Just What Is the Death March With Cocktails?

My friend and fellow critic James Poniewozik of TIME reminded his readers today that the Television Critics Association summer press tour -- what I call The Death March With Cocktails -- begins in earnest today and runs through Aug. 8. Poniewozik was kind enough to link to a column I wrote in 2009 for the San Francisco Chronicle, detailing exactly (or close enough to it), what actually happens during this event. I've written so many of those so-called table setters through the years that I got an idea from Poniewozik's link to my past: I'll cobble together some of those more-relevant-than-ever descriptions from my electronic clip file and try to Frankestein the best possible narrative of what happens when all of the TV critics from across the country and Canada descend on the Beverly Hilton and listen (and hopefully grumble or even, at points, get excited) about what's to come in the fall and beyond.

Here's one from way back in 2003 that I quite like, if only to think of how many failed series have been launched since then. Or, quick, someone look up how many series launched in 2003 are still on the air.

But here's a more recent description of this Death March With Cocktails (the one Poniewozik linked to), though I've updated it in various areas. It should give you a sense of the non-stop blogging and tweeting that's about to happen from here. (By the way, if you're on Twitter, follow me at @BastardMachine to find out tidbits like how Anderson Cooper, pushing his daytime talk show, sent orange juice to everybody's rooms but inexplicably did not include vodka for evening Screwdrivers -- the first huge mistake of the press tour). 

Here goes:

There's no substitute for being there.

This especially applies to the Television Critics Association summer press tour, which kicks off today and runs through Aug. 8 in Los Angeles. The annual gathering of networks and cable channels presenting their wares and answering for past mistakes in front of TV critics and writers from around the country and Canada is a chance to cut through the hype with a little more clarity than one might muster from a distance.

In a press release, you can't hear desperation. In printed material summarizing the premise of a series, you can't get to the essential detail - that the writers have no idea where they're going.

And even if you're a TV critic or writer who can easily get some of the top network officials on the phone without much trouble, there's something about their honesty after a few drinks that cuts through the spin like nothing else.

That's where the true value of the Death March With Cocktails resides. Every day, all day, there's an opportunity to glean something you might not from a distance. It's more than just access - though access plus alcohol plus ego plus the infamous network entertainment president job insecurity can lead to gold.

The press tour is a wonderful mixture of content saturation, surprise discoveries, droning presentations, booze-fueled revelations, open-air bitching between rival network heads, and a multitude of interesting news items. All in one hotel.

This summer the tour switches back to Beverly Hills (from Pasadena six months ago for the winter tour).  Not much else is likely to change. The days are structured mostly the same: Panels (ranging in length from 30 to 45 minutes) featuring new and returning shows, the series' creators and cast, and the entire network or cable channel power hierarchy on the sidelines, go on from roughly 9 a.m. until 6 p.m. There's usually a short break before an evening party. Sometimes there's a preparty. Often there's a postparty. And there's always the hotel bar.

As I've said many times in preparation for the Death March With Cocktails, the really good stuff usually comes out after 10 p.m. Sometimes there's a chance encounter in the halls. Sometimes you can pull up a chair in the bar and talk to network anchors, head writers of wonderful sitcoms, beleaguered programmers and suddenly more forthcoming stars.

You can't really get that from your desk.

And so we go. I look forward to the Death March With Cocktails with a mixture of anticipation and trepidation. I've had network presidents tell me precisely when they are going to cancel series they just touted 12 hours earlier. I've learned about the machinations of certain shows and certain cable channels in little nooks and crannies of the hotel that end up serving me (and you, one would hope) for a full season. In turn, I've been accosted by network heads upset at my scathing reviews and jibes. I've been yelled at (yes, in public) by heads of both comedy and drama development departments about allegedly cruel treatment. I've been embraced as both a savior for certain ratings-challenged series and the loudest, most dangerous detractor of other series. Sometimes in the same day.

Sussing out buzz on fall shows is also part of the job at the press tour, though this is not an infallible process. In addition to the little late-party gems that can be obtained, sometimes sitting through a humdrum discussion of a new drama or comedy can be revealing in all kinds of ways. First and foremost, if the series creators (they generally get asked the most questions while the stars just sit there) can't articulate a vision for their show, you know it's in trouble. Sometimes, having seen the pilot to a series (and hating it), a good session can bolster hopes. Many times creators will talk about mistakes they made or casting changes that are coming and intelligently present course corrections that can motivate critics to hang in there past the first or second episodes.

Because the TCA press tour is, conceptually at least, a chance to reveal information in tidbits around the clock, it's best covered online. I will be blogging constantly - in theory - on this Bastard Machine blog  summing up the major points of what's happening plus all the minor parts about who fell down drunk and which pilots everybody, including people at the house network, are pissing all over. Much of this slog will be live-blogged. No need to refresh your screen. Some of it will be posted late at night, long after the drinking lamp has been lit, so if -- in the course of me telling you something exclusive and awesomely absorbing from a network or cable executive, I just happen to have four or five or 10 typos, cut me some slack, eh?

As I mentioned above, I'll also be tweeting the hell out of this thing. And when I'm in sessions, if you have questions you'd like asked on your behalf, send them in via Twitter and there's the chance that I'll ask, say, the people from TNT why they killed Men Of A Certain Age or Paul Lee from ABC (hi Paul! -- thanks for sending screeners on DVD, by the way) why he green-lit Work It, which is, anecdotally, the most loathed new pilot out there. But that's no reflection on Paul, who I quite like. But not in a Comic-Con suck up kind of way. (I think most executives these days are able to not take criticism personally and still have a lovely informative talk with a critic who may or may not have said really scathing things about their network, channel or series; but not in a hug-it-out kind of way that's awkward). 

Lastly, a note about the Comic-Con references and the different nature of each beast. I have a number of TV critic peers and friends who attend Comic-Con and crank out a lot of truly informative pieces. (If you want to know who they are, mostly, check out the relatively low number of people I'm following on Twitter). I trust them to not cross the line that is frequently crossed at Comic-Con in the service of hype. Meaning, Comic-Con is really an event for fan boys and fan girls. The TCA press tour is not that (although, yes, any group is going to have members who embarrass you in one way or another, professionally - but we've tried to weed them out over the years). The TCA press tour is not meant to be a love-fest. It's not a place to get your picture taken with someone from a show. We frown on clapping for anyone coming on stage (a shock to a lot of stars who have just come from Comic-Con). We frown on people saying, through the microphone, that they love (or hate) certain shows. We don't like anyone speaking for the room (that said, it happens more than we'd like, so if you want to witness a lot of people getting pissed off, get yourself on Twitter and follow some critics).

In short, even if the collected mass of critics and television reporters assembled here are fans of certain shows -- and I am a fan of any number of series, though that's often hard to imagine -- most TCA members know to keep that fan aspect in check. The Death March With Cocktails is not about love. It's about professional skepticism. Give us your shows, we'll tell you what we think, eventually. Give us your stars and your series creators and your executives and we will, one would hope, ask them questions that are relevant and lead to insight (though some will start with, "I love all your..." Gah!). The networks and cable channels are here to tout their wares and spin the numbers and the truth any which way they want.

It's up to us, and you, to suss out the bullshit and find some truth. Or at least an educated opinion.

Email: Tim.Goodman@THR.com

Twitter: @BastardMachine



Read more: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2009/07/23/DDGF18TIFF.DTL#ixzz1TEWIHdZP