THR TV Critics Debate: The Highs, Lows and Dumpster Fires of TCA Summer Press Tour 2016

From John Landgraf's wonky stats to the CBS diversity debacle, worrying over 'The Man in the High Castle' to cautious optimism about broadcast offerings, THR's TV critics recap a busy 16 days.
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John Landgraf

Daniel Fienberg: The summer Television Critics Association press tour concluded on Thursday afternoon. Hundreds of the nation's best and brightest journalistic chroniclers of the small screen spent 16 days in a Beverly Hilton ballroom complaining about the air conditioning and covering dozens upon dozens of press conferences for network, cable and streaming programs. At this point, direct sunlight causes me to hiss and steam like a vampire and I don't remember what the gym looks like. Tim, why do we do this to ourselves?

Tim Goodman: To get away from our loved ones, comfortable beds, welcoming daily routines and complete our own version of Survivor? Nah, we do it because this is our biannual chance to find out if the shows that are coming up (the fall "season" for this summer tour, midseason and beyond for the winter tour in January) are what we thought they were on the screeners. Sometimes that's just a validation of their failed potential when listening to the creators fumble questions about what they wanted to portray and what they actually glopped into a pilot. Sometimes it's finding out that there really is hope for a flawed pilot going forward, that there really is a vision in place and that the actors really are the right picks, etc., etc. A lot of times I find the most value for me are these sessions — they either help reshape my early critical evaluation in a good way or confirm my worst fears.

Of course, there's plenty of other stuff going on as well, Dan. I tend to use a lot of opportunity down here to meet with executives and talk about programming, field their complaints or compliments and try to suss out either their channel's direction if there's been a programming pivot or evaluate how well they are fixing a faltering channel that's not standing up to the competition. There's also cocktails, I hear. But also much more. What do you get out of this experience?

Fienberg: I get perspective. Nobody who reviews TV only reviews shows, not in 2016. We write about the industry. We follow trends. And press tour is a two-week orgy of perspectives and a non-stop lesson in parsing and making sense of spin. We see where television is and FX's John Landgraf is usually pretty good about providing slides and data to explain the never-ending and still-escalating programming morass we're in. Mostly we see where TV is going or trying to go. Broadcast networks protest their ongoing relevancy, whether it's CBS boasting about its overall domination or NBC making up strange exclusions and calendar designations to claim asterisked demo superiority. Meanwhile new networks either rise up or rebrand to offer viewers more options. Welcome to scripted programming and the eccentricity of Nick Nolte, Epix! Welcome to the world of tawdry historical drama, Ovation! Thanks for the somewhat condescending, but also illuminating, set visit morning, YouTube Red!

We see what progress looks like and what it sounds like and what its vocabulary is. Take "diversity," for example. Press tour is a 16-day overview of where the conversation is going and which networks get it and which don't. And we learn how to get it better and how to reframe the conversation. I, for example, am ready to transition from "diversity" to "inclusivity" as a watchword after this tour. It sounds like a little thing and probably it is, but press tour is lots of little things snowballing into big things.

Goodman: Well arguably the biggest thing — maybe the most important aspect of press tour and why it matters — is the fact that no other industry holds its power players accountable in front of the press (as opposed to a closed shareholder's meeting) like this one. Every network head and cable programming chief has to answer to their performance (ratings, subscribers, show renewals, etc.) twice a year. It's not very fun for them (unless it's been a good season) but it's open and on the record for us. I think readers (who are viewers) really value that. But enough wonky stuff, how about riffing on some things you really liked from this summer tour — good panels, new series, maybe an encouraging clip. Anything?

Fienberg: The best panel I went to all week was the cable-sponsored "diversity" — but call it "inclusivity"— panel with execs and creatives and stars from WGN, El Rey, TV One, Starz and more. Nobody had anything to promote other than changing the way an entrenched medium does business. There were great panels for shows I already enjoyed, things like The Americans or Rectify, and shows I was already looking forward to like Netflix's Gilmore Girls reboot. I already feel bad about not watching Starz' Power and its panel reinforced that. I watched half of the Ken Burns-co-directed Defying the Nazis and wasn't impressed, but the panel for the PBS doc was good enough that I'll check back in.

Goodman: My bright spots from tour included a number of panels that I thought went really well, like Chance and Shut Eye for Hulu, Documentary Now! for IFC, Black Mirror for Netflix (also Stranger Things was a great panel but I've already made the commitment to watch), pretty much all of PBS but especially Soundbreaking: Stories From the Cutting Edge of Recorded Music and the last-ever Rectify panel for Sundance. Others were also enlightening in some way or another as I mentioned above — I have a better understanding of the material as it will come rolling across the home-office desk soon enough.

As for the clips that were most encouraging and/or screeners I've already seen, I'd put FX's Atlanta and Better Things way up there with HBO's Westworld, CW's No Tomorrow, American Gods on Starz, Chance and Shut Eye for Hulu, Fleabag for Amazon and Million Dollar Duck for Animal Planet. Yes, Million Dollar Duck.

