TCA writers find few post-strike pilots

Critics complain about the small sample size

A lot of people are getting by with less, and it’s the same for writers at TCA.

In their case, it was a shortage of network pilots before the start of the 15-day confab, largely because of the more-than-three-month work stoppage due to the writers strike. Veteran critics lament that they haven’t seen anything like it since the early days of VHS tapes.

“Before that, we (almost) never saw shows ahead of time,” says the Florida Sun-Sentinel’s Tom Jicha, who has been covering television for 28 years. “Sometimes you could get the local affiliate to show some because they’d get them when they went to the affiliate meetings, but there was never any formal distribution of shows.”

So for this tour, it has been a trip back to the future.

Most of the time when critics checked the mailbag for network pilots back home, they were out of luck. One exception was a disc from CBS, loaded with an episode of nearly all its fall launches: comedies “Gary Unmarried” and “Worst Week” plus dramas “The Ex List” and “The Mentalist.” Also included were previews of Jerry Bruckheimer’s sci-fi series “Eleventh Hour” and midseason replacement “Harper’s Island.”

Other nets have generally waited until the tour to give critics a look at their new skeins — either a full episode via the Beverly Hilton’s closed-circuit system or previews before the panels in the ballroom. But some critics complain that highlights alone make it difficult to get an accurate view of a show.

“Clip reels are not really an acceptable way to prepare for questioning producers and actors,” says TCA president Dave Walker, a writer with the New Orleans Times-Picayune. “A full pilot shows you more of what the vision is. Of course, they can be deceptive in many ways as well, but a full pilot is still preferable to a clip.”

Chris Ender, CBS senior VP of communications, agrees that there’s no substitute for seeing a pilot. Sometimes, however, critics have to work with less.

“It’s not impossible to have a good press conference based on concept or star power alone,” he says. “But I think you have a higher percentage of having a better dialogue with the critics — and certainly a more informed dialogue — if they’ve seen the entire episode.”

The relatively few pilots available this year in advance limited the amount of homework critics could do before coming to Los Angeles. Now, to be fully up to speed, they need to find time to watch the remaining pilots, which is a challenge because the schedule is already packed. Typical days start with breakfast, followed by press conferences from about 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Then come the evening events, which critics find valuable because that’s when they can conduct one-on-one interviews with actors, showrunners and network execs.

“When you get back to the room you have to write,” Jicha says, “because if you don’t send a story home every day, people assume you’re having a party. Sometime during the day, we have to shoehorn in time to watch the pilots.”

Easing the burden somewhat is the fact that there are fewer scripted skeins to look at — 14 this fall on the five major networks, down from 22 last year. Finding time to view them can still be a challenge for critics when they’re also writing stories and reviews for their newspapers plus blogging throughout the day and doing podcasts for their websites.

With newspapers cutting staff and counting pennies, scribes are forced to do it all, and now with less.

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