Your guide to the Television Critics Association press tour
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.