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TCA a Case of Access vs. Expense

Jan 2, 2006  •  Post A Comment

Usually, by the first week of December, television news columnist Gail Shister of the Knight Ridder-owned Philadelphia Inquirer has set up appointments and business dinners for the Television Critics Association’s winter press tour scheduled in January. For 12 years Ms. Shister has gone to the tour, a semi-annual event held in the Los Angeles area that brings together TCA members to meet with network executives and talent.

But with Knight Ridder on the sales block, fiscal uncertainty at the Inquirer left Ms. Shister wondering whether she would be making the trip to the press tour, to be held at the Ritz-Carlton Huntington Hotel & Spa in Pasadena, Calif. If the newspaper industry’s financial problems put pressure on reporters and critics to skip the press tour, it could damage an event the networks use to fuel much of the publicity they garner for the entire year. Attendance of journalists from so many different markets is considered crucial by many in the TV business, because it enables networks and producers to connect with-and in some cases sway-the press that speaks directly to TV viewers.

“Anytime you can put a body of reporters in a room and give them access to your top executives and top talent, news will flow from that,” one network executive said.

Knight Ridder isn’t the only company with major newspaper holdings that is struggling. More than 2,000 jobs were cut by U.S. newspapers in 2005, according to the trade publication Editor & Publisher.

For journalists who cover television, the two- to three-week-long press tours can cost their papers thousands of dollars in hotel charges and airfare.

“I don’t think they have suspended all travel expenses, but they are watching every penny,” Ms. Shister said of the Inquirer.

In the past the Inquirer sent both Ms. Shister, who covers the news of the TV business, and her colleague, TV critic Jonathan Stone, to each press tour. In late December, however, it was decided Ms. Shister alone would attend the January press tour and Mr. Stone would solo at the July event.

This January between 140 and 165 reporters are expected to make it to Pasadena, a number “right in the range” for a winter press tour, said Rob Owen, president of TCA.

“It’s not like we’ve suddenly dropped to beneath what we are accustomed to,” Mr. Owen said, noting that this isn’t the first time the newspaper industry has weathered a tough economic environment. “They have been under financial pressure before, and they will again,” he said. “Press tour existed then and they will in the future.”

The press tour is a string of conferences, usually starting in the morning with a cable or broadcaster executive session and ending after a series of Q&A sessions with executive producers and talent from specific shows. The day is capped with a reception featuring top executives from the network of the day.

Written transcripts are available to attendees within 24 hours. The press tour allows reporters and critics to bank stories with quotes from the stars of upcoming shows for the next six months. The budgets for networks making presentations at the press tour can be sizable, considering room rentals, audio/visual expenses, signage, air travel for talent and catering. The price tag can run broadcasters $200,000 to $250,000 a day.

Several networks are starting to re-examine their investments in the press tour.

“You do worry that you’ll reach a point where the cost does not equal the return,” the executive said.

Despite the costs, and the possibility that high-profile reporters like Ms. Shister won’t attend every press tour, the efficiency of the event still makes the venture attractive to networks, since it saves publicity departments the time of having to set up hundreds of individual interviews.

“It still has relevance as a platform to introduce new programming and get your company messages out,” the executive said, noting that as long as critics keep writing stories about the new network offerings, the press tour will be worth the expense.

But media companies are bracing themselves, Mr. Owen said. Some companies are devising new efficiencies when planning for press tour, with smaller cable companies occasionally sitting out if they have nothing to promote, and sister network and cable outlets presenting on the same day to conserve costs, according to Mr. Owen.

In January, for example, the Viacom-owned UPN and Showtime will share a press tour day.

With the proliferation of broadband, doing a video link press conference is now easier than it has ever been, raising the question of whether technology could help cut costs, another network executive said.

“Could it be done in a conference call?” the network executive asked. “Probably.”

But in a world where television critics are being inundated by new programming from every angle, having a dedicated period of time where networks know they have journalists’ attention is very valuable, so it’s worth it to the networks to find a way to keep the event intact, even with the costs, another network executive said.

“It’s much better than just putting another video on their desk,” the executive said.

And for some formats, particularly comedy, a good press session can change attitudes about a show. A humorous executive producer and a quotable star can help build momentum if they get critics laughing. That’s what happened after “The Simple Life” press tour session in 2003, when many critics went in not knowing what to expect but walked out with a better understanding of the reality series.

Reporters like Ms. Shister swear by the press tour’s other benefits and note that their colleagues on the sports desk spend far more in travel costs. If any newspaper had an excuse to skip press tour, it would be The Times-Picayune in New Orleans, but the paper’s TV critic, Dave Walker, will be in Pasadena this January.

“It is incredibly difficult right now just because of the many unknowns about the city, and the future,” Mr. Walker, a TCA board member and the organization’s hotel coordinator said. “But everybody’s working as hard as they can to maintain the continuity for the readers.”

The access press tour allows can’t be duplicated through conference calls and e-mail, he said, particularly for reporters in markets outside the Hollywood loop.

“It ends up informing and increases my understanding of how the business works,” he said.

The unique nature of the TCA press tour keeps the event relevant, said David Bianculli, TV critic for the New York Daily News. Before TCA was founded in 1978, networks used to sponsor all-expenses-paid press junkets. But newspaper ethics policies started being enforced, and a group of journalists formed the TCA as an alternative.

“When it became something newspapers took control of, we said we’d like to have access to executives,” Mr. Bianculli said.

That change had a big impact in making TCA more than just a junket, a network executive said.

“We’re the only industry where leaders are held accountable twice a year,” he said.

Roger Catlin, TV critic for The Hartford (Conn.) Courant, said he has also watched staff reductions take place at his paper, but he is planning to attend the press tour. He will be filing many more stories than he did just a year ago, in fact. At the summer press tour in July Mr. Catlin was one of the growing number of reporters blogging from the event, after being encouraged by editors to come up with fresh content for the papers’ Web sites.

“There was just a ton of material they could use,” he said.

TCA is also well aware of the pressures on its members, who pay a $50 annual membership. TCA has no office, no full-time employees and an all-volunteer member board.

Ms. Shister booked a flight to Los Angeles and made a reservation at the press tour host hotel. She is assuming she can go until told otherwise. The one-on-one access the tour provides makes it worthwhile for her to push forward. “I write a news column, so I’m very depe
ndent on access,” she said. “Somebody who doesn’t know your face is much less likely to return your call.”