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TCA 2018: Seven Burning Questions (Column)

The Television Critics Association’s summer tour kicks off in Beverly Hills July 25, and executives and talent will be facing a press corps with plenty of questions. As the streaming wars heat up and the ramifications of major shifts in corporate ownership play out, the future of prestige TV may never be quite so unsettled. Here are some of the key areas of discussion.

What will Amazon’s and Netflix’s return to the tour look like?

Neither streaming service has presented at the biannual tour since summer 2016, nor has either commented on why it’s returning now. But both are using their time strategically, with Amazon spotlighting Emmy frontrunner “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” and new drama “Homecoming,” a Julia Roberts series that new network head Jennifer Salke inherited when she took over; it’s a show that suits her strategy of buzzy potential tentpoles. Salke will also be sitting for an executive session at the tour, a chance to reintroduce herself after years presenting for former network home NBC. It’s also a moment to clear away negativity that has become associated with the Amazon TV brand since fired former chief Roy Price’s alleged sexual harassment came to light..  

Netflix will be spotlighting its own Emmy-nominated projects — the casts of “GLOW” and “Ozark” will be featured on  panels. But the rest of the day is dedicated to breaking new shows, including comedies “All About the Washingtons” and Matt Groening’s animated “Disenchantment” and YA drama “The Innocents.” The volume of new shows Netflix is touting makes clear why returning to the tour makes sense; it’s a rare promotional opportunity for a service that’s increasingly challenged to cut through the clutter of peak TV.

What will Casey Bloys have to say about the recent news around AT&T’s plans for HBO?

The executive is sure to be confronted with a tough set of facts: Netflix ended HBO’s reign as the most-Emmy-nominated platform this year, one more reason for AT&T, HBO’s new corporate owner, to move ahead with reported plans to strip the premium cabler of its boutique nature and push out more and more content, even at the risk of diluting the brand’s identity. Bloys has tangled with the TCA scrum in the past, and will likely steer the conversation away from corporate strategy and toward a slate of shows that this year includes peak-prestige programs like John Oliver’s “Last Week Tonight” and still-undated projects such as Lena Dunham’s “Camping” and an adaptation of the novels of Elena Ferrante. The message: This is the stuff only old-school HBO can pull off.

How will John Landgraf — long the most confident man on tour — respond to a future without his two most prolific creators?

There’s no denying that Landgraf — whose appearances at exec sessions, marked both by relative candor and by big ideas about the state of the industry — has a tougher row to hoe this year. Landgraf’s addresses tend to come from a position of strength, presupposing FX as a place with a boutique lineup of programming critics adore. But having lost Ryan Murphy to Netflix and having cut ties with Louis C.K. after he admitted to sexual misconduct, the man who popularized the term “peak TV” suddenly seems to have a relatively bare cupboard. Interestingly, FX’s day of programming leans heavily on the network’s legacy, including panels on the fifth season of “You’re the Worst” and the 13th season of “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” and spotlights for two Murphy shows that remain on the network, “American Horror Story” and “Pose.” (Murphy himself is not slated to appear.) Even what’s new is from within the FX family; a panel on new series “Mayans M.C.” includes its cocreator, Kurt Sutter, whose “Sons of Anarchy” was a major building block in FX’s early success. (The two Sutter shows take place in the same fictional universe.) The focus on FX’s still-distinctive brand identity, even without C.K. or Murphy, may help bolster an argument about what’s become the most pressing and obvious consequence of “peak TV”; the fierce competition for talent and ongoing merger mania in Hollywood.

Can “Killing Eve” pull out a win at the TCA Awards?

The BBC America newcomer has the most nominations at the critic-voted ceremony, including one for the cross-genre Program of the Year prize. Unlike the Emmys, the TCA Awards don’t have a long tradition of repeat winners (sorry, 2017 champ “The Handmaid’s Tale”); they’ve also lately tended to reward new programs in the top category, with “Empire,” “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story,” and “Handmaid’s” taking the past three years’ worth of top honors in their respective first seasons. The enthusiasm for “Killing Eve” extended to an unexpected nomination for co-star Jodie Comer alongside Sandra Oh in the Individual Achievement in Drama category. If there’s a show in “Eve’s” way, it’s likely “The Americans,” which has had six years to burnish its reputation among many critics as the defining drama of our time; it, too, nabbed two individual nominations for its central duo, Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell. And it, too, has a recent analogue; “Breaking Bad” nabbed a valedictory Program of the Year prize after going off the air. TV fans debating who’d win in a fight between Villanelle and Elizabeth Jennings may find this as close as they’ll ever get to an answer.

How will ABC address “The Conners”?

Keeping “Roseanne” alive without Roseanne was a decision that made business sense for ABC, but reporters are bound to have tough questions for network chief Channing Dungey about the decision to retain the troubled asset. Dungey handled the crisis with grace, sidestepping the fact that bringing the predictably voluble Roseanne back to TV in the first place was her idea. The day will include plenty of tough questions, but not ones as difficult to answer as they’d have been if Roseanne had remained with the network. Dungey has lost a valuable arrow in her quiver, though; before “Roseanne” flamed out, the show was the key evidence that ABC was on the comeback trail. It’s an argument Dungey still needs to make as ABC’s place in a reorganizing Disney — integrating key parts of new subsidiary 21st Century Fox — shakes out. Expect lots of promotion for the network’s other two recent hits, “The Good Doctor” and “American Idol.”

What is Facebook’s vision?

The social-media giant makes its first appearance at TCA with a single panel July 25, featuring executives Fidji Simo and Ricky Van Veen. With no programming at all in the spotlight, it’s easy to imagine a presentation that works as hard to explain what watching TV on Facebook actually means as it does trying to break the glimmerings of any new shows; the likelihood of questions about the company’s recent Cambridge Analytica scandal makes this an uphill fight for Simo and Van Veen.

What will be the key issue of TCA?

Talking points emerge as tours wear on; inclusiveness on TV came up frequently in summer 2016. And at the first TCA after Trump’s election, many network heads stayed away, likely dodging queries about network news divisions’ complicity in providing free campaign coverage that may have led to Trump winning the presidency. This time around, it’s likely that the repercussions from the #MeToo movement, which were only beginning to unfold at this past winter’s tour, will come up early and often. With questions about how networks plan to boost inclusion and how seriously they plan to handle ongoing seismic changes on the political scene (a question that thrives even without Roseanne Barr on the air), there may be no need to debut new lines of inquiry; the old ones still haven’t been satisfyingly answered. One other topic for which execs should be prepping their talking points: the mergers and acquisition drama hanging over so many of the biggest TV networks—from ABC and Fox to HBO to CBS, the CW, and Showtime—and which promises to reshape the landscape of TV in ways no one can yet predict.

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