TCA Press Tour: A Primer, With Drinking Game Included

The Death March With Cocktails: where spin and hope, opportunity and failure all gather together every six months so the industry and the people who cover it can hug or fight it out. Cheers!
Will "Hostages" on CBS just be an excellent pilot, or a good show that lasts? At TCA, we may find out.

So we beat on, boats against the current, ceaselessly into the – hey the Death March With Cocktails is back, people. You may know this as the Television Critics Association press tour, or TCAs. Or, as some of us like to say, a large group of people who for the most part will not be clapping frantically like some fanboy at Comic-Con when Joss Whedon arrives.

(TCA Drinking Game No. 1: Every time someone walks on stage to the sound of silence, or faint clapping in the back from their own network, who then says, “Boy, tough crowd.” Drunk factor: Surprisingly high. Publicists, please remind them they are not in San Diego anymore.)

Never mind that both NBC and ABC don’t feel they need all the available time given to them – both did so incredibly well in the ratings last year, who can blame them?

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(TCA Drinking Game No. 2: Every time NBC tries to explain away its third-place finish and ABC tries to explain away its fourth-place finish in the demo. Drunk factor: Outrageously high.)

We are all of us just gathered here to be patient and understanding and, above all, hopeful. Even helpful. Consider this: Hey, Al Jazeera America, you’re launching that new network in, what, a couple or three months? Good thing you decided to pull out at the last second. Why promote that new show of yours – what’s it called again? -- to hundreds of TV critics and writers from around the country and Canada? We love a news channel with sound judgment.

(TCA Drinking Game No. 3: Every time a member demands that Al Jazeera be invited back for the winter tour. Drunk factor: Nonexistent.)

OK, let’s take a breath here for a second.

Just what the hell is the TCA press tour, anyway – no spin? Answer: A place where people who make television will choreograph spin at every opportunity. Meaning this is where all the broadcast networks, a vast chunk of the cable channels (we don’t have room or time for most of the smaller ones, which is why “pulling an Al Jazeera” is frowned upon), and PBS will gather to present shows that for the most part will appear in the next six months (then we all do it again in January).

The ultimate goal is promotion (their words), information (our words) and awareness (something in the middle that works for the people in the rest of the country who will do the actual watching).

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It’s also a time to tout your domination (CBS), or even your caveat-heavy second-place showing (Fox), and then answer for whatever failure befell your network (everyone).

(TCA Drinking Game No. 4: Every time a network president attempts to dodge blame or artfully bore a good question to death. Drunk factor, broken down by network: CBS – low, because it won in the demo and total viewers. Though it may say nothing just to adhere to past tradition, which would make you very tipsy indeed. Fox – low. Kevin Reilly generally opts for the truth, or at least truthiness. But how much can one man talk about American Idol and X Factor when he really wants to talk about The Following? Might want to have some carbs beforehand just in case he goes all "spinsy" on us. NBC – get a designated driver. True, Bob Greenblatt has taken the bullet before, but the network’s relatively low percentage drop in the demo (about 4 percent, compared with Fox’s roughly 22 percent) might be the kind of false hope that leads to spin-tacular binge drinking. ABC – bring your own bartender. ABC finished fourth, isn’t likely to want to talk about that and may tout its fall and midseason development as stronger than others. Nobody gets out of that ballroom sober if they play. The CW – this could either be death by alcohol poisoning because nobody spins fairy tales better than The CW, or it could be like Prohibition, since nobody cares and will be out by the pool.)

Regardless, you rarely see an industry willingly talk to the press about failure analysis outside of a private shareholders meeting, so the TCA sessions have value there.

A normal day usually starts with breakfast, then sessions for new and returning series starting at about 9 a.m. and ending about 6 p.m., followed by some kind of evening event (read: a party). The sessions run anywhere from 20 to 40 minutes depending on the time allotted per cable channel (read: relative importance) or network (sessions can go longer if they’re going well or get cut short if the ballroom is full of people on Facebook or, say, tinkering with their fantasy baseball teams, out of boredom).

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Lunch sessions have historically been the spot where networks and cable channels will slot a show that nobody in their right mind would want to waste 30 minutes over – but journalists rarely turn down free food, so this has also historically been successful.

(TCA Drinking Game No. 5: When you see a critic or reporter going into said lunch session, eating fast and dashing out before the interviews start. Drunk factor: Astronomical and dangerous.)

A “session” is likely to feature most if not all of the acting cast of a particular new show, the series creator and normally one or three too many executive producers.

