Tech upgrades, new media changes coverage

The digital age exploded right in front of the TCA stage.

For decades, members of the Television Critics Assn. gathered in Los Angeles hotel ballrooms, engaging in transcribed Q&A sessions that were, for the most part, banked until they returned home.

That all changed about five years ago when a handful of reporters started blogging. Suddenly anyone with access to a computer could read about celebrities chatting up their shows during a panel — and about the mingling that goes on at the nighttime parties.

Most of the bloggers were newspaper reporters plumping out their print coverage, but slowly, more online-only outlets filled the TCA ranks. The best quotes and juiciest tidbits blasted into the blogosphere seconds after leaving the lips of the people onstage.

The way TV writers cover the press tour has changed dramatically. Journalists no longer squirrel away all those nuggets to use in the six months between the summer and winter press tours. Networks that might’ve once feared the information spigot would open and then shut down — just when they needed it the most to hype the premieres of their new programs — have come to realize the game has changed.

It was jarring to go up to the podium and see reporters typing away at laptops where once they were scribbling in notepads, says Chris Ender, senior VP of communications at CBS. That image speaks to the immediacy of reporting that TCA began to see. Suddenly, it became more a series of press conferences than of panel discussions devoted to program content.

Ellen Gray of the Philadelphia Daily News believes blogs, Twitter and print stories are all just different tools used by journalists faced with shrinking print news holes.

“When blogging came along, it was a place to put all of that stuff we could no longer fit in print,” says Gray, who began blogging in 2004. “But (like most members), I still also use what I get from the press tour for larger pieces running later.”

At first, networks weren’t thrilled, nervously eyeing the screens as reporters flipped between information sites and blog programs. But as reporters began feeding the insatiable blog beast, networks realized they reaped more coverage.

The news of the moment will carry your day in the first 24-48 hours of TCA, Ender says, but personality profiles and feature stories are often still held until closer to air times.

With the later start time for TCA — the summer tour was moved two weeks later than last year — the online chatter now comes at the perfect time to ramp up interest in the fall shows. July is good, but August is better, says Ender, who believes the delayed start is ultimately ideal for fall launches, with some network skeins starting as soon as mid-September. Because there are so many programming choices for auds now, buzz is needed more than ever.

“You still want those feature stories to launch the show, but we are learning that the blog item and the Twitter item can be helpful, too,” says Ender.

And the information is going out to a larger audience.

TCA president Dave Walker, critic for the New Orleans Times-Picayune, notes that before there blogging and online writing, the stories produced by newspaper journalists were read just by their subscribers and reached a wider audience only if the story happened to be picked up on a wire service.

Because of the multiple platforms, the appetite for the content being produced in Pasadena’s Langham, Huntington Hotel ballroom has expanded greatly, Walker notes. With the constant expansion of entertainment websites, there’s no question more people will be reading what’s being written by journos than ever before.

Still, both network execs and traditional reporters are concerned that online journalists tend to be more observers than active participants in the sessions.

If your head is buried in a laptop, you may be communicating with your readers but not adding to the back and forth of the session, Gray says.

“We need to engage the people on the stage, to ask the important questions, or we’ll lose a unique opportunity to give readers more than just a press release.”

And for the networks, even getting asked the tough questions is worth it.

“For a couple of days every summer, our company, network and shows are in the spotlight,” Ender says. “With the ravenous consumption of information in today’s digital media news cycle, if we aren’t (at the press tour), someone else will soak up all that attention.”

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