How Twitter Has Become Controversial at the TV Critics Press Tour

Golden Boy Winter TCA Panel - H 2013

Behind the scenes of the Television Critics Association winter press tour, there’s probably no bigger issue between our group and the broadcast networks and cable channels than the use of Twitter in the sessions.

There are always issues, but tweeting seems to be the latest Big One. This isn’t that surprising to me; networks have been complaining about the press tour for ages. It’s always something. And now it’s tweets.

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Some of the modern-day disgruntlement started when the Internet changed how the tour worked. Once the blogging days arrived, networks -- and their stars, series creators and producers -- were perturbed to look out from the stage and see an army of laptops, with writers pounding away. They thought we weren’t working. They wondered whether online content was as effective as newspaper column space. Luckily, that worry has subsided as time and technology woke them up. If anything, the Internet meant more coverage, not less.

But the networks and cable channels seem to be having a very difficult time with Twitter. Why? For starters, they’re following a lot of people in the ballrooms of the Langham Hotel, where the tour is taking place. And what they’re seeing is, well, lots of snarky comments. About their shows, the actors, the executives. About what those actors and executives are saying. And what they’re wearing.

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Think about the number of tweets generated by a couple of hundred writers locked in a hotel for two weeks and attending panel after panel about new (and sometimes returning) shows from roughly 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. -- every day.

Apparently, what the networks are telling the TCA -- and I’m in no way speaking for the TCA -- is, why bother? Meaning, why bother with this event? They say some stars might not come back, some offended series creators might never come back -- hell, maybe some execs. There was even a suggestion – clearly punitive – that a large screen be erected behind the stage and our tweets displayed there, outing people who are being too mean or whatnot.

Don’t worry, that’s not happening. And it would be a monumentally stupid idea. You think that would shame us? Maybe encourage some of us, more likely.

You can’t put the genie back in the bottle on this one, people. And the networks and cable channels that are so easily offended need to get over it. Like pretty much every critic or writer I talked to, I stand behind everything I tweet. Did I just say your entertainment president was spinning the truth? Why, yes I did. That line about how the upcoming Monday night procedural or Thursday night comedy is heinously bad? Give me another 140 characters and I’ll say it again, only with exclamation points.

It seems to me there are two main complaints here about critics/writers and Twitter: 1) They don’t like the content, and 2) they think all we’re doing is tweeting and not writing stories. Which is total nonsense, and they know it. A good deal of people write their stories right there in the sessions. Others will write full reviews, interviews, feature stories, etc., back in their hotel rooms or at home if they’re local.

And if there’s a complaint about writing during the session, two things to consider: In the old days, people would just skip the session. At least now they’re multi-tasking. Their ears are open. They can look up. They’re not at the pool. And, more important, this is the age of information, and if networks and cable channels break news in the sessions, as they often do, it has to go out at that very second.

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Beyond the complaints, here’s what the broadcasting and cable people know: A shit-ton of stories, hype, blogs, column inches, podcasts, pictures -- you name it -- all comes from here. They know the press tour has value. A different kind of value than a fan-fest like Comic Con.

I guarantee you, tweeting or not, when the networks believe they’re not getting value from the TCA press tour, it will be over. They will pull up stakes overnight and vanish.

I don’t see that happening anytime soon, and here’s why: The competition never has been more intense. The old-school notion of networks being broadcasters and owning the big-tent audience is largely over. Cable series beat network series with regularity now, often in both total viewers and the 18-49 demo. Launching a series has never been harder or done in a more crowded and competitive environment. You want to pull out because some tweets bruised your ego or the ego of your stars or showrunners? Please. One absent network would be absorbed by others. All four want to pull out in a show of unity? I guarantee the cable channels would seize the moment, take your spot and create a master plan to roll over you. Netflix was here this time. It’s a serious content provider now. It didn’t get much time for its panels. No doubt it would like to be a fixture on press tour. Hulu? Yep. All the cable channels that weren’t invited? Yep. They would all come. And you know what? If all four networks agreed to bail on the TCA, two would change their minds just to screw the other two. It’s that competitive.

(Yes, I know that The CW is our country's fifth network; I just can’t be sure the lights will still be on. But if they are on, they’ll be here -- or they’ll be replaced by Crackle or Blip or DirecTV. Book it.)

The Nielsen ratings battles are wild and unpredictable. They are tight. Networks and channels need all the help they can get to bring attention to their shows. Never has the American public had more choice from more outlets. All of this why-should-we-bother-with-TCA is just bitching turned to posturing. There’s too much at risk not to have a press tour.

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Besides, complaining about Twitter shows an enormous lack of understanding about social media. There’s, what, maybe 200 or so of us in a ballroom? Not everybody is tweeting. And on Twitter, all those TV watchers out in the ether follow hundreds of people. They only see a small number of the tweets from here. Their timelines are flooded with countless other Twitter feeds. If one of us sends a tweet that’s not retweeted within five seconds, it’s gone. The flow of information is lightning-quick, constant and unstoppable. All of your perceived slights from the ballroom -- poof! Over. People move on.

