a quickly-forgotten NBC reality show) brought Sarah Palin with him to the party, attracting one of the largest party scrums of all time.
The Session That’s Better Than The Show: What the name suggests. This usually happens with sitcoms, where the ad-libbed answers the actors give turn out to be far funnier than any scripted punchlines they deliver in their series. Every now and then, you’ll have a bad pilot that turns into a good show after the creative team is able to harness the chemistry that was so clearly there on the TCA stage; usually, though, these things are reminders of how much talent gets wasted in the business every year.
To quote my favorite movie, see ya in L.A., Marvin…
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org