Press tour turns down the star wattage

Surprisingly, nets prefer low-key approach

There are more buzzworthy TV skeins this season than at any time in recent memory. But you’d never know it from hanging out at the TV Critics Assn. winter press tour.

Broadcasters seem determined to keep this month’s events at the Ritz-Carlton Huntington Hotel as dowdy and drama-free as possible. From stripped-down parties to a notable absence of star power, it’s almost as if some nets are trying to kill press tour.

ABC, home to a slew of talked-about skeins, kicked off the network portion of press tour with one of the lightest skeds in memory. Crix loved a chance to catch up with the “Lost” cast and crew, but you’d never know that the Alphabet has about a half-dozen midseason contenders that either just premiered or are waiting in the wings.

There were no panels for “Knights of Prosperity,” “Traveller,” “October Road” or the Jimmy Kimmel quizzer “Set for Life.” Sightings of stars from “Grey’s Anatomy” or “Desperate Housewives” were rare. And you wouldn’t know that ABC had a news division, since chief spokesperson Jeffrey Schneider was the highest-ranking ABC Newsie in attendance.

NBC picked up the pace a bit, trotting out the red-hot cast of “Heroes,” flying out the “Today” show gang and giving Conan O’Brien time to hype his new Andy Richter laffer. And The Donald didn’t disappoint, turning a session about “The Apprentice” into another Rosie-bashing tirade. (Side note: NBC should quickly sign Donald’s daughter Ivanka to a talent deal. Her mix of brains and beauty generated considerable buzz).

But two shows that desperately need the attention –“30 Rock” and “Friday Night Lights” — were nowhere to be seen. It was hard to get worked up for a “Grease: You’re the One That I Want” panel after the show tanked in its second week. And a big bash on the set of “Heroes” was canceled at the last minute in favor of a cramped cocktail party with extraordinarily low star wattage.

Then there was CBS.

Majority of the Eye’s new conferences were informal sessions held in small meeting rooms rather than in the main ballroom of the Ritz. Net seemed to be admitting, “Yeah, our sessions are so uninteresting, even we don’t think we can fill the big room.”

Cabler Showtime, now part of the CBS family, took up an hour of the Eye’s press tour day rather than present its own full sked like HBO. Even topper Bob Greenblatt chose to skip the session — a head-scratcher given what a great year the paybox has had and the enormous chatter around upcoming drama “The Tudors.”

Eye even chose to forego the usual all-star party, instead settling for a low-key Super Bowl happy hour. The highlights: A birthday cake for “How I Met Your Mother” star Jason Segel and an appearance by Leslie Moonves. Reporters love Moonves, and watching him work the press — and pause to take pics with the few Eye stars in attendance — was the most entertaining part of the party.

Still, despite CBS’ best attempt to low-key press tour, the net did offer up two big press tour winners.

First was an appearance by outgoing “Price Is Right” host Bob Barker. He was charming, gracious and got some of the tour’s biggest laughs simply by saying the word “bitch.” (Rent “Happy Gilmore” if you want more context).

Eye’s other big success was bringing out the “Price Is Right” big wheel. Reporters from major newspapers (including this one) lined up for a chance to give it a spin — even though CBS was offering no prizes whatsoever.

Unfortunately, the wheel also provided an apt metaphor for this press tour. Rather than use the event to drum up attention for their shows, nets instead opted to save some coin and settle for simply spinning their wheels.

It may be that in an age of non-stop celeb coverage and easily-arranged conference calls that the whole notion of press tour — reporters flying out to Los Angeles for a couple weeks to preview upcoming shows — has become outdated.

But as long as press tour does exist, broadcasters could at least take a page from the Moonves playbook and put on a good show.

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