TV

Everyone’s a Critic: High Times at the TCA Press Tour

Fourteen days. A couple hundred journalists. Dozens of networks. Way too many shows. What could go wrong?

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Twice a year, a swarm of critics descends on Hollywood for the TCA press tour, a rare occasion when the stars of TV are forced to rub elbows with the hordes of ink-stained wretches who obsess over them. My favorite part of last year’s tour unfolded in the bathroom of a restaurant on Sunset Boulevard. I went there to hide from the scene outside: a buffet breakfast billed as an “informal mingle” between a couple of dozen CBS stars and the fifty-odd journalists who were presently descending upon the talent between bites of smoked salmon and scrambled egg. I’d come to Los Angeles from New York for a few days in early January, and I wondered if anyone would notice if I slipped outside and stood in the sun until it was time to get back on the bus, which would take us to the 20th Century Fox lot for a visit to the set of FX’s Feud: Bette and Joan. That’s when a very successful, very attractive TV actor-producer walked in and asked me for a tampon.

It was my first time at the TCA press tour, a media showcase organized by the Television Critics Association — a body of 244 journalists (I’m one) from across the United States and Canada who regularly cover television. I had heard of this unicorn of an affair, a mecca of entertainment reporting where every major network — and cable channel, and Netflix and Hulu and Crackle and YouTube and Snap, and next year, probably, General Electric’s microwave division — was fabled to swoop down on a hotel in celestial Pasadena, California, to offer up the stars and creators of their upcoming shows. Now I would witness firsthand the daily barrage of beautiful people and abundant swag, the twelve-plus-hour days of panels, cocktail parties, and set visits stuffed into a two-week orgy of access. I wasn’t sure what to expect. Was this just a pay-to-play situation, a circle jerk among shiny publicists and schlubby journalists who’d obediently write up flattering stories between network-provided meals and itinerary items with descriptions like, “General Hospital Candy Bar Break”?

At the very least, I wasn’t expecting to hand a feminine hygiene product to a grateful celebrity in a rental dress. She thanked me, introduced herself as if there was a remote possibility that I didn’t know who she was, and shook my hand. I hastily texted a friend, then headed back out to join the circus.

For decades, journalists have been coming to Los Angeles every January and July for this uniquely open-access experience. The press tour predates the TCA itself, which formed in 1978 in response to a growing concern about the practice of junkets, for which the networks would pay for critics’ plane tickets and hotel rooms on top of providing food and drink. Originating in the 1950s, TV press tours used to be grand affairs — and actual tours — with cash-flush corporations shelling out for cross-country train trips. 

That changed in the early 1970s, when the media profession as a whole was reckoning with the fallout of the Watergate scandal and realizing the need to maintain sturdy boundaries between reporters and their subjects. David Bianculli, the TV critic for NPR’s Fresh Air and a longtime TCA member, told me that after Watergate, “all of journalism woke up.” By the time of his first press tour in 1977, “there were already people there who were saying, ‘We’ve got to change this — we want to be able to talk to the executives, we want to say what we feel and what we don’t, and we want our papers to pay for it.’ ” A notorious 1974 60 Minutes report that showed a critic from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette opening an envelope containing twenty bucks cash at a CBS junket, courtesy of the network, wasn’t a great look for the industry. By 1987, outlets were paying their writers’ hotel and plane fares, and the TCA had officially taken over scheduling duties from the networks.

The old-timers will tell you it used to be so lavish, they figured no one would believe them. There were rooftop parties with Rosemary Clooney providing accompaniment, and dinners out at swanky L.A. spots like Spago and Jimmy’s, where a critic from Schenectady or Sioux Falls might find himself sandwiched between Ellen Burstyn and Cicely Tyson. Some reporters remember being on set during the filming of the last-ever episode of M*A*S*H, in 1983. The tour even used to include visits to the homes of the stars: In the 1980s, when Dallas was at the height of its popularity, critics were invited to Larry Hagman’s Malibu mansion — where one was caught rifling through J.R.’s underwear drawer.

