The largest lesson from the final days of this summer’s TCA press tour may well have been imparted by two people who didn’t take the stage.
Channing Dungey and Robert Greenblatt, the respective chiefs of ABC and NBC, will have skipped the traditional executive session at the tour, a gauntlet that was run by their executive counterparts at Fox (facing existential questions about what it will become as Disney and 21st Century Fox merge) and CBS (in the midst of an ongoing scandal over reports of alleged harassment by CEO Les Moonves and within its corporate culture). To their credit, both CBS and Fox put on full days of panels featuring questions about their travails as well as an introduction of their upcoming fall shows. By contrast, ABC put forward a half-day of sessions Tuesday, and NBC planned to do the same Wednesday.
At this past January’s TCA tour, Dungey told the press, “I have said before, and I truly mean it, I think that the TCAs are one of the most valuable things that we do.” Some seven months later, ABC has gone through the embarrassing situation of losing its marquee star in a scandal over her racist tweet; facing down a bustling roomful of reporters with live microphones can hardly have seemed appealing. (Dungey is, however, in attendance at the Beverly Hilton, and did one-on-ones with reporters in lieu of an executive session. ABC said that an executive session would have competed with a Walt Disney Company earnings call.)
The scaled-back presence for both networks is striking, coming as it does at a moment during which both ABC and NBC’s executives have achievements well worth touting. ABC’s bright spots, outside the awkward-to-discuss “Roseanne,” include a strong season of “American Idol” and “The Good Doctor,” a legitimate hit; NBC, sitting atop the network heap, has a strong suite of programs to promote, but is coming as close as it can to opting out altogether. The network’s half-day of programming is to be diffusely spread between parts of the NBCUniversal empire, including a planned panel on CNBC’s “Deal or No Deal”; with TCA mainstay Jennifer Salke now running Amazon Studios, this may be a transitional moment for NBC’s approach to the tour. But it’s a missed opportunity to stake NBC’s claim to its corner of the conversation about TV.
The broadcast networks have long been the linchpin of the tour, which runs twice a year around their traditional fall season and midseason launches. Now, though, the tour reflects what so many other aspects of the industry confirm: That the networks are losing their primacy as the center of the TV universe. Netflix has been the implicit subject throughout this tour, with cable networks FX and Showtime and streaming service Amazon using executive sessions to position themselves explicitly as unlike the streamer in various key ways. Broadcast enters these calculations less and less: It fulfills a different function than cable or streaming, and it sits uncomfortably between the two, producing more content than a quality-obsessed boutique and less than a streamer playing the volume game. It’s a historically valuable but unglamorous mission that doesn’t pop and dazzle—but that deserves an advocate nonetheless. That kind of advocacy has traditionally happened before a conference of critics and reporters eager to learn more about the network’s workings, an event with both symbolic resonance and practical implications for working journalists. That it’s in the process of falling away means that more and more of reporters’ bandwidth goes to the TV outlets eager to talk about their work, even if that means facing down a sometimes-hostile room.
Avoiding the TCA tour as much as is conceivable without outright skipping it represents a sort of risk aversion. But the networks are also sacrificing a lot of upside. They’re making a statement about their willingness to face scrutiny, and it’s likely they’ll compound an ongoing crisis. They’re allowing others to define the conversation around ABC and NBC and the future of broadcast. The trouble with removing oneself from the narrative is that the narrative moves on without you.