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A Personal History of, and Farewell to, TCA Press Tour
July 22, 2008  | By David Bianculli
I'm back -- a little early since it ends today, but I'm back. Back from the latest Television Critics Association press tour, the highlight of which was the 24th (and, so far, best) TCA Awards show Saturday night. I'm a little fatigued, a little proud, and, since this most likely was my last time on press tour, a little nostalgic...

I attended my first television critics press tour in 1977. The tour, and the event, was organized by the networks then, but I arrived just as newcomers to the beat were lobbying for more independence and input. The Television Critics Association was formed the following year, its charter and ideals hammered out in a tiny conference room at the Century Plaza Hotel in Los Angeles.


When I started on the tour, and became a founding member of the TCA, I was the young turk from the Ft. Lauderdale News -- the youngest kid on the beat, at a time when idealism was high and programming was low. I remember, in particular, asking CBS Entertainment President Bud Grant how he could sleep at night after having put The Dukes of Hazzard on the air. He replied, with a smile, that the show averaged a 40 share, so he slept just fine.

The beat, and the way of covering it, was quite different then. Other than for those on stage being interviewed, there were no microphones at press conferences. Reporters outshouted and outmaneuvered each other to get their questions in (my favorite trick was to say, "If I could follow that up with a completely unrelated question...").

Programs were unveiled in mass screenings. Sessions were not transcribed, so reporters were on their own to record or write down quotes. And the delivery of news, at that point, was strictly a once-a-day affair. No Internet. No blogs. No cable, other than little things called TBS and HBO, and a lot less deadline pressure.

It's evolved to an amazing extent in the decades since, and I'm proud to have played a small part in TCA press tour history.

As a TCA secretary in the very early days, I launched the TCA newsletter, then a printed magazine -- author and former TV critic Harlan Ellison contributed one of the first cover stories -- and now delivered by email.


Also in those early days, I got the approval of the TCA officers and board to poll members, at the summer 1983 press tour, on what they considered to be the best new show of the 1982-83 TV season. The winner was Cheers -- which, that first season, was so underappreciated by most viewers that it once ranked as the least-viewed show of the week.

The TCA informed NBC of our vote, NBC put out a press release, and presto: the first TCA award was given. The following year, the concept was widened to a more complete roster of categories, and the TCA Awards as we now know them were born.


But in 2008, they're a lot more impressive. This weekend, current TCA President Dave Walker slipped me into the onstage program (thanks again, sir) to introduce the night's guest hosts, The Smothers Brothers, whose appearance I had helped arrange. (Now that I'm back from TCA, writing my book on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour becomes my full-time day job for the next few months.) They did great, and got the warmest of receptions both during and after the awards show.

I also got on stage one other time, to accept an award for The War as a favor for Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, who couldn't attend. They sent an email of thanks for me to read on awards night, and I got a laugh I will always treasure by joking of that email, "It's in 12 parts."

But the real treasure, now that I'm back, is to think of what television, and the TV beat, and the TCA have given me. I grew up watching Tom and Dick Smothers on TV, and have ended up being entrusted with literally writing the book on them. Ken Burns considers me enough of a friend to handle his acceptance speech. And my friends at the TCA put me on stage, one last time, as a sort of farewell appearance that meant a lot -- at least to me.

I've made a career of enjoying, and thinking and writing about, television for 33 years now. Thanks to NPR's Fresh Air, Broadcasting & Cable magazine and you wonderful readers of this website, I'm not through yet. But on this particular day, at this particular point in my life, I feel very lucky. And very grateful.





Ken said:

Thank you for continuing to give us your insights into television and reviews of the best things to watch each day. You are the most interesting reviewer I've ever read and I've followed you for years starting with the Daily News in New York. And you just happen to be a Gator like me ! Keep up the good work. (Wow. Thanks SO much, Ken. Those are extremely kind words. Really glad to have you here. -- David B.)

Comment posted on July 22, 2008 12:03 PM

Tom said:

Wow. Makes me sad just reading it.
The photo you posted earlier of you, Dusty and Ed made me feel much older, and reading your farewell "speech" pretty much closed the door on any contact with the old beat--for the past 23 years, I would read whatever stories I could find about the tour and try to figure out which questions you had asked.
I always liked the fact that (with a few exceptions, and they were ones people seemed to anoint themselves with) we all were there on even ground. It was the chance for people from small or medium markets to play in the majors, and it was a time when you could go to another critic--even the one from the other paper in your town--and get a question answered or share an opinion over a drink or a meal. Two of my other models of amazingly good TV critics, Ron Alridge and Gerald Jordan, also were examples of people who could have thought of themselves as stars but were welcoming, easy to talk to and genuinely friendly to everyone on the beat.
All year long, some of us might be stuck with covering news directors and weathermen, but in January and June, we could look across a table and ask Bill Moyers or George Burns a question and be taken seriously.
Newspapers are withering, and the tour surely will disappear as the budgets shrink and critics are reassigned or laid off. But while it lasted, there was the unmistakable Bianculli presence to help a press conference produce more news, share a point of view of the medium that helped many of us see it in a better perspective and create mini legends of the events, such as asking the creator of "The Waltons" about a relatively obscure 19th century German philosopher and ending more than one three-part question to a network executive with, "and if you could be any kind of animal, what would that animal be?"
It's not surprising that probably the only human ever who could talk the executive producer of "Nova" into scientifically probing how many jackets and couch cushions need to be piled on the floor sensor before the door would open would be the same person Tom and Dick Smothers and Ken Burns would employ to speak for them.
The beat is better because of you. (NOTE FROM DAVID B.: The Tom writing this is the Tom Brinkmoeller who, at the Cincinnati Enquirer, was another of the country's most readable, resourceful and hard-working TV critics of his time. Obviously, his writing skills haven't diminished with time. Sadly, neither has his memory. I'll write another column sometime about those and other favorite press tour memories. One of the best of them concerns the time Tom and I befriended Mark Tinker on the set of "St. Elsewhere" prior to its NBC premiere, after which Mark smuggled copies of the scripts over to our hotel. Tom and his wife have been long-distance friends ever since (hi, Linda!), and so has Mark Tinker. It was Mark Tinker's suggestion, a year ago, that I respond to my departure from the Daily News by starting a website. Good friends like this are impossible to beat. Thanks, Mark. Thanks, Tom. -- David B.)

