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10 Things We Learned at the Television Critics Assn. Press Tour

The Television Critics Association winter press tour is officially in the record books. The broadcast and cable networks — and even a few streamers — did their annual dog-and-pony (well, there was a sheep) show for the TV critics press corps, presenting their strategies for the coming season.

Amid the swirl of puppies, “prestige popcorn,” and promotional swag, here are the major takeaways.

1. It’s “business as usual” at Fox and Disney

It’s going to be “business as usual” during the next year to 18 months, during which the Fox-Disney deal is expected to close. While Fox executives Dana Walden and Gary Newman admitted they are going to have decisions to make down the line, right now they said they both remain committed to the work they are doing with Fox Television Group. This includes prepping for the upcoming pilot season and rolling out the rest of their midseason launches, including “The Resident.” However, Newman also said “four to five years” down the line, the lineup could look very different, with fewer 20th Century Fox Television shows on Fox. The “New Fox” will be comprised of divisions that include Fox Broadcasting, Fox Sports, Fox News, and local affiliates. Though ABC tried to make a joke about the oft-repeated “business as usual” mantra — passing out shot glasses with the slogan ahead of Channing Dungey’s executive session — she towed the company line, abruptly shutting down any speculation about the impact of the deal.

2. #MeToo is just getting started

With news headlines over the last several weeks dominated by tales of sexual misconduct in Hollywood, it became a hot button topic at the press tour, as well. PBS used the opportunity to announce a five-part series entitled “#MeToo, Now What?” to engage in a dialogue about how the movement started and what needs to be done to ensure ongoing change. E! presented a panel for “Citizen Rose,” a docuseries featuring Rose McGowan and the work she is doing to be an advocate against sexual assault and abuse. Producing powerhouse Shonda Rhimes spoke out about how she doesn’t believe sexual harassment or abuse should be considered “tricky territory” in storytelling or in life because it should be pretty clear what is appropriate behavior and what is not. And Lifetime, boasting that 100% of their showrunners are women, put together a panel that allowed some of those powerful women to share their experiences, which expanded the conversation beyond what women have gone through in Hollywood. “Unconscious bias is not something that’s limited to any one gender, and I think this movement needs to go so far beyond women. There’s a larger diversity issue on the table. All of us need to do better,” said “You” co-creator Sera Gamble.

3. The British are coming! The British are coming!

TV exports from the U.K. remain strong amid the Peak TV hunt for fresh material and the strain on the talent pool in the U.S. TCA was a showcase for no less than a half-dozen series co-productions that will air on networks on both sides of the Pond: AMC’s “McMafia” and “The Terror,” Hulu’s “Hard Sun,” FX’s “Trust,” and Showtime’s “Patrick Melrose.” “In the U.K., we are priding ourselves on really kind of, nailing that miniseries, a shorter form television,” “McMafia” star James Norton told the room. “I feel like we’ve shown our worth when it comes to three, four, six-part dramas. So for this eight-part series for the BBC, it was a slight departure, and I think an exciting one for them. With AMC on board, it really did feel like a slightly different beast and one which was a real progression and exciting one.”

4. Timing is everything

From the past-is-prologue department, every period piece and vintage series reboot is huuuugely relevant to the times we live in, from the 1890s of “The Alienist” to the 1980s of “Pose.” We know this has to be true because panelists told us over and over. To wit:

“So I think it’s highly relevant for right now.”

“The timing of this show was very important.”

“This just felt like a wonderful time and opportunity to try to give some people a voice in this country.”

“Doing it now, in this moment in time, makes some of the themes and issues that the book depicts that much more accessible and relevant and exciting to an audience.”

5. The singing-competition wars are heating up

One of the most surprising programming stories of last year was the return of “American Idol” to broadcast television — on ABC. The Alphabet isn’t skimping on the FremantleMedia-produced reality franchise. Katy Perry set to earn $25 million next season, making her primetime’s highest-paid star (sorry, Ellen Pompeo). Ryan Seacrest is making a measly $15 million to return as host. Perry and Seacrest were on hand at press tour to promote “Idol,” as were Sean Combs and DJ Khaled for Fox’s “The Four” and Kelly Clarkson for NBC’s “The Voice.” The talent parade was an onstage illustration of how the three networks are doubling down on a reality genre that, just a year ago was out of fashion. But there is no indication that all that high-priced talent will make a difference. Nielsen live-plus-same day ratings for the most recent season of “The Voice” in the 18-49 demo were down 20%. And “The Four” has been an unspectacular performer thus far for Fox. By the time “Idol” premieres in March, viewers could feel singing-competition fatigue, with “The Four” having crowned a winner and the new season of “The Voice” already under way.

