Strike puts TV critics press tour in limbo

(Matthew Simmons / Getty Images)

NEXT month, reporters and TV critics from all over the nation are supposed to converge on the Hilton Universal City to get the skinny on the latest shows. Top talent and executives are scheduled to turn up for press conferences and lavish parties hosted by some of the industry’s biggest guns.

How big? Folks, we’re talking HDNet, GSN and Starz.

Wait, not what you had in mind? Well, me neither. Not to cast aspersions on any of these fine programmers (hey, I actually watch HDNet), but second-tier cable networks don’t embody the hoo-ha one usually associates with the Television Critics Assn. Press Tour, where programmers would flog their wares every July and January, until the strike began.

Reporters cover TCA to nab some great quotes from Teri Hatcher or Mark Burnett, not to grab some clips from “Greatest Game Show Moments.”

Even if you’ve never heard of TCA, it has an impact on what you know about TV. Much of what Americans read and hear about the television business is generated during this event.

The press tour, due to begin Jan. 8, is where regional reporters and critics load up on interviews and feature stories for the next six months, telling viewers about new programs they otherwise might never hear about. Trade publications and major newspapers, including this one, attend as well.

The tour is a pillar of the TV world, in other words, and one that might collapse due to the strike. If the winter press tour is canceled -- as looks increasingly likely -- editors of cash-strapped newspapers might be more reluctant to dispatch reporters to future tours, reasoning that they’ve proved they can do without.

As for Los Angeles, this is another example of how the local economy is being crunched by the strike.

Many PR officials expect that Writers Guild of America strikers will picket every day outside the Hilton if the strike is still on. And although negotiators are due back at the table Tuesday, the guild’s leaders issued a statement describing last week’s round with the networks and studios as “dispiriting.”

That’s left the critics association’s board and its new president, Dave Walker of New Orleans’ Times-Picayune, scrambling to keep alive January’s TCA event. Many networks are backing out; a few others, bless their marketing budgets, say they’ll soldier on. But the association and the networks are running out of time.

On Saturday, Walker sent TCA members an e-mail saying that if the strike isn’t settled soon -- he suggested Dec. 14 as the deadline -- the winter tour should be canceled entirely. “I’m tired of quixotic wrangling, and I’m sure you’re all tired of the uncertainty,” he wrote.

Walker has observed that the winter press tour has overcome far bigger problems than the writers strike, including the first war in Iraq and the Northridge earthquake.

Even if the strike is settled this week, however, it’s clear that the winter press tour will be a victim. Here’s the grim tally: NBC has said its broadcast network won’t attend, although its cable outlets still hope to give TCA a whirl. The other broadcast networks are on the fence pending the strike’s outcome.

But because it takes weeks to plan these tour events, the typical full day offered by each network seems highly unlikely, according to PR chiefs.

On Friday, Walker told me that PBS, which had planned a “robust” day-and-a-half worth of presentations regardless of the strike’s status, now says it won’t do anything if the strike is still on, because of concerns about talent availability.

On the cable side, Lifetime, A&E and the Turner Networks (including CNN and TNT) definitely won’t do TCA this year, according to the Cable & Telecommunications Assn. for Marketing. The ABC cable networks, including Disney Channel, decided to skip the winter press tour before the strike even started. Showtime will offer some panels only if its sister network, CBS, decides to participate.

For now, that leaves TCA with a handful of major players, including HBO, Discovery and FX, plus a few smaller fry such as Hallmark Channel and TV One. Better than nothing, for sure, but hardly a can’t-miss event. Around 40 of TCA’s 220 members “are planning to attend no matter what,” Walker said.

In a prepared statement, a Fox spokesman summed up the mood of uncertainty: “The TCA Press Tour is an important opportunity for us and we’re studying all possible options -- including talent availability -- before making a final decision.”

For the broadcasters, TCA is a fairly pricey reckoning; a full complement of press conferences, catered lunches, parties and all the trimmings can run up to $500,000 per network. PR folk typically justify the cost by noting that the journalists covering the event hammer out reams of copy about new shows.

That argument doesn’t fly this year,though. One PR chief told me that even if a few presentations could be thrown together, the company was in no mood to shell out all that dough and then have everyone sitting there talking about the strike.

Does all this matter? Will anyone cry if a few dozen journalists can’t obtain their quota of quotes from the people who run TV?

That probably depends on who’s asking. If you’re a guild member, a TCA flameout may be delightful news, because it’s further evidence that the strike is bringing the war home to the networks. Which is, like, the whole point of the strike.

Fact is, though, some broadcasters have been carping for years about the winter press tour. They feel it’s a pale reflection of the July event, where they’re able to bang the drums loudly for their fall lineups. By midseason, many of those shows have been canceled and fans are questioning network decision-making, which automatically puts executives on the defensive.

“The summer press tour is critical to doing my job,” said Maureen Ryan, television critic for the Chicago Tribune (which, like the Los Angeles Times, is owned by Tribune Co.) and a TCA member who doesn’t plan to attend the January tour. “I didn’t get that impression from the winter tour. I didn’t get the impression the broadcast networks took it all that seriously.”

Walker said the networks blow hot and cold on the winter tour. “The grumbling tends to be cyclical,” he said. “Networks who need it love it.”

It seems, though, that TCA is no longer the only avenue for big-time access. Stars and their handlers still maintain fairly high media barriers, but show runners -- the executive producers who supervise the creative aspects of a TV series -- are increasingly responsive to individual critics, bloggers and fan sites, sharing their views about story arcs and occasionally dropping a real scoop or two.

Does this mean there’s no need for a big, industry-wide confab? Of course not; show runners, after all, meet writers at events such as TCA, which helps establish relationships in the first place.

Still, the center of gravity is shifting. People’s conception of “the media” is getting broader, and the half-century-old system whereby scoops and routine news were doled out among a few dozen big media outfits is breaking down, growing more decentralized. Not just in the TV biz, but everywhere.

Here’s a hunch: We haven’t heard the last of winter TCA, even if next month’s event is a dud or gets canceled. Walker, in fact, said he’s even doing some planning for the January 2009 tour.

“We have a contract ready to sign,” he said. “I’ve had no communication from the networks telling me to stop.”

The Channel Island column runs every Monday in Calendar. Contact Scott Collins at