The Wall Street Journal made one of those rank-amateur mistakes in previewing the upcoming TV Critics Assn. tour, lazily suggesting the TV networks would face a "semiannual grilling by television critics."
Sorry, but the TCA "grill" is officially closed — and has been for quite awhile now.
The forces reshaping journalism are responsible, but the bottom line is it's extremely rare for a network — or even a producer associated with something really heinous — to be forced to grapple with anything approaching a public grilling, for reasons I've enumerated in the past, but which are worth repeating. (In a column two years ago about the changing nature of TCA, legendary Washington Post critic Tom Shales lamented a general increase in "pap about 'celebrities' — gossipy crap that really has nothing to do with criticism.")
For starters, calling the TCA an assemblage of "TV critics" isn't accurate anymore. Once, the group consisted primarily of critics and reporters from major newspapers, with a contingent of trade hacks thrown in. Today, it's an all-over-the-place free-for-all — mixing bloggers, freelancers, celebrity quote hunters, fanboy sites, and genuine critics who increasingly feel like Bruce Willis in "The Sixth Sense." We just need some bright-eyed little kid to break the bad news to us.
As a consequence, the conversation during the public Q&A sessions has virtually no rhythm or consistency to it — featuring inside-baseball trade talk, peppered with broad consumer strokes, interrupted by off-the-wall non sequiturs or softballs someone's hoping to peddle to US Weekly or put on a place mat.
On top of that, few reporters ask really pointed questions in the main room, saving their fire for the gaggles that follow the public sessions, eager to dig up any crumb they might be able to bill as "exclusive." The networks have obliged by shrinking the time devoted to the public forums and adding longer windows for these somewhat more informal exchanges, though with reporters crowding around the talent and execs, it's merely the equivalent of a press junket sans microphones.
This isn't intended to pine for the good ol' days, other than perhaps for the networks' more generous expense accounts and catering budgets. But as with sports and political coverage, there was more cohesion in the past, simply because the press was largely defined and characterized by a robust daily newspaper industry and wasn't as diffused and riven as it is now.
That's a recipe for a lot of things, not all of them bad. But in terms of TCA, a good grilling surely isn't among them.