These days, the tour isn’t quite that intimate. But it still offers a fairly low barrier to entry for journalists from all sorts of outlets, from the New York Times to the A.V. Club to TVGroove.com. The TCA has negotiated a hotel room rate for members during the tour that remains about the same as it was thirty years ago. Some people have been coming for so long, seeing their fellow critics at the press tour once or twice a year feels like returning to camp. Almost all the events take place in the same hotel, in the lovely but isolated Pasadena (the July tour takes place in Beverly Hills); there’s not much within walking distance, and most critics don’t bother to rent cars. And anyway, you’re usually too busy writing up the day’s business to plan excursions: This year, I counted 79 panels over the 14 days of the winter press tour, which ended last week. On top of that, most evenings include working “parties,” where you can sidle up to the stars and producers from that day’s sessions for brief follow-ups.

On a Monday morning in January, 150-odd journalists stumbled, bleary-eyed, into a hotel ballroom filled with dozens of long, white-clothed tables facing a stage. We took our seats, sipping bitter hotel coffee and biting into waxy pastries. It was the morning after the Golden Globes, still early in the day. It was ABC’s turn to present, and Jimmy Kimmel was first on the docket, here to take questions about his Oscar-hosting gig in March. A network publicist stepped up to the podium. “I know Jimmy’s thrilled to be here at 9 a.m. to talk to you all,” he said drily.

We chuckled, and the lights went down as a trailer for the Oscars began to play on screens on either side of the stage. The panels are not televised or streamed, and journalists are strictly forbidden from taking photos or videos — or from snapping selfies with celebs during the “scrums” that take place after each session, where reporters swarm the stage and huddle around the panelists to ask more questions. Twitter notwithstanding, the fact that no one is being recorded gives the sessions a more informal and intimate feel than the kinds of panels that are assembled during film festivals, which are usually open to the public as well as the press. The trailer ended, and there was a half-hearted smattering of applause. The lights went up to reveal Kimmel sitting on a black leather chair. “I know that’s the equivalent of a standing ovation here,” he quipped. “I appreciate it.”

In fact, the TCA asks that journalists in the ballroom not applaud during or after promo videos and panel discussions; that sound Kimmel heard was coming from the back of the room, where the publicists sit — not unlike Donald Trump’s early practice of engineering applause during his press conferences. “We’re not breaking Watergate here,” TCA president Daniel Fienberg joked during the group’s biannual meeting in early January. But the organization holds members to high standards of conduct. Reporters are encouraged to watch the screeners they’re sent in the weeks leading up to the press tour, to ask solid questions, and to follow up on one another’s queries if the talent tries to dodge them.

We are certainly not encouraged to accost the talent in a hotel foyer late at night, but hey, that’s the risk you take when you combine a building full of celebrities with an open bar and a press corps. There’s a good chance you’ll bump into a famous face or two wandering the hotel’s labyrinthine hallways; if you happen to do so after an evening of free drinks and pitilessly tiny appetizers, all bets are off. Who knows — you might end up smoking some freshly legal weed by the pool one night with your new best friends, newspaper writers who’ve been coming to the press tour for decades and who will, after a couple of puffs, gladly regale you with stories of late-night hot tub sessions with the cast of Friday Night Lights. Stumbling back to your room, you could find yourself face to face with the new bachelor, every bit the Ken doll you imagined he’d be. And if you give in to the urge to greet him with the earnest wish that he find love and high ratings in the 18-to-49 demographic — well, I wouldn’t judge you.

 

It’s true the optics are not always great. Networks used to give out so much swag that in 1998 the TCA requested they limit their giveaways to purely informational material. But that hasn’t quite stuck: This year I brought home a Top Chef Jr.–branded spatula, a blanket designed to look like the iconic crocheted couch throw from Roseanne, a bow tie courtesy of The Young Sheldon, an American Idol–stamped novelty microphone, an Olivia Pope–approved wine tumbler from the folks behind Scandal, and a pair of men’s underwear with “Ellen” — as in, DeGeneres — printed on the waistband. And I was only there three days.

