Hollywood strikes could topple TCA

Feb 19, 2001  •  Post A Comment

Much has been made of the impact a strike by writers and/or actors might have on Hollywood this summer, but scant attention has been paid to the potential effects on a summer ritual: the preseason press tour mounted by the Television Critics Association for some 200 to 220 journalists.
If the Writers Guild of America goes on strike when its contract expires May 1, or the Screen Actors Guild and American Federation of Television & Radio Artists walk out when contracts expire July 1, there will be serious-if still hypothetical-questions about the length, format and attendance at the TCA tour that is oh-so-tentatively scheduled for July 9-27 at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Pasadena, Calif.
With a bill that can easily run upward of $5,000 per writer for the complete trip-even with the hotel discount, rooms can run to $3,000, plus car rentals, parking, laundry and a couple or three reasonable meals off the hotel campus-selling the trip to editors back home is not easy in the best of times.
With the soft economy cramping travel budgets, the question of strikes limiting the amount of ink that could flow from writers’ pens into TV sections during the next four or five months-and thus pay for the trip that editors often suspect is one long and exotic boondoggle, anyway-is a big one.
The networks-which can each spend $250,000 to $500,000 or more for a one- or two-day presentation, depending on the lavishness of an evening event or whether satellite feeds are used to boost star participation-and the officers of the TCA have had “what if” discussions about how to structure the tour in event of strike.
The possibilities range from each of the Big 4 networks taking only one day rather than the two days each is currently allotted, to doing some more “revolutionary” restructuring along vertically integrated lines. The latter would give time to, say, Disney or Viacom, to carve up among all its broadcast, cable and syndication arms, rather than the traditional schedule that groups competing broadcast networks, competing cable networks and competing syndicators and tucks PBS somewhere into the calendar.
“It is the TCA’s intention to have a press tour,” said Eric Kohanik, TCA president, who writes for the TV Times/Post TV in Canada.
In spite of the writers’ strike in 1988, there was a summer press tour with presentations dominated by reality programming that was filling the gaps. “I think that was the dawn of tabloid TV,” Mr. Kohanik said.
Each of the networks has committed to at least one day no matter the labor situation, Mr. Kohanik said. PBS has indicated it could take up some slack and program more than two days, a prospect that would not, said more than one reporter, help them convince their editors that they should go to Pasadena.
Most writers feel that if the writers and producers strike but the actors don’t, there will be enough of a celebrity quotient to convince editors the trip would be worthwhile.
If the actors strike but the writers and producers don’t, it will be tougher to justify the extended trip, and the cable, syndication and PBS portions are likely to be poorly attended.
“There’d be some hard choices made by some people if that happened,” said Diane Werts, who covers television for Newsday and is vice president of TCA.
If either or both groups strike, that will be, as one veteran of the tour put it, “the topic that ate the press tour.”
The networks are used to seeing themes take over the press tour. Last summer it was the NAACP’s campaign to extract promises that networks would make their programming more culturally diverse. At the winter tour in January, it was reality programming in general and the graying of ABC’s “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” in particular.
The subject of the press tour, which produces millions upon millions of dollars in nearly free publicity, will be discussed Feb. 23 at the monthly meeting of the Television Publicity Executive Committee in Hollywood.
“We’re all flying by the seat of our pants,” said one TPEC member.
But there are deadlines approaching. Mr. Kohanik said the TCA, the official sponsor of the tour, signs a “master contract” with the hotel and can be held liable for “for financial compensation.”
“There are cutoff dates” for decisions as to how many rooms to reserve over how many days and for related questions, but Mr. Kohanik said he doesn’t know what those dates are.
“The hotel has been understanding,” he said.
“It’s likely a decision won’t be made until the early part of the summer,” said Chris Ender, senior vice president, communications, CBS Entertainment.
He’s among the optimists that believe the tour will not be a casualty of the two possible strikes.
“There’s still going to be programming on the air, and there will still be reporters who need to fill their columns and serve their readers,” said Mr. Ender, who nonetheless has not signed a contract with the Ritz-Carlton yet.
“It’s to everybody’s interests to have this thing go at its usual length, but you’ve got to have the usual names and information and pilots to see and people to talk about them to make it go,” said Ms. Werts.
But even in January, there was talk at the water coolers in Pasadena that a logical decision to pass on a strike-abbreviated press tour this summer might embolden the editors drawing up the next year’s budget to pass on Pasadena because they didn’t go this summer and they “survived.”
“You could be putting a serious hurt on the tour,” said the writer.