So walk it off. Rub it out. Stick a Band-Aid on your bruised egos and live another day.

Now, links are a slightly different story. If I say in a tweet, “I’m bored out of my mind. Someone bring me a Diet Coke,” it just passes through the lens of someone’s eyes (or not). If I say, “Here’s my review of Girls,” then people won’t dismiss it so freely as a tweet without purpose. They’ll click on it (or not). Later, I’ll send it out again. I might do the same thing the next day. Why? Because people are overwhelmed with tweets; they might have missed it. Breaking news, blog posts, online columns, positive reviews, negative reviews, feature stories, etc. -- they get read. But often we send the links multiple times just to get the most exposure. Those tweets with those links build awareness of your series. And then the audience decides.

That has value -- enormous value in a business where getting noticed in the crowd is paramount. (So does Facebook, of course, and a lot of us have professional Facebook pages where loyal readers click and read.)

However, I do agree that somewhere in the complaints from broadcast networks and cable channels are salient points and things to consider. The TCA has communicated the complaints to its members and will continue to do so. Obviously, the TCA is in no position -- nor has a desire -- to censor its members. At our meeting, we addressed the issue. We’ll do it again in July when there are more members present.

Can members be more sensitive to personal or offensive comments made on Twitter that cross some imaginary line? Yes. Every member will have to decide, personally, what’s inbounds or out. We can hope that the right decision is made. Beyond that, you really need to get over yourselves. So, tweeting to each other in the ballroom bothers you? We’re not your monkeys. Or your obedient wifi-aided stenographers. Don’t obsess about the chatter. Focus on all the fully formed stories, columns, reviews, etc. that come out of here. It’s an ocean of information -- and even hype.

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There’s no end to the good press you’re getting here. It’s worth whatever snideness and snark has you in a lather.

I know there’s a chorus among some senior publicists and executives at the networks and cable channels who remember the supposedly good old days. If you’re worried that people typing aren’t paying attention, would you rather go back to the pre-Internet days, when people in the ballroom were reading newspapers and trade magazines while your sessions were going on? They were ignoring sessions back then, too. But here’s the thing: Not every media outlet is covering every session (though many are, including The Hollywood Reporter). Same was true back in the day. Attending a session, staying plugged in, saving our seats and tweeting doesn’t mean we’re not paying attention, gleaning information or making valuable assessments about creators, writers or actors.  

And lastly, let’s make something very clear: Being online -- and being on Twitter, in particular -- is not in and of itself the cause of a “dead” session. Being on Twitter is not cutting down on the number of questions being asked, though some people think, and I tend to agree, that fewer people are asking questions on tour. I don’t agree there’s a Twitter connection to that, and I think the flux in question-asking could be cyclical. When I first started, I asked a ton of questions. Now, not so much. Some newer members are reticent to step up. Others are asking some of the best questions I’ve heard in a decade.

Some writers/reporters hold their best questions for one-on-one sessions or wait to pull aside an executive in the hall -- or at that night’s party, when said executive has a looser tongue. There are stupid questions; there always have been. Some come from our members, and some come from people you credential whom we denied entrance to the TCA. And hey, sometimes a dumb question gets the best answer. You never know. There are great questions as well. You might have dodged a few yourself through the years.

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But Twitter hasn’t cut down the questions. That’s ridiculous. Just as an example, let’s use NBC’s session for Grimm (each network or cable channel can insert their own failed session here). It was pretty dead. And I like Grimm. But there wasn’t any valid reason for Grimm to be here. Trust me, if NBC had brought Up All Night instead -- a show that has turned over showrunners and is shifting from single camera to multicamera as NBC tries to save it -- there would have been no end to the questions.

Tuesday is the second of PBS’ two days. Say what you will about PBS, it brings interesting programs, even if they don’t look so exciting on paper. Monday there was a Nova panel on drones -- filled with questions. Ken Burns was here Monday, taking questions about his documentary The Central Park Five. PBS staffers couldn’t get the microphones to us fast enough. That session could have gone 90 minutes and not lacked for questions.

So, listen, we know the Television Critics Association press tours are a labor, that they’re expensive and can be a logistical nightmare. And that when one ends, like this winter session is about to, it seems like the next one is right around the corner. They are long for us as well: 14 days (more in the summer) with endless sessions can be a grind, parties or no parties. We’re both in this together. We both have complaints -- and always will.

But stop bitching about Twitter. It makes you look like a Luddite. You can’t stop what’s already started; technology and information will not be leashed. And Twitter snark will not kill the press tour. Like I said above, the moment this tour fails to have value to you, that’s when it ends. The bulk of us are under no illusion about that.

See you in the summer. I will now send this story out via Twitter.


Twitter: @BastardMachine