But make no mistake — the journalists aren’t there for the freebies. For many reporters, the most valuable moments are the executive sessions, where a network head faces down a room full of critics. This year, ABC president Channing Dungey took to the stage for her solo session and proclaimed the TCA tour “one of the most valuable things that we do” — and then attempted to tackle questions about the lack of a title for the upcoming Grey’s Anatomy spinoff, the swift cancellation of The Mayor, and doubts about the network’s commitment to promoting its new sci-fi action series The Crossing in the wake of the botched rollout of last year’s Kyra Sedgwick thriller, Ten Days in the Valley. “Can we really trust you to continue a serialized show?” one reporter asked. “Because with Ten Days in the Valley, you didn’t give people much warning. You suddenly pulled it.” Dungey had to admit that, yeah, ABC’s marketing team didn’t do a great job with that one. When the session ended, she was quickly spirited out of the room.

As Rob Owen of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, who’s been coming to the press tour since 1997, put it, “In what other industry are the heads of corporations held with their feet to the fire for the decisions they’ve made in the past six months?”

The tour is not just an opportunity for critics to air their grievances. As the number of television shows in production each year continues to rise, the event has become a tool for sorting through, and making sense of, new series and industry trends. John Landgraf, the president of FX — which for years has compiled and released annual statistics on the rising number of scripted series on TV — coined the term “Peak TV” at his TCA executive session in 2015, and the phrase has since entered the popular lexicon, helping writers and viewers contextualize this era of bloat. (In 2017, there were an astounding 487 original scripted series on television, up from 455 the year before.)

Pointing to the fact that several networks, including NBC and the CW, declined to schedule executive sessions during the January tour this year, an FX publicist told me that such avoidance only engenders skepticism among the press. Landgraf — whom veteran TV critic Alan Sepinwall dubbed “the mayor of TV” — has used the TCA press tour almost as a diplomatic effort.

“Being willing to subject ourselves to evaluation and criticism, in my view, makes us stronger,” Landgraf told me. “I’m not saying the TCA is a perfect filter. It’s very hard, frankly, to get up in a room like that. I speak in long sentences where I provide nuanced context and I have a certain suspicion that not everybody in that room cares about that, or wants to get that right.” Despite his commitment to the spirit of the press tour, Landgraf maintains that a lot of the stories generated by TCA sessions are mere clickbait. “There’s a system in journalism designed to undermine context,” he admitted. “It’s a hard environment but we live in a free society, with a free press. What are you gonna do?”

On top of generating juicy copy, the press tour allows reporters to get a sense of all these bold-faced names as real people. During their session promoting HBO’s 2 Dope Queens specials, Phoebe Robinson and Jessica Williams got each reporter’s name before he or she asked a question. At the end of the panel for her new ABC sitcom Splitting Up Together, Jenna Fischer revealed that she once worked as a transcriber at the TCA press tour (each panel is transcribed for the journalists in attendance), and that earlier in the day, she’d popped into the transcription room to say hi to the women working there. Brendan Fraser, who plays a Texas P.I. in the upcoming FX series Trust, showed up to that evening’s party in full cowboy gear, and stayed until the very end.

The “talent” doesn’t always surprise you like that. At that fateful CBS brunch last year (the site of the Great Tampon Swap of 2017), a reporter friend spotted Aisha Tyler, who was then a host of The Talk, chatting with Joel McHale and Matt LeBlanc, promoting their respective CBS sitcoms, The Great Indoors and Man With a Plan. She skirted around a long table filled with chafing dishes and politely interrupted their conversation. When McHale and LeBlanc realized she wanted to speak to Tyler and not to them, they loudly scoffed, and started making sarcastic jokes while she tried to conduct the interview. It’s kind of amazing how some of these grown adults will act when they’re not on camera — even in a room full of press.

