For many who work in Hollywood, the twice-yearly Television Critics Association press tour has become a sort of necessary evil, not unlike a colonoscopy. There’s lots of messy preparation, followed by a mildly painful episode involving some probing and jabbing. If all goes well, it’s over quickly, no bad news emerges and the whole thing is soon forgotten.
Networks have been unhappy with TCA for years, but other than cutting back on some parties, they’ve done little to change the status quo.
Timidity is no longer an option. The time has come to stick a knife in press tour. But instead of using that knife to off TCA, broadcast and cable networks—in conjunction with the critics—should perform radical surgery on the event, cutting out all the bad elements that threaten to make it a relic.
“The biggest problem with press tour is that its format has not evolved,” one veteran of the broadcast business told me last week. “Sitting in a ballroom talking to reporters for two straight days about your network’s programming isn’t the best showcase to get the word out about the value of your product to the end user, which in our case is the audience.”
That’s the cost-benefit argument against press tour. Many network types hate TCA because it simply costs too much—up to $500,000 for a Big Four broadcaster—and the event doesn’t deliver the same promotional punch it once did.
But as painful as press tour can be, simply giving up on the whole event—or cutting the tour back to just summer, an idea floated by some network executives—is an awful notion.
As anyone at MyNetworkTV or Ion can attest, owning a TV network doesn’t guarantee any sort of significant coverage by the pop culture media. “Saturday Night Live” overlord Lorne Michaels smartly pointed out a couple months back that broadcasters now find themselves competing not just with each other or even cable, but with videogames such as Guitar Hero (not to mention YouTube and Heavy.com).
What networks ought to do is find a creative way to amortize the cost of press tour across multiple platforms. Give the old-school TCA crowd the access they need, but abandon the idea that the only way to deliver information is via mass press conferences in hotel ballrooms.
Here’s an idea: Why not replace one of the semiannual press tours—most likely the winter edition—with a convention-style gathering that showcases the biggest veteran shows as well as newer fare? It’s time to take a cue from events with more cultural buzz, such as the annual geekapalooza known as Comic-Con.
In other words, the television industry needs TV-Con.
Comic-Con, while not strictly a TV event, has come close in recent years to eclipsing press tour as the most important tentpole on the summer TV calendar. The TV business has begun embracing the Con with the sort of passion and intensity normally reserved for the relationship between Republican presidential candidates and big oil companies.
Fans of “30 Rock,” “House,” “How I Met Your Mother,” “Brothers & Sis¬ters” and “Gossip Girl” might not be into funny costumes, but they can be just as passionate about their favorite shows as those who worship at the altar of “Lost.” Getting several thousand of them to shell out $75 to attend a weeklong celebration of all things TV shouldn’t be too hard.
TV-Con could follow the same basic model as Comic-Con: Fans interacting with stars at autograph booths, episodes of new shows screened throughout the day and creators answering questions—from both fans and journalists—during panel discussions.
Networks could make TV-Con more useful for reporters by giving them special access to stars and executives—lunch with the cast of “The Office” or “Mojitos With McPherson.” The all-star parties that are such a hallmark of press tour—and where many reporters get their best items—could continue to be a press-only perk.
Who knows, mingling with real-life TV fans and breaking away from the 12-press-conferences-a-day paradigm could result in better, more interesting reporting about the medium. Actual news might even break out.
There are some potential problems with TV-Con. It will be very tempting for networks to make the event nothing but a love-in, giving reporters few chances to ask hard questions of executives and producers. And producing the show might actually end up costing more money than TCA.
There’s also no guarantee that cable networks would be on board. Smaller channels and those not linked to a Big Four network are generally happy with the level playing field the current TCA setup offers.
Some industry insiders favor a less radical revamping of press tour. One possibility is the idea of turning the winter press tour into a giant Universal Studios backlot tour, with reporters packing a dozen or more set visits into a week or so. A virtual press tour that gives reporters the option of attending press conferences via videoconferencing also has been mentioned in conversations between network executives and TCA members.
Whatever form press tour takes in the years ahead, the networks would be smart to figure out some way to keep it going as long as they can. One look at the pathetic Nielsen numbers they’ve been posting this summer demonstrates they need more, not less, promotional firepower in their arsenals.