Networks emphasize fans, press left out

Television critics collectively freaked out two summers ago, when ABC held back an announcement the producers of “Lost” intended to unveil at Comic-Con, bypassing the press and taking their message directly to consumers.

ABC relented then, but for critics this year, there will be no such luck. Already dwindling in importance as newspapers reduce staffs, the TV Critics Assn. tour is moving to late July, following the four-day sci-fi/fantasy convention that officially opens July 23. And with studios┬ábecoming increasingly aggressive about showcasing TV programs at Comic-Con, the San Diego confab could hasten the press gathering’s demise.

Fallout from this year’s scheduling — hardly lost on journalists or studio PR departments — is that by the time TCA begins, plenty of revelations and hype regarding the fall season will have been sprayed into the ether, rendering the news value of the critics’ assembly more nebulous than usual.

Comic-Con thus looks destined to deliver another blow to an already-reeling TV Critics forum — an expense that both networks and newspaper editors are questioning. Why ante up for hotel rooms, luncheons and parties when teleconferencing is cheaper and something like Comic-Con can effectively take the middle men (that is, the press) out of the equation?

The “Lost” exchange neatly summarized this tension. As the Washington Post reported at the time, critics fumed about ABC withholding news “to give to people who have to pay to get into a convention,” with one pointedly saying to ABC Entertainment prez Stephen McPherson, “A lot of newspapers spend a lot of money to get us out here. A lot of us are fighting to stay out here. … Are we not important enough for you?”

This query would fall under the prosecutorial maxim, “Never ask a question if you don’t know — or aren’t going to like — the answer.”

Attendance at TCA actually hasn’t shriveled yet, mostly thanks to web-based entities that have helped fill the void, joined by one-time newspaper critics who continue showing up either as self-employed bloggers or freelancers.

Still, the mortality rate among journalists has increasingly made TCA a bit like the movie “The Sixth Sense” — they’re still walking around, but many don’t appear to realize that they’re dead.

Of course, journalists also populate Comic-Con, but the event’s primary appeal is that its public sessions allow fans to directly interact with talent associated with favorite shows and eagerly anticipated movies.

Moreover, the convention’s role as the center of the pop-culture universe has led to dramatically expanding its scope beyond just comics, fantasy and science fiction, which explains why new series lacking that footprint — such as Fox’s musical drama “Glee” and ABC’s family sitcom “The Middle” — will be previewed at the convention as well. As for Web-based journalism, Comic-Con is a veritable supermarket of programs with rabid cult followings — the kind sure to elicit online searches and page views.

Mindful of this, studios will screen an unprecedented number of pilots — months in advance of their fall debut — hoping to generate buzz among this engaged, web-savvy audience. Warner Bros. alone will bring 11 series to San Diego, including the new dramas “Human Target,” “The Vampire Diaries” and “Eastwick.”

Whether that translates into eventual success is certainly open to debate (such exposure didn’t save “Bionic Woman”), but given that NBC’s “Heroes” famously built excitement at the event, it’s at the very least a stone marketers are reluctant to leave unturned.

Granted, audience questions at Comic-Con tend to be gentler than those at TCA, even in the latter’s diluted form. Faced with celebrities and star directors, many fans often don’t get much beyond, “How did you get to be so awesome?” or, “Omigod, I can’t believe I’m talking to you.” There are also nitpicky and hostile questions like the ever-popular, “Why is there noise in outer space?” but that’s part of the fun.

So far, both the TV Critics Assn. and networks are hanging onto the press tour, but as the number of days and circulation of the media outlets represented keep shrinking, there’s no telling how long that relationship can last.

In the meantime, there’s always Comic-Con. And hey, just because a guy is wearing a Captain Kirk costume doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take his question seriously.

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