Does anyone, outside of 200 TV critics, care whether this January's gathering of the semi-annual network press tour has been canceled?
This thought occurred to me after reading several reports this week that the January Television Critics Association press tour has been ditched due to the on-going writer's strike. First NBC declared they were going to keep their peacock signs and rugs in storage and sit ths one out, then PBS, then MTV--three strikes, you're out.
Regular folks, citizens, readers, can be forgiven if they have begun to suspect that press tour is all about the perks and the hotel. That's how it often gets reported nowadays, and that is wrong, wrong, wrong.
I'll never forget former NBC president Brandon Tartikoff--the brilliant young Yoda of network chiefs, returning from exile as a studio boss toward the end of his life to mingle with a few familiar press faces from back in the day. He held court--only Les Moonves glories in a scrum to that extent today--looked us all in the eye and gave us a label I'll never forget: "America's guests."
Please understand--off and on, I have attended TCA press tours since 1984. Since Cosby, L.A. Law and Cheers. I love press tour, always have--especially in January, when Toronto winters suck. I love it because it is a privileged seat at a table I couldn't otherwise afford. But I also love the challenge of trying to bring readers along for the ride.
On my rookie tour, which was held at the historic Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Arizona Biltmore hotel (where CBS and PBS used to airlift stars and producers far the usual Hollywood distractions), Angela Landsbury was promoting a new little show called Murder, She Wrote. Flip Wilson, Redd Foxx and major nut job Robert Conrad ("Go ahead--knock that battery off my shoulder!") were all trying in vain to restart stalled TV careers. Even Newhart's Larry, Darryl and Darryl were in the house. As a TV beat rookie working for TV Guide Canada, it was a long way from covering Fraggle Rock.
As I've always said, press tour is the Super Bowl of the TV beat. You're not a real TV columnist until you've been in a scrub with Moonves, and--especially if you're a lowly Canadian scribe--you can't get close enough to smell 'em anywhere else.
Having said that, after some 30 years of existence, the tour could use a correction. The emphasis in recent years has been to file off the tour like it was a sporting event, with hourly blog updates about what was served at lunch, which network executive insulted another suit, and who threw the biggest star hissy fit at the increasingly electronic media-driven red carpet evening sessions. It reads like some cozy combination of celebrity Survivor or Big Brother, a reality show for people who cover reality shows. It has become all about the two weeks at the hotel and not about what the readers really care about--the shows.
As a former TCA board member, I know how hard president Dave Walker worked to save this tour and he did it for all the right reasons. He saw the strike as actually making a press tour more valuable, giving journalists a reason to flock to L.A. for two weeks to grill network execs and producers about the impasse and the impact this is all having on the entire industry. He saw it as a big, fat story.
That would have been cool, but taking one January off might also be a good idea in the long run. Scribes need to re-think the tour and the sessions. The pack mentality of throwing the same quotes back from 150 laptops is part of what is killing television reporting opportunities in individual markets. There's a sameness to it all, feeding into the convergence mindset of six owners getting six writers to feed 200 papers.
Better to let individual reports go after individual stories rather than having it mass fed to a sea of open laptops. To that end, and, again, thanks to some hard working members of the TCA board, there has been a shift away from endless hotel sessions and toward more studio set visits. Now there is a reason to visit L.A, twice a year. Scrumming Kiefer Sutherland on the set of 24 sure beats talking to him on the back lawn of the Ritz Carlton in Pasadena (or, these days, some holding cell, although that might make for an interesting story, too). Access to writers, directors, crew members--even the people behind the craft services--is pretty damn fabulous, too.
This from someone who should be jaded as hell at the thought of another trip through the Paramount gates or deep into the Warners Burbank lot. But I never tire of it, there is always something to report and discover. Sitting at the feet of mad genius David Milch on the sun-scorched set of Deadwood--an hour north of Hollywood on the fabled Gene Autry Melody Ranch lot--is as close to a religious experience as you will find in the Godless world of television. Press tours and only press tours provide that, and that is why they should continue every January and July. But if it takes taking one off in 2008 to drive that point home, pass me my snow shovel.