Comment posted on July 22, 2008 3:51 PM

David Sobel said:

Dear David,
Thanks for your great columns on this year's TCA Press Tour. As a long time fan of your Daily News column and now TVWW, I have greatly benefited from your many excellent recommendations and lively commentary. As a huge fan of the Smothers brothers, I'm looking forward to the publication of your book.

You mentioned that this might be your last press tour... are you planning a career change (hope not!) or just growing weary of the annual trek (and expense)?
Best wishes,

(Dear Dave: I attended press tour this time, for the most part, to introduce the Smothers Brothers at the TCA Awards. I start teaching TV and film as a full-time college professor in the fall, so January tours are out in the future, and the summer tour is a big question mark. But thanks for asking, and thanks, even more, for interest in Tom and Dick. I'm hoping there's a lot of that out there, if I do them justice... -- David B.)

Comment posted on July 22, 2008 4:12 PM

Eileen said:

David, your readers will follow you no matter where or what format. You are an outstanding, entertaining, "always look forward to" critic. This blog is so enjoyable, and I wouldn't miss it each day. You can tell by your readers' comments that they are tv savvy. I must confess that your blog is the most intelligent I've ever seen. So hats off to you for getting the right people to read and respond.

Congratulations and thanks for your TCA endeavors.

(Dear Eileen: Thanks right back. I'm convinced, if I ever get around to hiring someone to market or sell ads for this site, that emails from you and other readers will be the primary selling point. Writing in a vacuum would suck (so to speak), and the obvious tendency of you guys to be civil, smart and literate is part of what's keeping me going at TV WORTH WATCHING. -- David B.)

Comment posted on July 22, 2008 4:38 PM

Sally W. said:

Your thoughts in today's post are poignant and valuable. I may have said it before in other comments, but, really, it was through your writings in the Daily News that I literally grew up with and how I learned about tv culture and the tv industry (not that I still quite understand it with the messiness these days!). The newspapers aren't quite as good reads without the critics; keep up the good work in the blog!

Oh, and I envy your students; there is so much to learn and critique on the history and influence of television, and to think about what is the future of television. I like my tv to be fun and entertaining, but the really good stuff also provokes thinking and feeling too. (Thanks, Sally. I've been teaching as an adjunct for a decade now, and the past gets more interesting, just as the future gets more unpredictable. It's a really vital, volatile time to deal with TV, as critic or historian. Or, especially, both... -- David B.)

Comment posted on July 23, 2008 12:04 AM

Ron Alridge said:

Being somewhat old and undeniably slow as I shuffle along in retirement, I only recently caught up with your TCA swan song. I must say it brought back memories, all of them pleasant, even the occasional wars with the network P.R. types. Those were great days and you and the other "young turks" like you did a wonderful job of professionalizing the television beat. I formed a kinship with you and the rest of the gang that to this day is very much part of me. I learned a lot from all of you and I much admired your willingness to plunge yourself into the business of forming and shepherding the TCA. I am thrilled beyond words that the TCA still lives and has even become a bit of a force. As you know, that was always a dream back when we all were young and passionate.
I must say, though, that you have performed a disservice to your blog readers by not sharing with them the story of how you once turned an "ABC Hospitality Suite" sign into something a tad bit off-color. It took a mind that is both creative and demented to have done that so quickly. I remain awed.
Let me add, old friend, that your departure from the TV beat, at least in newspaper form, is a huge loss to journalism as well as to the viewing public. You were always among the best and the brightest. Somehow, all those years of watching TV do not appear to have dimmed your intellect one iota.
Best wishes for much more success. And congratulations for a job well done. (Dear Ron -- GREAT to hear from you! I'll contact you directly to say hi -- and pretty soon on this site, on a slow day, will fess up to the ABC press tour story to which you refer. A few other press tour stories, though, will remain secret, to protect the guilty. And let me return the compliment: You were too young to be a mentor, but, as both TV critic and editor, and founding TCA member, you sure were one hell of a role model. -- David B.)

Comment posted on January 16, 2009 3:00 PM
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