Critic's Notebook: Network Chiefs Opt for Cowardly Collusion in Skipping TCA

Network - H - 1976

Here's what you need to know about the broadcast networks deciding that they don't want — all of them except The CW — to have the traditional state-of-the-network executive session at the Television Critics Association winter press tour in January: They are in bigger trouble than we thought.

Also, and this is less relative but no less true, they are all hoping this chicken-shit decision of theirs will buy a little time and make people forget they are in trouble.

It won't. All it does is shine a light on the fact they won't talk about this dark period they're in and not handling so well.

But it's weirdly telling that they all colluded to avoid being asked why their business is broken. That must have been an interesting conference call among fierce competitors.

"Hey, everybody. Are we all on the line? Good. Boy, this is a pretty lousy fall season, am I right? (Nervous laughter...sad silence.) Um, over here we kind of thought that since some of you are sucking almost as badly as we are and, well, there's going to be a lot of questions about what we got so wrong and diversity questions and some Trump stuff and what do we all have on our benches to plug these gaping holes (muffled laughter in background), the thinking is maybe we just don't show up?"

I don't know — maybe it was more inelegant.

But for the first time in history, the network heads of ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox are, en masse, skipping their executive sessions. It's artless collusion, desperately tucking in behind the news that Netflix, Starz and Amazon aren't going to the TCAs at all. I'm sure there's a contingent among the network people who are hoping this makes it look, on some level, like the TCA is the one in trouble here. But it's not. The group, of which I'm a member, has never had any problem filling up the press tour. We turn channels away regularly and field pleas from countless cable outlets that need more than their allotted time. For executives who believe in their product, the TCA press tour is a place they want to be so they can spread the word. Because spreading the word, even if it's just one tweet with the name of one of your shows, is an absolute necessity in the Peak TV era where people haven't even heard of half of what's out there.

It's also not unheard of for cable channels to skip one of the biannual TCA tours, whether it's winter or summer. Sometimes certain channels don't have enough shows to promote at that time of year, relative to premiere dates. Sometimes they want to have a TCA presentation — a block of hours on a day they're given — but logistically they can't get all the talent to Pasadena or Beverly Hills on the same day, so they can't ultimately make it work. It happens all the time.

What doesn't happen — what has never happened like it will happen on this winter tour — is for the Big Four networks to agree in secret that they want to protect their network heads from explaining their dismal fall.

It's an unheard of mass cop-out.

The networks have said they will make their executives available for one-on-one interviews but that defeats a major purpose of the TCA press tour — giving access to smaller print or online publications that couldn't get that access in any other way. While it's easy for The Hollywood Reporter or the New York Times to get these heads of networks on the phone if need be, that's not true for smaller publications. And this is an industry where chain of command apparently matters so it's not like a lower level drama or comedy executive is going to give some sweeping mea culpa for fall's failures. That comes from the top.

When everyone at the top agrees to hide, that's not helpful.

And it's a much different scenario sitting one-on-one with a hand-chosen publication and a publicist by your side than it is to field questions from a room where any accredited member can ask anything they want.

So, before elaborating on what that probably means, here's a hearty applause for The CW's Mark Pedowitz for showing up. Thanks, Mark!

(Listen, that's no small feat — Pedowitz has come before us in the past and been lit on fire; I know this because on at least one occasion, I was holding a box of matches and some kerosene, so I couldn't love him any more than I do right now.)

There's also a part of me that completely understands not wanting to do an executive session if your network isn't doing so well or, like CBS in the summer, knows it's going to get pummeled for its lack of diversity before getting asked about its lack of buzz. Coming before a room full of TV critics twice a year and essentially explaining your lack of success (or, conversely, basking in triumphs) is something no other industry heads do outside of closed shareholder meetings or in the comfy confines of some product launch where you control the message — and the microphones. As if being the commander of a dinosaur ship like a broadcast network wasn't hard and thankless enough, you can imagine the dismay at having to go public every six months and be judged.