Fienberg: Darn. I missed that Million Dollar Duck clip because I had to live-tweet The Bachelorette finale. But yeah, the Chance and Shut Eye clips looked reasonably good. Having watched two episodes of HBO's ambitious-but-flawed Westworld, I wasn't as fooled by those clips. Were there bad panels for you? Things that left you less convinced that you were before?

Goodman: Well, I think I developed some worry about Man In the High Castle. Not just the missing showrunner bit, but just a worry that they'll really have to be impressive to hold me. There were some big lulls in the first season that I probably wouldn't tolerate in the second, but it's a show I want to like more. I don't think the Nat Geo panel on Mars was really able to explain the concept — at all — and that's troubling. At this point, more scripted is no longer daunting because as FX's John Landgraf noted, we'll be at 500 scripted shows soon enough and I stopped being able to feel my fingers at 300 and lost my mind about 395, so bring it on. But it might be nice to know what Nat Geo is going for with that scripted/unscripted mash-up. I remember being interested in USA's Falling Water but couldn't, for a million dollars, tell you anything about it right now other than it doesn't involve Frank Lloyd Wright, which is already kind of a letdown.

I'll add this: A few network shows encouraged me more than expected, from ABCs Speechless to Fox's Son of Zorn and The Exorcist, to NBC's The Good Place and This Is Us. I mean, I was probably only really all-in on the escapism of ABC's Designated Survivor and I watched and really liked CW's No Tomorrow late, which was kind of an end-of-tour surprise, but nothing made me really love it on the network side beyond those and certainly nothing on CBS. I quite enjoyed the executive session dumpster fire, but then of course I would. I know you have a few bad panels to note, or things that didn't sit quite right with you. I know this because I looked over and saw your face a few times and thought, "Not good."

Fienberg: There definitely were a couple of executive session dumpster fires. Folks have written extensively on HBO's Casey Bloys and his clear lack of preparation for not unreasonable questions about sexual violence on his network and while Glenn Geller was ready for questions about CBS' pervasive whiteness, he clearly thought that the room would be satisfied by seven repetitions of "We have to do better." Part of the intrigue of press tour is that sometimes you can guess when a Man with a Plan — Matt LeBlanc's lifeless CBS sitcom — panel is going to go bad, but it's a surprise when, rather than being a lovefest for Community veteran Joel McHale, the panel for The Great Indoors becomes an angry confrontation between press and creators about generational stereotyping. If it sounds like I'm picking on CBS a little, I am. TV's most-watched network had a brutal press tour morning, but a better afternoon thanks to Bryan Fuller and the new Star Trek Discovery.

In the balance, CBS' full day was still better than E!'s afternoon parade of freak shows, from celebrity huckster Tyler Henry to the smarmy plastic surgeons of Botched to a piece of performance art excess from Mariah Carey, who at least was entertaining.

I know what we get out of press tour, but why do you think this exhausting event is still worthwhile for the networks? As TCA vice president, I have my answers, but what are yours?

Goodman: Not only do I think it's worthwhile for the networks and cable channels (and digital streaming outlets), but it's absolutely more essential than ever given the ceaseless reminder of how much actual scripted television is out there — whether we're startled every six months by the jump-in numbers as presented by FX Networks and John Landgraf or whether we just feel the increase in our weary bones, shorter nights and bloated DVRs. To stand out in this environment is very, very hard but absolutely necessary. I've been doing this biannual press tour long enough to know that networks (especially) and some channels bitch about it all the time and threaten (especially networks) to pull out. Not only do I not think that will happen, it would be foolish. First they'd need a unified front, which they don't have. So maybe one of them — let's say CBS because it probably had the worst go of it and has a history of being chippy about it (though I have no idea if that's true here, just using it as an example) — decides to pull out. Our response would be pretty clear and along the lines of this: Fine. We'll invite someone else. There are plenty of outlets who *don't* get invited to press tour and plenty who do who are desperate for more time. If a network or channel wants out, let them exit at their own peril and figure out how tough it will be to market a show nobody has ever heard of, isn't in the zeitgeist and doesn't have many or any features on its stars or chatter on social media. As one critic friend pointed out to me, if CBS is pissed off about how bad the executive session and morning went, they had to be damned happy about all the Star Trek news and digital angles that were covered feverishly from here. Just getting noticed for any show is difficult — the frantically typing fingers of TCA members on this grueling tour (and when each person gets back to his or her respective city and job) are extremely valuable.

That said, it's pretty exhausting. A full 16 days straight is a real grind and I wish I had some great fix for making it shorter or easier. But I found value in all parts — cable, streaming, broadcast, PBS, emerging players, whatever. Making cuts anywhere would be a task. I think if there were a workable solution it would have been found years ago. I'm exhausted and heading home shaking my head at the endurance of it all. But every time another TCA passes I try to remind myself it could be a whole lot more taxing — we're not breaking rocks or paving roads. We're white-collar professionals watching and writing about culture for a living. So I'm good.

Fienberg: Yup. That's about right. TCA press tour is still the best way to reach the largest number of journalists who inform the largest number of readers and potential TV viewers. And the strangest thing of all about spending between 16 and 18 straight days doing nothing but talking and writing about television is that I've done almost no watching of television, so my DVR is ready to burst. TCA press tour is over, now back to work. It's nearly fall premiere season!