The late Dave Kaufman, Variety’s TV editor for nearly 40 years, didn’t like to ask questions at press conferences. “Any question good enough to ask,” he once said, “is too good to ask in front of people.”
The message was clear: Kaufman had access to industry leaders, and didn’t want to share information with other reporters. While that was a different era, it reflects a mentality that could be seen in practice at the just-concluded TV Critics Assn.’s semiannual press tour, where the preference for questioning newsmakers outside of the public forums frequently turns the general press conferences into a tower of babble.
The press tour has long been an event in flux, with the diminution or demise of consumer newspapers that employed full-time TV critics. Many journalists have migrated to other venues with different priorities, putting an emphasis on Web traffic and narrowing the audience they hope to serve. If the TCA event once largely consisted of critics from consumer outlets seeking to convey information about television to general-market readers, mixed with trade/business reporters, it’s now more of a hodge-podge, from trades to fanboy sites to those who write about the talent in more personal, human-interest-style terms.
The trades, of course, have proliferated online. And because the competition for exclusive nuggets is so fierce, the emphasis is on interviewing executives and talent beyond the official sessions in favor of the “gaggles,” or the informal questioning that usually follows, which is where much of the real reporting gets done.
As a consequence, the public portions of the tour can be frustratingly empty, at least for anyone looking to glean actual news from them. That’s exacerbated by the fact that, because of the disparate constituencies in the room, there’s no real flow to the conversation. So if an executive or producer does say something provocative, follow-up questions must compete with completely different lines of inquiry tailored to a specific niche or agenda.
Network PR officials — who have groused for years about the preponderance of live tweeting during sessions versus more meaningful coverage — generally still see value in the press tour, although some complain about the cost. Despite the prevalence of teleconferences and other ways of bridging distance, journalists also welcome the face-to-face access, especially those from out of town.
What few people seem thrilled about, at this point, are the formal sessions, or the amount of time they squander when the news cycle, and the crush of new programming to review, seemingly never rests. If the summer TV Critics tour once represented the calm before the storm, the programming tide these days never lets up.
Still, as long as journalists hold their fire for the gaggles, there’s not an obvious solution to that, short of dispensing with the public Q&A entirely and going to some sort of junket-type format, which yields different problems and drawbacks. Then again, that at least would spare people the awkward silences during sessions that nobody much cares about, or worse, in the case of NBC’s “Blindspot,” incessant questions about the lead actress’s tattoos.
It’s been long recognized that the press tour is undergoing an evolution, including the introduction of newer players like Netflix and Amazon, along with smaller cable networks eager to get noticed. Less discussed, but just as apparent, are the sweeping changes involving journalists on the other side of the equation, which need to be more carefully considered in shaping the event going forward.
So before retiring the hashtag #TCA15, it’s worth contemplating what sort of changes might be necessary, or at least beneficial, come ’16, ’17 and beyond. Until then, safe travels to those heading home from what was once famously dubbed “the death march with cocktails.” And see you next year — although probably not in a gaggle.