But hey, if you can't do what every previous entertainment president has done before, that's on you. It certainly makes you look weak. And it makes it look like you've given up because you've got no answers.

And maybe the executives at ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox don't have answers. I'm on record as saying that running a broadcast network is an almost impossible job. The machinery of that particular industry is dated and needs to be revamped, but all five networks need to work together to revamp the business model (lowering production costs, changing outdated "seasons," methods of operation, marketing, advertising strategy — any old, conventional way of doing things probably needs to be revitalized/reimagined). It will take enormous effort, vision and cooperation.

On the bright side, at least they've proven that they can collude on something. It's a starting point.

But what doesn't make sense is the hiding, the en masse ducking of the entertainment press, when we (or at least most of us) know exactly how daunting or impossible the task is. Why not use that to your advantage? Why not admit, as some have in the past, that the job is really hard and never more than now, smack in the middle of Peak TV, with the Platinum Age glittering around them (the shininess coming mostly from cable and streaming, of course).

Hell, I think every network has embraced what — in a best- guess scenario — is the only way to survive these days and that's to give the people something very familiar (a franchise or concept) in an entertaining and palpably digestible package. Unfortunately that hasn't worked very often this fall but it's early yet in the process. Staying the course is the only real option.

Why not admit that the problem is institutional, bigger than any one person at any one network and that you are doing the absolute best you can trying to figure it out and keep ratings up?

Why not show up and say that rather than not show up and look like cowardly, clueless fools? That not showing up was an actual agreed-upon choice is mind-boggling.

Honesty is refreshing and more than that it unmasks the notion that finding hits is somehow easy or cyclical or even probably if the right tweaks are made, the right direction is found. No, no and no.

In modern-day broadcast network television, truly big hits that can be sustained and proven season after season are the outliers. They are unicorns. The Big Tent philosophy is over — outdated, untenable, mythical in the new world. The more network executives drive home this truth the less they will have to hide out in the bathroom, afraid to face dwindling ratings numbers and antiquated notions that broadcasting is actually translatable to broadly appealing as we head into 2017. It's not. The business has changed beneath your feet for years on end now. Viewers have countless options — many of them absurdly excellent. The selection is staggering. The pool of available viewers is wide, not deep. As the industry steps nervously into 2017 there is precisely one entity that acts and lives like an old-fashioned broadcaster. That single monolith is Netflix and it achieves this state of being not because it's operating on a better business plan against its competitors in the continental United States. It's because Netflix is global. Selling a deep bench of shows to more and more countries throughout the world is the new broadcasting.

What the American networks are doing is not broadcasting. The numbers bear this out. They are a mere five channels in a sea of hundreds of channels offering original content to 50 states and millions of people in those states who are utterly overwhelmed by the volume of choices they face. Just because you turned a famous movie into a weekly television series doesn't mean you automatically get the biggest piece of the pie, viewers and ratings-wise. Americans are absolutely bloated with pie. They may stick a finger in yours and have a tiny taste but they are never, ever — and this is important so pay attention — going to put all their forks down and just eat your pie every week.

You are not the star of this food porn metaphor.

Maybe that's the bigger issue here — all of these executives skipping out of the January TCA press tour know the truth but none of them want to say it out loud: They hold jobs that are less influential now than 10 years ago; they are sitting on thrones that made kings out of people 20 or more years ago. Now they are merely occupying chairs that turn over and will continue to turn over quickly, because it's an insanely difficult job that's less desirable than it ever was in these impossible, evolutionary and revolutionary times.

If anyone knows this truth, it's the men and women who are reporters and critics in the television industry. You could have showed up and told us the truth we already know and we would have heard you and understood, or at least tried to understand and perhaps empathize.

Instead of crafting that narrative, hitting those talking points, you opted — competitive rivals! — to slink away together. Not exactly a Profiles in Courage type moment.