The Biggest Takeaways and Buzziest Shows From the TV Critics' Winter Press Tour

New strategies, big stars, fond farewells and more highlights from a dizzying 13 days filled with news at the Television Critics Association's semi-annual event.
Getty Images; Courtesy of Networks
Sarah Barnett (left), Alex Trebek, Kevin Reilly, Hillary Clinton

Holy Peak TV news cycle, Batman!

After 13 days and a whopping 125 panels — and a frenzied amount of renewals, new series pickups and executive spin — the winter edition of the Television Critics Association's press tour has come to a merciful end. Pretty much every network, cabler and streamer who participated came armed with announcements, with many of them rich, notable deals. TV legends and global superstars came and went. Iconic shows bowed out by taking a curtain call before the press that, in many cases, helped them cut through. Hillary Clinton (with her security) was there. Networks touted new strategies, streamers preached about reach, Snowpiercer finally got a premiere date and the word "brand" was everywhere.

Below, The Hollywood Reporter rounds up the biggest takeaways and buzziest shows from a dizzying two weeks of press conferences and network schmoozing.

TV Brings the Stars
Al Pacino (Hunters), Jennifer Aniston (The Morning Show), Cate Blanchett (Mrs. America), Mark Ruffalo (I Know This Much Is True) , Chris Rock (Fargo), Janelle Monet (Homecoming), Chris Evans (Defending Jacob) and Reese Witherspoon — twice, for Little Fires Everywhere and The Morning Show — were all in the house. Awkwafina, fresh off a surprising Oscar nomination snub, fielded questions about it — and her excellent (and newly renewed) Comedy Central show — with grace and humor. And two-time Oscar nominee Cynthia Erivo — in Japan for a two-day concert series — made time for not one but two satellite chats with reporters to support HBO's The Outsider and Nat Geo's Genius: Aretha.

Legends Hold Court
Yes, the TCA loves star power. But the room really showed its affection for TV legends Alex Trebek, Cicely Tyson, producing icon Norman Lear and his One Day at a Time star Rita Moreno. Trebek — in the midst of whopping ratings for Jeopardy's primetime special — was candid about his health and humble about the syndicated trivia show's success and longevity: "My success, to a great extent, has depended on the success of the game." Tyson, 95, who stars in Ava DuVernay's OWN anthology Cherish the Day, was asked to share the secret to her professional longevity: "I mean, who in the world lives to be … I can’t figure it out myself!" Lear had a great answer for the timeliness of his humor amid raves for Netflix-turned-Pop comedy One Day at a Time and ratings wins for ABC's Live in Front of a Studio Audience: "My bumper sticker reads, 'Just another version of you.'" During the same panel, Moreno was asked about her greatest professional accomplishments: "I've gotten a few awards since our last season, which is just kind of outrageous, and I’m 80-fucking-8!" she quipped after pointing out her upcoming return for Steven Spielberg's take on West Side Story was more than a cameo.

Fond Farewells
The cast and creators of Modern Family, Homeland and Schitt's Creek bid farewell to the press with panels filled with untold stories, fun anecdotes and heartfelt memories, while Better Call Saul announced its endgame and Showtime did the same for Shameless. All three panels were equal amounts victory lap and farewell tour for both the talent and reporters. At the end of two weeks of grilling producers and stars, all we really ask for is good programming.

Pulling Back on Scripted
Six months after a TCA panel for Mr. Mercedes, WarnerMedia-backed Audience Network is no more. Speaking of WarnerMedia, Kevin Reilly — who oversees HBO Max, TBS, TNT and TruTV — revealed from the TCA stage that HBO sibling Cinemax is retreating from scripted, too. As for DC Universe's status as a home for originals, that's being looked at, too. (Do you hear that ticking?) And, less than two years after Facebook execs met the press for the first time, the social networking platform is pulling back on expensive originals, axing well-received shows Sorry for Your Loss and Limetown.

Midseason of Misses?
Following what many critics dubbed the best fall broadcast season in years — see Evil, Stumptown and Emergence — the Big Four's midseason crop may be a different story. While many critics were quietly rolling their eyes after watching screeners for the 2020 arrivals, at least the panels for a couple of surefire one-and-dones were entertaining. Thankfully, there's Rob Lowe and Fox's 911: Lone Star and NBC's Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist, which not only had a good panel but seems to be on its way to "critical darling" status with its upbeat musical covers, dance numbers and stacked cast.

ABC's Live Bet
Entertainment president Karey Burke, ever the believer in broadcast, plans to build on her early success with live comedies, planning at least one tentpole per month. And it doesn't have to be actually live, provided it has the same sense of urgency — like Jeopardy: The Greatest of All Time. To do so, Burke greenlit the Mel Brooks-produced Young Frankenstein live, a music-themed Bachelor spinoff (after all, the franchise is the "unscripted unicorn"), a Jimmy Kimmel-hosted celebrity edition of Who Wants to be a Millionaire and a live (on both coasts!) episode of The Conners timed to the New Hampshire primary. Oh, and the Oscars will go without a host again.

Can Stephen Colbert Do What Jon Stewart Couldn't?
CBS All Access believes Stephen Colbert can do what Jon Stewart couldn't for HBO. The streamer ordered Tooning Out the News, an animated comedy executive produced by the Late Show host that will feature short daily segments that lead up to a weekly episode. HBO scrapped Stewart's planned shortform digital shorts because it couldn't turn them around fast enough. "It really does seem to be innovation technologically that has enabled this to happen," said CBS All Access executive vp originals Julie McNamara.

