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TCA searches for swagger

Networks challenged to create buzz

There’s no reason for panelists at the upcoming Television Critics Assn. confab to reiterate how much they love their cast, crew and writers. And the reporters in the ballroom are well aware that actors arriving on the set every day feel like they’re gathering with a close-knit family.

The warm-and-fuzzy approach to tubthumping, which was long a staple at TCA sessions in the past, doesn’t work any more. But it raises the question: Exactly what is TCA these days?

Certainly the composition of attendees has changed, which will be proven yet again as TCA begins July 28 at the Langham Huntington Hotel in Pasadena.

TCA membership stands at 219, with little fluctuation over the last few years. But there’s been a steady shift away from newspaper-only affiliated members — some of whom have retired or lost their jobs — and more toward those writing online and for magazines.

And their mood has changed. Workloads have become significantly higher, while the tidbits of news and color have to be analyzed and disseminated in minutes.

Arguably the biggest change is the networks’ shortened presentations. Time is of the essence due to the networks scaling back to a single day, rather than a three-day rollout of press conferences and parties to promote the fall schedule. Lavish dinners and galas have given way to more modest cocktail receptions.

The challenge for the networks in this environment is to create buzz that lasts into the fall season. That is no easy task with an audience not as easily impressed, and ready to tweet and blog every last bit of information from the sessions — meaning by fall, they may have lost interest.

One network publicity exec says a bad show can garner good press if the panelists are lively. Often, panelists from a sitcom garner more laughs at TCA than in their show.

“TCA is an opportunity to present a show that people may not love, but with funny actors and smart producers onstage, it can get a great reaction,” says one high-ranking studio publicist. “On the flip side, though, it can also go the other way.”

Last summer at the Beverly Hilton, “Kings” star Ian McShane got visibly peeved when a writer didn’t quite understand the storyline of the series, and the two got into a verbal tussle at the end of a long NBC day.

What’s also increasing this time around are set visits. Journos will shuttle over to Paramount and Fox on July 31 to check out new series “Three Rivers” and “NCIS: Los Angeles” on the Melrose lot and then to West L.A. for peeks at “Bones” and “Dollhouse.” A week later, it’s off to Burbank as Warner Bros. holds a press day for in-person looks at the production of “Southland,” “The New Adventures of Old Christine” and online series “The Lake.”

Despite the online shift, TCA doesn’t automatically allow anyone with a laptop to join. Requirements remain fairly strict. Three in-depth pieces need to be submitted, and for online-only writers, their sites must be their primary source of income.

“Our qualifications haven’t changed. We want to maintain a high level of quality,” TCA secretary Susan Young says. “We need to assure the networks that we’re gatekeepers and won’t let people join just because they want to.”

Just about every year inspires questions as to the usefulness of TCA, but even at a cost of $100,000 per day, the networks still see opportunity.

“Anyone who seems to believe there’s no value at TCA is out of their minds,” says a high-ranking publicist at a cabler. “There’s a huge benefit. If you have a big show, it gives it a great push. In the big picture, if you’re prepared properly, it’s a bargain.”

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