6. News cycle overshadows sports

Sports is never a main event at press tour, but it was a curiously small side dish this time around. NBC chose not to present a panel for the upcoming Winter Olympics — Mike Tirico’s first taking over the primetime host role filled for decades by Bob Costas, a familiar face at press tour. Fox Sports hosted a breakfast for its first-ever telecasts of the upcoming World Cup — which won’t include the U.S. men’s national team — but no panel for reporters.

At the two sports panels that did take place, social issues and business news dominated the conversation. At a panel for Super Bowl LII, NBC’s Al Michaels and Fred Gaudelli fielded questions on declining attendance and player protests. A panel for ESPN’s new morning show “Get Up!” saw hosts Mike Greenberg and Jalen Rose talking layoffs at the cable-sports empire and the recent, substance-abuse related departure of former top executive John Skipper.

7. YouTube tries for a balancing act

YouTube execs faced a barrage of questions during their Q&A about Logan Paul, the YouTube star who posted a video of the dead body of a suicide victim in Japan and appeared to joke about it. While YouTube did pull Paul’s channels from its YouTube Preferred advertising package, they did not close the door to working with him again, saying his projects are “on hold indefinitely.” Questions still lingered about how the company can reign in their stars who make such public missteps while also allowing them the freedom that fans have come to expect. To that end, the company announced stricter rules for its revenue-sharing program while also implementing manual reviews of all videos in their Preferred advertising package.  

8Peak TV hasn’t peaked

FX chief John Landgraf delivered his annual state of the (TV) union address, providing reporters with the latest stats on the number of scripted series (just shy of 500, for the record) — a 7% increase over last year. The biggest bump came from the streamers, who offered 117 shows — up 30%. And though the streamers sat out the tour (with the notable exception of Hulu and YouTube), reporters sat through well over 100 panels, albeit a combination of new and returning series. Add in Netflix’s planned $8 billion content spend for 2018 — and Apple diving into the game — there will be no shortage of shows to watch in the coming year. 

9. Executive privilege

Publicists had to be nervous going into this year’s TCAs: The swirl of sexual harassment allegations and merger talks made for twin tornados with the potential to derail any session. Fox’s Dana Walden and Gary Newman bravely weathered the storm, gamely addressing multiple questions about the pending merger, as did FX’s John Landgraf, who tackled the Louis CK problem head-on. ABC’s Channing Dungey did her best, too, to address the defection of Shonda Rhimes for Netflix. But most executives chose to sit out the tour: NBC’s Bob Greenblatt and Jennifer Salke, CBS’ Kelly Kahl and Thom Sherman, and even The CW’s Mark Pedowitz. Ditto HBO’s Casey Bloys — though Showtime’s David Nevins took his turn in the hot seat, along with programming president Gary Levine, addressing Mark Halperin’s involvement in “The Circus.” And though Hulu bucked the trend of streaming services sitting out the tour (we’re looking at you, Amazon and Netflix), new content head Joel Stillerman didn’t take any questions from the stage. Many used the excuse that they didn’t have much news to report, or that midseason isn’t a priority for them. It doesn’t bode well for the future of the January tour.

10. Personality matters

If there’s a secret to breaking out from amid the clutter, it’s the sheer force of personality. It may be uncomfortable for talent under the klieg lights, but those who confidently ruled the stage won over the critics. Witness Alan Cumming, who stars in the formulaic “Instinct,” a new CBS procedural. The witty, acerbic actor performed a tour de force with his snappy one-liners. (To wit: “As you say in America, he opens up a can of whoop ass sometimes, and that’s quite a nice thing to be able to do in your 50s.” Or, asked what he brought to the character: “I brought my genius.”) Similarly, “Two Dope Queens” stars Jessica Williams and Phoebe Robinson charmed reporters with their witty callbacks, recognizing each by name. Jimmy Kimmel might not have had much to say about what he’ll eventually do at the Oscars, but he gamely bantered with the critics about everything from his feud with Matt Damon to his passion for healthcare. Even Rose McGowan, who began her session with a stern warning not to ask about “you know who,” made for an impassioned advocate.

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