Amazon Studios' Global Push
It's hard for me to tell if there was one larger takeaway from Jennifer Salke's time onstage because she inundated the room — and likely your inboxes — with a frenzy of notable breaking-news announcements. For the second tour in a row, she got to play Oprah by handing out a slew of overall deals. Jack Reacher got a series pickup, and a bunch of castings were announced — including the core of Amazon's years-in-the-works, $250 million-plus Lord of the Rings show. But it all came and went because the assembled press were more interested in other projects that were greenlit years ago, many of which are still waiting to take shape. Salke's opening remarks stressing Amazon's "increased appetite" in global programming could at least help explain why many of the streamer's programming toils away in development for so long.

AMC's Sales Plan
Network topper Sarah Barnett stressed the value of quality over data and volume — in a subtle shot at analytics-driven streamers like Netflix — and is confident that her basic cable network can sustain itself with nuanced and thoughtful content. Still, that won't prevent AMC from also being an arms dealer to outside buyers like Netflix as the cabler's development slate — for the first time — is divided between programming for itself and content it plans to take out to buyers.

Buzzy Panels 
There are many ways to build buzz at press tour. You can have a creator everybody wants to listen to, like Lena Waithe of BET's Twenties or Alex Garland of FX's Devs. You can pack the stage with stars, like FX did with Mrs. America. You can parlay lively panel interplay into high energy, like Syfy's Resident Alien or Freeform's Everything's Gonna Be Okay. You can put one big star in the middle and hope everybody's genuflection will be contagious, like with Al Pacino for Amazon's Hunters. Or you can build on evident passion, as with Showtime's Good Lord Bird, or get emotions going with a great trailer, like HBO did with the double-dose of Mark Ruffalo in I Know This Much Is True. Or you can build enthusiasm the old-fashioned way: Pack the ballroom at 8:30 in the morning (complete with added security) for Hillary Clinton, though Hulu's strategy on the documentary Hillary probably won't work for everybody.

Multiple Season Renewals
With the WGA's contract with studios set to expire April 30, four shows earned multiple-season renewals during the past two weeks. But is that a sign of networks stockpiling scripts ahead of a potential "pencils down" moment? It's hard to tell as American Horror Story (three more seasons at FX) is an anthology that relies on creator Ryan Murphy crafting a new idea every year; Tosh.0 (four more years at Comedy Central) is a presumably inexpensive clip show; and TBS' American Dad (two more at TBS) is an animated show on a totally different production schedule. Only New Amsterdam and its unexpected three-season renewal at NBC could remain in production in the spring when its current season wraps. Meanwhile, the biggest sign of networks looking to get a jump on early scripts before a possibly walkout came from The CW. Mark Pedowitz, recently promoted to chairman and CEO, handed out the network's first-ever straight-to-series orders (for Superman & Lois and the Jared Padalecki vehicle Walker). Those will film pilots in May and presumably remain in production as Pedowitz avoids the traditional production shutdown in the months between pilot and series pickup. (And The CW, which also renewed 13 shows in between press tour panels from other networks, wasn't even at this press tour.)

Best Clip
Pamela Adlon and FX hands down had the best clip shown in the room. The scene, from the upcoming fourth season of comedy Better Things, featured Adlon and her onscreen daughter (the masterful Mikey Madison) hurling the word "cunt" at one another a whopping 16 times. (And no, that's not a typo.) See for yourself on March 5 (provided standards and practices doesn't get to it first). 

Most Welcome Surprise
NBC started its day with a surprise appearance from Amy Poehler, who announced — as NBC Entertainment head of communications Chip Sullivan — that Amy Poehler and Tina Fey were returning to host the 2021 Golden Globes. "There are no two funnier people anywhere," she quipped. The stunt was perfectly executed, which is more than we can say for Paul Telegdy's scattered executive session that followed.

Most Memorable Quote
Zoe Kazan, one of the stars of HBO's The Plot Against America, was asked to compare the Philip Roth alternate history to her own family history, leading to a deeply considered answer that she tied into a particular line from John Steinbeck's East of Eden, which her grandfather Elia Kazan adapted for the big screen. The line used the Hebrew word timshel, translated as "thou mayest." Speaking around the legacy of Elia Kazan's HUAC testimony, the actress said, "I have not wanted to weigh in on my family’s political history, partially because of the other people it involves in my family who have prized their privacy over a public life. So, I’m not going to go into it. But I will say that I thought a lot about how the history of our country affected my family’s history, what it meant for my grandfather as an immigrant to this country to have his Americanness tested and the choice that he made from that. And I thought a lot about my own choices that I’ve made, the way that I choose to live my life. I think thou mayest choose a different life, and I think that the reason that Steinbeck put that in his book about the foundation of the West in this country is that it’s also about Americans choosing to recognize who they have been." After calling the miniseries "a profound experience," Kazan wrapped an answer that David Simon called "gorgeous."

The Techno-Paranoia Craze
Nothing stirs up nervousness in a room of journalists all tapped into the same public Wi-Fi like a TV panel warning that technology is out to get us. Early in the press tour, it seemed like nearly every session was a cautionary tale, from Fox's "AI is taking over our lives" thriller Next to FX's nebulously mysterious Devs to the more grounded realism of the Frontline documentary Amazon Empire: The Rise and Reign of Jeff Bezos. That sound you might have heard was 250 reporters taping up their webcams, scrapping their Alexas and trying to figure out how to disable the automatic features on their cars.

Head to THR.com/TCA for all of THR's coverage from press tour and stay tuned to TV's Top 5 for more analysis and showrunner interviews from TCA. (ICYMI, listen to our TCA interviews with Tim Minear and John Landgraf and Robert and Michelle King.)

Daniel Fienberg contributed to this report.