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From 'Cheers' to 'Gotham,' the Biannual Television Critics Association Press Conferences Adapt to the Post-Digital Age
August 4, 2015  | By Alex Strachan

“No, no, you’ve got that completely wrong,” a research executive at a prominent broadcast network said, during a press conference at the semi-annual gathering of the Television Critics Association in Beverly Hills, not so many years ago.

He had been asked why, if viewership is falling, his network could justify raising advertising rates.

“The fewer viewers there are,” he said, without missing a beat, “the more valuable those individual viewers become. They’re harder to reach, because there are fewer of them. So they become more valuable to advertisers. And the more valuable they are, the more advertisers are willing to pay to reach them.”

Got that?

TCA’s biannual get-togethers — three weeks of press conferences, roundtable discussions, seminars, studio visits and night parties — have been going on for more than 30 years now. That’s longer than Gunsmoke was on the air, longer even than Law & Order, in all its guises.

This year’s TCA Awards, the 31st featuring a full complement of nominees, will be handed out Saturday at the Beverly Hilton, home of the Golden Globes, past presidential assignations and raucous pool parties. (Interestingly, the first official TCA Award, for outstanding new series, predates the present award ceremony by two years. Cheers won in 1982-’83. David Bianculli, of this parish, was the founding TCA member who approached the others with the idea and took the poll that resulted in the Cheers decision. At the time, Cheers was struggling in the ratings, its future in doubt. As it happened, NBC accepted the award, issued a press release, and the idea for the TCA Awards was born. Cheers for its part proved the doubters — and those early ratings — wrong.)

Ed Bark, formerly of the Dallas Morning News, has dutifully recorded every moment of the present tour worth reporting, for the site you’re visiting right now. The job is not as easy or glamorous as it sounds — all that booze! all those celebrities! — as anyone who’s soldiered through the entire three weeks and lived to tell about it knows.

Strangely, it used to be even more of an endurance test in the pre-cable days of a handful of major networks, when ABC, CBS and the others each had three days to themselves, and newcomers like The WB and UPN were on the outside, banging to get in.

These days, cable, with its 500-plus channels, has to shoehorn everything, including HBO, Discovery and MTV, into three days. ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC are allocated a single day for the main network, and a second day for their sibling cable channels, if they so choose. Streaming services Amazon Prime, Hulu Plus and suddenly ubiquitous Netflix are vying for time as well. In a day when Transparent, House of Cards and Orange is the New Black are vying for awards attention — as well as viewers — with established heavy hitters like Mad Men, Game of Thrones and Modern Family, the streaming services can no longer be ignored.

In a constantly changing world of consumer distractions, marketing — being able to reach hard-to-reach consumers — has taken on added urgency and meaning.

Even though some media analysts have predicted the end of network television — a conversation for another day — the biannual TCA press gatherings have carried on, despite intrusions from Comic-Con, the blogosphere and 24/7 social media.

Like the medium it covers, the TCA itself is in a constant state of change. In the 20 years I have been watching and writing about TV, a period of time that roughly spans Law & Order’s years on the air, the TCA has had nine presidents. They all hailed from print journalism — and not one of them is presently working for the same print outlet they were at the time. The TCA will elect a new president this weekend, on the same day as the TCA Awards. The current president, who writes for the Salt Lake Tribune, doesn’t know himself what he might be doing two years from now, let alone when streaming replaces broadcast TV entirely.

(That last one isn’t a given. Self-appointed experts have been predicting the demise of newspapers, radio and the movies ever since TV first flashed onto the scene. The newspaper business might not be what it used to be, but for $2, less than a cup of coffee at Starbucks, you can still get a roundup of the day’s events in most cities — without the need for battery power or an Internet connection.)

Do TCA’s biannual press tours matter anymore? That network research executive might argue they matter even more. Consumers are easily distracted. Their time is short, and the imprimatur of the New York Times, USA Today or NPR still counts for more with the average TV viewer than the off-the-cuff opinion of an undergrad scribe for IWriteFromMyParentsBasement.com.

Popular opinion — i.e. ratings — counts for a lot in a market economy, but it’s no coincidence that, of the more than 40 new comedies and dramas last fall, viewers and critics both singled out Gotham (below) for attention.

 Gotham may well have found an audience based on word-of-mouth alone, but it was that early consensus at TCA press tour — of the 40-plus new shows coming at you this fall, this is the one you should make time for first — that gave it that all-important initial bump.

The room has changed at TCA press tours, and the tone and timbre of questions has changed with it. There are more bloggers, and fewer old-school journalists. That makes sense. The industry itself is changing, so it follows that the room would change with it. “Do more with less” has become a mantra on both sides of the podium, but writing about TV, like TV itself, has become more democratic as the blogosphere has grown.

There’s still room for old-school thinking, though. This may sound self-serving — and of course it is — but do read Bark’s day-to-day reports for TVWW from the ongoing press tour, compare them with what is offered on other sites, or even your daily paper, and ask yourself who’s giving you the richer, better, more complete view.

I’m not there myself this year. As I write this, a storm is blowing in off the equatorial Pacific and the sky suddenly looks black and angry. Like most casual viewers, though, I’ll know where to look this fall, when there’s too much on and not enough time to keep up with it all.

The TCA press tour may seem like an anachronism in an age when everyone has an opinion, and the ability to share it with everyone else on Facebook or Twitter.

As Bark and other old-school reporters remind us, though, the TCA press tour still serves a valuable purpose. Gotham, an ambitious, costly, showpiece drama that could have easily gone the way of Utopia if it hadn’t found an audience straight out of the gate, is just one example.

Back to the show.

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