TCA Awards: Tour of Duty

Weathering the storm of print media's changing landscape

When the Television Critics Assn. announces the winners of its 2009 awards Saturday, it will be at a no-frills cocktail party in a Pasadena hotel, a far cry from the pomp and hysteria surrounding September's Emmy Awards at L.A. Live's giant Nokia Theatre.

"We don't see the TCA Awards as being part of a marketing or publicity campaign," says Dave Walker, president of the TCA and a critic with the New Orleans Times-Picayune. "The awards really do exist outside of Hollywood, in which every gesture is measured by how it can be monetized."

No one would debate the ideals of the TCA, whose awards have helped build audience awareness for new shows and such boutique networks as FX and AMC.

But, as important as these honors seem to be, the future of the TCA, founded in 1978, is challenged by the closure of newspapers (the dominating force within the organization) and by the growth of the Internet, which has dimmed the future of print.

"The awards aren't even a blip on the world's radar," says Pam McNeely, a founder of media buyers consultant firm Tantera Media Partners and a former media director at media buyer agency Dailey & Associates. "It's an antiquated award. The zeitgeist is determined by bloggers and Facebook and Twitter."

These representatives of the electronic revolution have hit the annual TCA convention hard. Although the association comprises more than 220 U.S. and Canadian critics -- and though as many as 150 had registered by press time, nearly as many as last year -- those numbers are deceptive. Print outlets are hiring freelancers to cover the event, instead of sending costly staffers; and fewer than 100 actual TCA members are expected to attend.

This reflects the fact that consumer newspaper membership of the TCA has decreased to about 40% of the total. Online represents only 23% and the rest of the members come largely from magazines and Hollywood trade papers.

Walker anticipates the online writers' presence will impact the upcoming meeting.

"There will be discussions about why we don't better include TV that does not appear on cable or broadcast -- the online stuff -- and why there isn't a separate category for them and why we don't count more and more of them (outlets) in the future," he says.

Whether the TCA does or not, its members are steadfast in their support of the organization's stated purpose of maintaining the "professional standards of TV criticism ... to improve television as an important element of American life and culture."

The TCA has been a force in television since the 1970s, when the TV networks picked up the tab for most of the nation's critics, generously paying for all their perks. One critic even brought his home draperies with him, charging the cleaning tab to one of his network benefactors.

As television criticism became more respected -- especially after Ron Powers of the Chicago Sun-Times won the first Pulitzer Prize given to a TV critic -- the atmosphere changed. Creating the TCA established the professionalism of critics, and even more so when they eventually eliminated any swag at their events.

Attendees now pay for their own travel and hotels, even though they are allowed to attend business breakfasts, meals and a few cocktail parties.

Inevitably, friction has arisen between the critics and the TV industry they cover. The TCA works closely with TV executives to create the event's schedule for stars, producers and the bosses of cable and TV networks. But the goals of publicists and journalists are often at odds: One wants positive publicity while the other seeks news and information, sometimes critical.

A case in point still stands out from the mid-1970s, during the leg of an ABC summer tour, which convened at the Kona Kai Club in San Diego. When a columnist harshly questioned James Komack, the executive producer of "Chico and the Man" -- whose star Freddie Prinze had committed suicide in 1977 -- Komack vehemently attacked him. One colleague demanded that every journalist present should storm out to support the insulted writer. (None did.)

Back in the 1970s, not everyone tape recorded sessions, and in one instance ABC officials had to borrow a reporter's tape of an especially stormy Q&A encounter with a senior executive. Since then, the networks have recorded all Q&As and offer transcripts to members.

Despite the boost the TCA has given to some shows, Walker says the hunt for quality programs has become increasingly difficult because many are "so far off the radar, they're on sonar."

One show that has been helped is FX's "The Shield" and its star Michael Chiklis, who won a TCA award for individual achievement in drama in 2002 before winning an Emmy and Golden Globe in 2003. That helped raise awareness of FX as a basic cable network, which in turn, helped the subsequent success of its legal drama "Damages." "The Shield," in its final season, is nominated for four TCA awards, including program of the year.

Shawn Ryan, the show's executive producer, says the three TCA nominations in 2002 (the year his series debuted) were vitally important for FX.

"Back then, there were just three networks and HBO and you didn't have the same kind of money, and the feeling was that our quality would suffer," he says. "Those nominations were a validation that we could compete with anyone."

The critics also played a role in establishing movie channel AMC's series programming when they recognized "Mad Men," a drama about the advertising world in New York. Debuting in 2007, it won three TCA Awards, including program of the year.

This year, "Mad Men" is nominated for three awards, again including program of the year.

While media buyers like McNeely scoff at the awards, marketing executives maintain that the TCA honors help gain viewership for quality shows, which brings in fussy advertisers looking for wealthier and better-educated audiences. Such audiences generate higher ad revenues.

"A TCA Award gives us some extra ammo to get viewers to watch a quality show," says John Miller, NBC's chief marketing executive. "There are advertisers who want shows like '30 Rock' and 'The Office' because of the quality of their audiences, who look for good content value."

The Times-Picayune's Walker argues the press tour is also valuable to him and other TV writers, especially because the convention offers newspapers in smaller markets like his an easy access to celebrities and executives.

"There's a need for a navigator in a world of so much change, and I don't think this has diminished," he says. "Publications are cutting critics and these people are important, maybe even more so now."