Jul 21, 2003  •  Post A Comment

Bingo!!!!! Whether any of those on the summer 2003 press tour in Hollywood ever actually yell that phrase, interrupting some producer, actor or suit in the middle of a press conference, it has become part of the long, rich lore of the semiannual gathering of critics and publicists.
In a column in The Washington Post last week, the always insightful Lisa de Moraes spilled the beans about one way that some veteran journalists, asked to sit through half a dozen or more press conferences each day for almost three weeks, keep the glaze off their eyes and their ears to the grindstone.
In her column, she explains that each journalist gets a bingo-style scorecard on which each square represents a different TV corporate-speak cliche. When, as inevitably happens, someone onstage says something like, `It’s all about the writing,’ you get to mark the corresponding box on your scorecard.”
“Press tour bingo involves lifting cliches and hackneyed expressions that all have a number they coordinate to,” Ms. de Moraes explained to me the evening after her column was published, during the ABC All-Star Party. “And the object is to fill up your scorecard with as many of these cliches as you can during the course of the press tour.”
I asked her if there was a prize. “No, grievously, there is no prize,” she said, “except the pure joy of being able to shout `bingo!’ in the middle of one of the sessions when you finally fill your scorecard.”
Other entries include, “It was organic,” and, “I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the writing.” However, Ms. de Moraes declined to list the rest, fearing it might encourage some suit to say them just for sport. And after all, this is a very serious game.
changing standards
I decided to ask other journalists at the gathering for their favorite press tour moments. Several begged off, and others drew a blank. Here are two who had anecdotes to share.
Stephen Battaglio regularly breaks major TV stories for the New York Daily News. His memory took him back to 1991. It was only a dozen years ago, but light-years away in terms of the changes he has seen on his beat, reflecting a changing world.
“When CBS introduced the series `Uncle Buck,’ based on the movie,” said Mr. Battaglio, “a little kid in the pilot uses the words, `You suck!”’
“This became the scandal throughout the entire press tour,” he recalled. “It was taken as a sign that a standard had truly been breached in television.”
The show lasted less than a year, but he will never forget the CBS party the night after that press conference: “It was a pretty good party. They played a lot of Motown, and people had drank and were dancing, and they just started shouting out, `You suck!’ `You suck!’ Right there on the dance floor, as almost a mantra for the press corps. It seems so quaint when you look back in terms of what you will see now on television.”
Most of the journalists spent hours screening dozens of pilots in advance of the tour, and watched more in their rooms on hotel TV. “This year,” chuckled Mr. Battaglio, “we are hearing the `S-word’ [s**t] in a lot of pilots. Whether it makes it onto the air or not is another question.
“But back in ’91 cable was more of an emerging threat. It hadn’t really shifted the boundaries yet in terms of what was acceptable on broadcast television. We wondered if those barriers would ever be shifted, and it turns out they have.”
who’s the legend?
Finally, an anecdote from the talented writer Dusty Saunders, longtime TV critic for the Rocky Mountain News in Denver.
“It was 1980 and we were at Larry Hagman’s house in Malibu to celebrate the `Who Shot J.R.?’ episode of `Dallas,’ which was a top show at the time,” Mr. Saunders recalled.
“The guest of honor,” said Mr. Saunders, “was his [Mr. Hagman’s] mother, [acclaimed stage and screen actress] Mary Martin. A group of us more established, literate critics were gathering around to talk about her Broadway experience and suddenly a little blond Hollywood bimbo with a microphone came showing up.
She listened for a minute, and said, `Miss Martin. How does it feel to be the mother of a legend?’ And Mary looked at her, put her hand on her shoulder and said, `Larry’s a big star. I’m the legend.”’
So when it is your turn to climb the podium and sit in a leather chair under the shiny network logo, with a tiny mike attached to your lapel, and talk about the TV show you struggled all your life to get on the air, and spout off all the reasons why it will be a giant hit that will make you rich and famous (and allow you to never talk to a bunch of journalists again), remember that you may be the star, but you have a long way to go before you are a legend.
And if some journalist out there in the crowd seems a bit too happy as you spout off about how good you are feeling, it may not be because he is thrilled for your overnight success. He may have just checked off a box on the scorecard hidden inside his network press manual.
It’s all about the game.