Right about now, the lights should be on in the Beverly Hilton ballroom for the very first panel of the summer 2014 Television Critics Association press tour. I'm not due to arrive at tour until sometime tomorrow, but Fienberg and other members of the TCA should be there, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed for the start of the 16-day event (which, for many people, will run straight into the start of Comic-Con).
Each time I get ready to go to press tour (give or take that time that I broke my ankle), I like to present some version of the guide to press tour I originally wrote in my Star-Ledger days (with a lot of help from Matt Zoller Seitz). If you've been following my tour coverage all this time, odds are you know a lot of this and can skip down to the bottom for the 10 biggest questions Dan and I have about this current tour, but I still find it useful to spell this stuff out before I return to the belly of the beast.
Long story not that short: Twice a year, TV critics and reporters from across the United States and Canada swoop down on a single hotel in the greater L.A. area. For two weeks (two and a half to three in the summer edition), we're shuttled from room to room as we attend news conferences, one-on-one interviews, parties and other events featuring executives, producers and stars from every major network, broadcast and cable.
The networks are here because they get major bang for their buck, hawking their upcoming wares to as many as 200 reporters at one time, depending on the session. In their perfect world, we would march from session to session, ask softball questions and write puff pieces about how wonderful all their new shows will be. The reality is a lot more unpredictable; depending on a program's subject matter, the charisma and intelligence of panel participants and the press corp's mood and interest level, the tone of any given press conference ranges somewhere between a birthday party, a Friar's Club roast and the Watergate hearings. (NPR's Linda Holmes very accurately captured the rhythms of a press tour session a few years back by suggesting what would happen if the TCA was covering an appendectomy.)
The reporters are here because it's an all-access pass to TV Land (and MTV, HBO, NBC, etc.), an epic, democratic free-for-all where a writer from a small paper in Kansas can interview the cast of “Mad Men” right along with the major players. And even for those of us who can get many of the actors and behind-the-scenes people on the phone for interviews, there's no substitute for doing it in person. I've had five-minute conversations at press tour that were more enlightening and quotable than hour-long sessions over the phone.
Other areas of show business have more scaled-down versions of press tour, but none is as long or as wide-ranging. Movie junketeers fly in for a weekend, catch a flick or two, do a few hours of interviews, and fly home. (Many of them also travel on the movie studios' dime; TV critics have been paying their own way to press tour for the last few decades.) We're here for weeks on end, coming face to face with everyone from former presidents (usually when PBS is on the schedule) to puppeteers (also a PBS staple, come to think of it). We have to ask knowledgeable questions of the fifth co-star on “NCIS” and the chairman of NBC's cable divisions.
The presence of the network suits is one of the unique parts of press tour. Not many other businesses force their top executives to regularly stand in front of a room full of hostile reporters and explain their every blunder; at press tour, it's a ritual. Some love the scrutiny, some despise it. CBS head honcho Les Moonves used to turn his press conferences into grand performances; even after being promoted so high up on the company food chain that he didn't really need to mingle with the great critical unwashed, he still showed up for several years of press conferences, and even now stops by CBS' press tour parties to take questions from an adoring throng. Conversely, as soon as critics' punching bag Jeff Zucker got promoted out of the head of primetime entertainment job, he cut back his press tour presence to the bare minimum.
In many ways (some of which I'll discuss below), press tour is a relic of an earlier age. It was designed for newspaper reporters who couldn't afford to come more frequently to the place where the shows were made, and was set up for them to squirrel away stories that could keep their columns full for months and months. The majority of the reporters in the room these days write for online-only publications, many of them live locally (though this is still the best access to talent and executives they get all year), and the idea of saving press tour stories for months in the future has become largely extinct. The TCA is evolving – we've started including panels for non-traditional distributors like Netflix and Hulu and Amazon, for instance – but in many ways the tour is much like the industry that is its subject: doing things the way they've always been done because no one is entirely sure yet what the future will look like or how it will work. And it's almost as fascinating to watch the clash of new and old as it is to do the thing we're ostensibly there for: asking questions about the new and returning shows.
And here's an updated version of the old tour glossary:
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?”)
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.” Today, we all have laptops (actors new to the tour almost always crack a joke about the dozens of MacBooks facing them), 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. Anything that's said on stage at a TCA panel now has maybe a 24-hour shelf life (if that), and people looking to load up on stories for down the road now have to do their own thing, whether doing one-on-one interviews, separate set visits or more out-of-the-box thinking.
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.
The networks, for what it's worth, hate the way that Twitter has invaded the tour. They don't like that the news cycle is now so short, they don't like the dead spots in the Q&A, and they also don't like that we're all snarking about and questioning the bold pronouncements of their executives in real time. Then again, the networks have always been complaining about our snark and incredulity; back in 1982, NBC boycotted the winter press tour over a “lack of civility” on previous press tours by critics towards network executives in press conferences.
And for my purposes, 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-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 serialized new 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-JJ Abrams producer of a JJ 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 outlets like “ET,” “Access Hollywood” and “CNN Showbiz Today,” 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 till 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 on the air – 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 couple of years ago, NBC let critics pose for pictures with “Animal Practice” star Crystal the Monkey (aka Annie's Boobs). 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 tours back, 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.
There's more that happens, but those are the basics. I'll be at tour for the next couple of weeks, covering the event on this blog along with what Dan is doing at The Fien Print. (You can also follow both of us on Twitter, and I promise to be very judicious, and to make liberal use of the RT button in case Dan or someone else made the point well already.)
To quote my favorite movie, see ya in LA, Marvin…
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org