Those moments ruin the magic, but that’s kind of the critics’ job. “It’s the best part of the TCA tour,” said NPR’s Bianculli. “Not necessarily being confrontational, but being journalistic.” The tour’s impact may be hard to measure, but it’s undeniable. Fienberg, the TCA president, told me the networks have their concerns about the “long tail” of the tour — the amount of stories that writers bank for the months ahead. It’s something the TCA is always working to demonstrate, to make their case for the continuing relevance of the event. “There’s also the awareness that comes from a body of people who write about things for an entire year,” Fienberg said. “The things I learn at a panel either get me more or less excited about a show, they get me more or less likely to [watch] a second or third episode. There’s no way to reach more publications and more people than us, and to get more of a splash of awareness.”

Early one morning during this year’s winter tour, I watched two network-provided episodes of the upcoming Roseanne reboot. A devoted fan of the original sitcom, I could barely hold back tears when the opening credits began. But when critics shuffled into the ballroom for the show’s panel later that day, the atmosphere quickly cooled.

We took our seats and cooed through a trailer of clips from the original series. Then the lights came up on the cast and producers seated on black chairs, with creator Roseanne Barr, flanked by co-stars Laurie Metcalf and John Goodman, settled into a replica of the show’s famously shabby couch. “Can the lights be brighter at all?” Barr said in her nasal drawl. A few folks laughed nervously. Barr did not. Then came the questions.

“Got to ask about Trump,” NPR’s Eric Deggans began. In the new episodes, Roseanne-the-character is revealed to have voted for Trump, and in real life, Barr has made headlines for her support for the president. Barr tried passing the question off to executive producer Bruce Helford, but Deggans clarified that it was meant for her. Co-star Sara Gilbert spoke about the show reflecting a divided country, but Deggans kept pushing:

“I appreciate all of that, but Roseanne, you’re known for defending Trump on social media,” he said. “Is there a problem in talking about why you support him, and why they may have found inspiration in your views to add it to the show?”

“I don’t know what you’re asking me,” Barr replied flatly. In the ballroom, people shifted in their seats.

“I’m asking you how the storyline came to be, and if it was inspired by your own personal, real-life support for the president?” he pressed.

“In the Roseanne shows I’ve always tried to have it be a true reflection of the society we live in. So I feel like half the people voted for Trump, and half didn’t, so it’s just realistic,” Barr responded. But Deggans didn’t let up.

“What was the reaction when you read that script?”

“What?”

“What was the reaction when you realized the Roseanne from the sitcom was also a Trump supporter?”

“Well, I’m one of the writers, so I didn’t just read it.”

“So we go back to the same question. Did you write that?”

“I think I just answered that.”

“No, you didn’t.”

Barr eventually described her desire to portray a working-class family that voted for Trump, but the room wasn’t done with her yet. Soraya McDonald, a culture critic for The Undefeated, explained that she always appreciated Roseanne’s rejection of racism on the original series, and wondered how that characterization squared with her voting for a candidate who was so openly racist and xenophobic.

“Well, that’s your opinion,” Barr shot back. “That he’s xenophobic?” McDonald asked. “Yeah,” Barr affirmed. “But he said Mexicans were rapists,” McDonald replied.

“Well, he says a lot of crazy shit,” Barr said. And then she kept on talking. “You know, I’m not a Trump apologist and there are a lot of things he has said and done that I don’t agree with, like there’s probably a lot of things Hillary Clinton has done and said that you don’t agree with. And so nobody is brainwashed into agreeing with a hundred percent of what anybody says, let alone a politician or a candidate.”

You could hear the fingers fly faster on the laptop keyboards.

“But one great thing that I read today is that this is the lowest black unemployment. This is the lowest level of that for many, many years. So I think that’s great, and I do support jobs for people. And I think that that’s a great way to fight racism, is for everybody to have a good job.”

Glances were exchanged. The clacking grew louder.

“It’s always a lesser of two evils, and we all have to face our own conscience of how we do that. And speaking of racism, I mean, I’m just going to say it —”

“Uh, you sure?” Gilbert chimed in.

Barr barreled on. “I appreciate your concern,” she began slowly. “But I am going to say that a large part of why I could not vote for Hillary Clinton is because Haiti.”

There was a collective intake of breath. At this point, the headlines were writing themselves.  The network moderator leaned into the podium microphone.

“And we’re out of time!”

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