Nets eye Comic-Con-type events to spread word

Slicing through the numbing “We have the best cast” mantras and bottomless scrambled eggs at last summer’s Television Critics Assn. press tour was the incendiary threat of betrayal.

The TCA caught a network flirtin’ with a younger, hipper group of information seekers and, for a brief moment, the ballroom air at the Beverly Hilton was hotter than a catfight on “Desperate Housewives.”

But almost as quickly as the claws came out (over ABC’s intent to save a piece of news about the magnetic drama “Lost” from the assembled scribes for the less mainstream Comic-Con), they disappeared. Instead of tearing their marriage to shreds, the TV press and the networks ended up renewing their vows.

“Oddly enough, I think both sides need each other more,” says TCA veep and Sacramento Bee critic Rick Kushman.

The fuss started during a conventional Q&A between TCA attendees and ABC entertainment topper Steve McPherson. Queried about developments for the upcoming season of “Lost,” McPherson said he wanted to dish, but that a major announcement was being saved for a panel at Comic-Con the next day.

Several critics immediately took offense, with Kushman asking how ABC could expect newspapers to continue justifying the expense of sending reporters to L.A. if the big news was elsewhere.

As McPherson parried with the press, a quick phone call from ABC’s public relations team to “Lost” exec producer Damon Lindelof gave the Alphabet topper permission to spill the news, which turned out to be the not-so-earth-shattering revelation that Harold Perrineau would be returning to the series.

The quick reversal reinforced the importance of TCA in everyone’s mind. ABC insiders say their intent was not to undermine TCA, but rather to toss a treat to the show’s passionate fanbase at Comic-Con, and Kushman has no problem buying that explanation.

“I think they were thinking … ‘This isn’t a big deal,’ ” he says. “Afterwards, we were all kind of going, ‘What was that all about?’ I have to admit, I just felt very protective of TCA in that moment.”

In fact, journalists and networks agree that whatever options there are for bypassing the mainstream press for targeted connections, TCA remains too important to ignore.

“TCA is part of a show’s campaign,” says Fox marketing and communications head Joe Earley. “It is top of mind from the day the show’s picked up.”

“If the press embrace a show and get behind it, they are going to reach many more people than the influences at a Comic-Con-type event. When you look at that, if Comic-Con is niche but its influences are intense, you’re still dealing with smaller numbers.”

CBS senior communications VP Chris Ender says TCA has evolved into “one event in a balanced diet,” but believes meeting the mainstream press in person remains important.

“I think TCA still has tremendous value in raising awareness of your program during the summer,” Ender says. “It’s just no longer the only game in town. … (But) we still live and breathe in a business in which the personal touch plays a key role. And there’s no doubt the interactions you have with journalists at TCA build relationships, establish trust and potentially lead to stories.”

That’s good news for TCA members. Though they are typically exhausted by the relentless scheduling of the summer press tour — made even more punishing for those who now need to blog updates multiple times a day — the process gives them a huge jump on their fall stories.

“There’s no other way to get a complete view of the season as a whole and then to break it down and be able to speak to producers and actors and network execs and get some grasp of where their shows may be headed,” USA Today TV critic Robert Bianco says.

Playing the field

None of this is to suggest that the eyes of the networks won’t continue to cast a come-hither glance at the ever-growing Comic-Con and other alternative venues for promotion. And even if TCA members got their straying networks back in line, they acknowledge that they’re in an open relationship.

“That really was a realization that Comic-Con has evolved and changed,” Kushman adds, “and that if you’re a network that’s going to be appealing to that crowd, now they feel they can get some buzz down there, too, especially in this world of online everything. I think that particular incident (involving “Lost”) was not a big deal. I think the larger point is there are other things, like CES (Consumer Electronics Show) in January … to get more kinds of buzz.”

So even as the marriage of TCA and the networks goes forward through industry sickness and health, everyone knows that the Others, to cop a reference from “Lost,” are here to stay.

“Press tour survives because, at the moment, it is considered beneficial to all sides and a more efficient way of doing it,” Bianco says. “But without press tour, we will do our job in another way.”

TIP SHEET

What: 24th annual TCA Awards

When: 8 p.m. Saturday

Where: Beverly Hilton

Top nominees: “Mad Men,” “The Wire” (4); “30 Rock,” “John Adams,” “The War” (3)

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