Sometimes there’s a break between sessions – but generally not during the cable portion of the tour, which this summer kicks off on Wednesday and runs through Friday, and takes place in different ballrooms, whereas the networks and HBO and Showtime, etc., hold theirs in one place.

(TCA Drinking Game No. 6:  When you hear a TV critic or reporter complaining about what they do for a living while standing in a fancy hotel, preparing to eat, drink and party until their white collars fray. Drunk factor: It’ll only make you sad.)

There is often a “scrum” – either on stage after the session or out in the lobby – where reporters ask executives, stars and showrunners for additional information better tailored to the particular stories they’re working on, since it’s hard to have a narrative flow to the questioning when you’ve got a ballroom full of people with different agendas asking the questions.

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(TCA Drinking Game No. 7: Every time a personal publicist whisks away a star in midsentence, thus making said star look like a jerk, souring the tone of what might have been a favorable story and revealing that personal publicists are often the spawn of Satan. Drunk factor: Pick a recurring, rehabbing celebrity and imagine what their mug shot will look like next time. Yeah, that kind of deep drunk.)

There will always be a handful of columnists complaining that TCA is a pointless dog-and-pony show. Usually one of them works for Variety, a few others don’t even come because they just mail in their columns without much information anyway; a smattering are from people the TCA wouldn’t let in their ranks and the rest have been doing it for so long they hate everything in the entire world.

There will always be an enormous amount of people who work for the broadcast networks who think TCA is a pointless dog-and-pony show. These people tend to work for CBS and NBC. They’ve all been saying the same thing since the days when networks had three days each at press tour. And some of them have simply lost the ability or will to create an interesting two days of new and returning series, which is both sad and unfathomable given the current climate of declining viewership, threats from Netflix, Amazon, Hulu and other “nontraditional” platforms.

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(TCA Drinking Game No. 8: When you know exactly who these people are or when you’ve got a pretty good guess about someone entitled who fits the description. Drunk factor: Glurg, glurg … (pause to think) … glurg, glurg, glurg.)

On the other hand, PBS would be willing to have panels for four days straight, which is the kind of indefatigable enthusiasm you just don’t see that often. And there are plenty of cable channels that don’t get invited who would love to be here and/or get allotted more time when they are invited. Same holds true for new-media platform providers.

Press tour is an excellent place for series creators to explain the tone and direction of their shows more clearly to the people who will be reviewing those series. For example, if a pilot is too broad – say there’s a bunch of fart jokes in it or a racist joke about a Chinese guy’s penis, just two true examples – will future episodes ratchet it back a bit because the pilot was just trying to stand out, or is this what viewers will be getting? Is there really a show beyond the excellent pilot to CBS’s Hostages, and will the executive producers explain how it can have legs (or will they be coy, thus resulting in reviews that say, "This would make a good movie, not a series, so don’t waste your time")? Fox’s Sleepy Hollow can go a long way in explaining tone and intent (will it put more emphasis on humor, strive for darkness or get sillier?) Often a good session can help a mediocre pilot, just as a bad session can hurt a good pilot if it’s clear nobody knows where the show is going or if producers excitedly bring up scenarios that make critics groan aloud or on Twitter.

(TCA Drinking Game No. 9: When someone from a network, still clueless about social media, says to TCA executives, “Why should we even come when all you guys do is tweet non-stop?” Drunk factor: Lower than last year, optimistically.)

Lastly, TCA is what you make it. Every network and cable channel participating is going to get an enormous amount of coverage – both immediately and closer to the fall launch. Potential viewers will gain some knowledge about the overwhelming number of shows coming their way (sometimes just remembering a show’s title helps in a crowded field). Critics and reporters can learn lots of things by asking the right questions, or we can waste a session by letting bad questions dominate the time or allowing pointless filibusters to run on (unless it’s Oprah, which we then encourage). Excitement can be built here, which translates to buzz, which, theoretically, helps cut through the clutter and gets eyes in front of series – which is sometimes all you can hope for. Poorly planned sessions waste opportunity, whether it's rambling executives or talent that hasn’t been briefed about what to expect (again, this is not Comic-Con – send that memo). Despite what both those who make television and those who write about television may sometimes think or say about the other, ultimately we all want to get the word out about good television.

Which kind of makes TCA a public service.

(TCA Drinking Game No. 10: If you actually believed that last sentence. Drunk factor: Stone cold sober.)

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