Knowledgeable critics remain important to pros

It is the most low-profile of award ceremonies.

There are no TV cameras or red carpet, no Joan and Melissa Rivers. Yet for the past 24 years, television’s top names have turned out every summer to participate in the TCA Awards.

Why are the actors, writers and producers so in touch with what TCA deems as the best of the year? Maybe because TCA members actually watch all the shows they’re voting for and have a wealth of knowledge and understanding of television.

“I always wanted to be a critics darling,” says “Desperate Housewives” creator-exec producer Marc Cherry, “but years of failure had me saying things like, ‘Who cares what the critics think?’ Then, when ‘Desperate Housewives’ was awarded program of the year (for the 2004-05 season) by the TCA, I had to admit I cared. A lot.”

AMC president Charlie Collier, whose net is home to last year’s program of the year, “Mad Men,” says the TCA Awards often shine a light on new shows or programs that have yet to find a broad audience.

“Getting the word out is very helpful, and we value that chain of interaction TCA has with consumers. They can put the programming into context for the viewer better than anyone.”

TCA Awards are decided by a two-step process. All programs and performances aired during the just-ended season are eligible. (The qualifying window for this year was May 21, 2008, through May 20, 2009.)

Possible nominations are discussed informally among the members, who are encouraged to advocate on behalf of programs and performances they feel are especially noteworthy.

On the first ballot, members submit up to three choices per category. The top five vote-getters in each category are the final nominees, from which the winner is chosen through a second and final ballot.

Sometimes, in the words of Cherry, being a critical fave can bring positive attention to a hard-to-define program and give it the impetus for an extended life, such as with “Malcolm in the Middle” and “Arrested Development” — two laffers singled out early in their runs.

That’s not always the case, however. NBC’s “Boomtown” was tabbed both top drama and top new program in 2003, but the show lasted only two seasons. (“Arrested Development,” despite some feeble ratings, stayed alive for three seasons.)

“To be nominated for a TCA Award is an acknowledgement of relevance and quality,” says John Wilson, senior VP for PBS, which has won 34 TCA Awards, more than any other network.

“TCA is a group that literally sees just about everything TV has to offer, so to have the TV critics themselves nominate and award programs is a testament to the quality of the program or performance,” Wilson continues. “The way the awards are given is also unique because there is no campaigning or submissions; the TCA writers do all the selecting, which is why it carries so much weight within the industry.”

AMC’s Collier agrees: “There is a very healthy respect within the creative community for the TCA Awards. TV critics in general, and the TCA specifically, have been supportive of basic cable, especially the growth of original programming on AMC. The TCA Awards are relevant because they are presented by an audience that understands the breadth of what television has to offer.”

That is why, Wilson says, the creative teams and talent show up for the ceremony.

“It isn’t about 30 seconds of television exposure accepting an award; it’s an appreciation for the acknowledgement of the work,” Wilson says. “Even though the awards are not televised or promoted, we make sure the public knows when one of our shows has been honored with a TCA Award.”

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