Commentary: TCA press tour begins as labor dispute looms

Issues make observers question the event's relevance

At a time when Hollywood faces the unfathomable prospect of a second labor dispute within eight months, the press is beating a path to the Beverly Hilton for the Television Critics Assn. summer press tour that unfolds for about 21⁄2 weeks beginning Tuesday morning.

It's the first TCA gathering in 12 months, the winter confab in January having been canceled because of the WGA strike. Thus it should be seen as an essential opportunity for critics to reconnect with the business and a chance for the studios and networks to drum up enthusiasm for their talent and product during a moment of gnawing uncertainty.

Instead, the biggest buzz this year stems from the fact that there's pretty much no buzz at all. The strike squelched development and therefore the number of new series, and the SAG/AFTRA negotiations have left everyone questioning the event's relevance this year.

Then we have the journalism angle. Newspapers all over are dropping critics like so many rotten tomatoes. Many of those who remain employed find their publications unwilling to foot the bill for a newsgathering junket whose stories typically fill editorial space for months.

To say that the TCA shindig has changed with the times is a significant understatement. When I attended my first event in 1984, there was just NBC, ABC and CBS. Each had three or four days to peddle their wares to critics whose airfare, hotel and meals often were paid by the networks. The swag was lavish, the mood relaxed, the alcohol flowing, but the sessions themselves often were contentious, with those attending holding executives' feet to the fire at least in part to avoid any appearance of being bought.

Today you find the opposite vibe happening. The networks no longer cover anyone's travel and lodging, and the sessions too often devolve into a two-pronged affair: those who are too consumed with their live-blogging to participate in an intelligent discourse and those repping lightweight blogs whose queries are of the trivial, "Have you always been so hot?" variety.

With several major newspapers refusing to send anyone to TCA because of the expense, the registered attendees now feature the likes of BuddyTV.com, Bullz-Eye.com, AfterElton.com, GirlPower.com and Visimag.com. Given the precarious state of print journalism, we're seeing a rapid shift to the online world, and its impact on the quality of TCA attendance -- and indeed, its newsworthiness -- has grown exponentially.



Moreover, as the old guard increasingly disappears from the critical scene, some fear that the TCA confabs themselves are poised to fade to black as well. If that happens, the consensus is that the greatest casualties stand to be the levels of access and information that paint coverage of the TV industry.

That's really the most galling part of this equation. It isn't about the evolution that's come to define newsgathering in the new millennium; it's that those who crave cogent, intelligent discussion have fewer and fewer places to turn. If that comes across as elitist, it may be because the Internet has served to lull us into confusing superficiality with insight and enlightenment.

This manifests itself at TCA in youthful bloggers who often are more interested in who a show's star is sleeping with than giving programrs hell for putting viewers to sleep. That isn't a slam at those who blog. Heck, I maintain one for this paper myself. It's simply an acknowledgment that just as the online world tends to blur the line between anecdotal guesswork and reportage, TCA has made it tough to differentiate a media event from a straight-out promotional tool.

The tarting up of TCA figures only to accelerate its perhaps inevitable demise in its current form. Given the gathering's longtime value as a setting for the vigorous exchange of ideas and a means for keeping the networks honest, it's a sad day indeed.

"What TCA really is crucial for isn't getting the lowdown on the fall season but for mingling with the behind-the-scenes execs, learning how the gears really turn, getting a big-picture view of a complex industry," says Diane Werts, who in March took a buyout after 20 years covering television for Newsday but still freelances for the paper along with the blogs BrilliantButCancelled.com and TVWorthWatching.com.

Werts notes that not only are critics' employers cutting back on TCA coverage but so too are the networks in declining to put desktops and telephones in the press room and scheduling shorter sessions. "It doesn't bode well for the press tour's future," she says.

One could make the argument that, given the tight economic times, TCA is something of an antiquated holdover from the era of excess. It's estimated that a network has to lay out about $500,000 to put on a day before the media -- what with the news conferences, catered lunches, parties and goodies. It seems only a matter of time before it all moves to cyberspace as a series of webcasts, which would cost a mere fraction of the press tour price tag while arguably serving the same purpose.

"If it came to that, what would be lost is the freedom to ask questions without conditions attached -- which is what you don't get in those teleconferences," says David Bianculli, an industry veteran who quit his job in November as TV critic at the New York Daily News after being given "a reverse 'Godfather' -- an offer I couldn't accept." He's now writing a book about the Smothers Brothers for Simon & Shuster and runs the self-created blog TV Worth Watching.

Bianculli adds that TCA is alone among entertainment industry press gatherings in that it demands television executives be accountable for what they do, "and if TCA ceases to be an in-person event, that would just vanish," he says. "What this all points to is the fact that the eroding support for newspapers is weakening TCA. I'm only attending for about a week this time, and it may be the last time I go."
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