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Is It Time for Some Networks to Skip TCA? (Column)

That Television Critics Assn. press tour — concluding Wednesday with a suite of cable and streaming panels, including those for Amazon — does a remarkably effective, even exhaustive job of conveying to participants the sweep of television in this moment of sprawl. From high-class cable and streaming outlets such as HBO, FX, Amazon and Hulu to lesser-known entities like CuriosityStream and BYUtv, every outlet that wants a moment in the spotlight, it would seem, gets one.

So, too, do four outlets that plainly don’t. The major broadcast networks have come to be grudging-at-best participants, with all four presenting attenuated slates of panels that featured less nutritional value than their cable and streaming counterparts’. To wit: Fox’s day at TCA began at a leisurely 11 a.m., then broke for lunch 45 minutes later, with the day bulked out by empty-calorie treats like a table read of the upcoming animated series “Bless the Harts” and a screening of “The Masked Singer,” with whose format the room was already intimately familiar. ABC split a day that ran only until 1 p.m. with its corporate partner Freeform, while CBS’s linear side got just a morning before an afternoon devoted to the company’s All Access and Pop TV offerings. NBC announced mid-TCA that it would be holding a “midseason junket” featuring talent from across its programs after the tour had ended — this despite the fact that this is notionally the sort of access TCA is, itself, meant to facilitate. Neither NBC, which recently installed new, joint network heads to replace Robert Greenblatt, nor CBS, at the center of various scandals around its corporate-level and news division leadership over the past year, offered the customary “executive session” at which key decision-makers face questions. No one seemed surprised.

Whichever network is the first to drop out of TCA will face real and tough criticism from the press, especially those journalists experienced enough to recall when the networks were more vibrant and enthusiastic participants in the tour. Those writers, indeed, will recall when the networks courted press coverage rather than just trying to get through TCA unscathed. In the interest of fairness, it’s worth noting that parties like Fox’s and ABC’s allow reporters to shag quotes from network talent, but the rest of the networks’ programming presented the impression of networks that would rather spend their resources (including the logistical and hefty financial burdens that come with presenting at Pasadena’s Langham Huntington Hotel) anywhere else.

But there comes a point — perhaps when press who attend tour from tip to tail spend more than two weeks at the Langham, with other reporting commitments laying fallow and attention and good humor diminishing well before the end — when it becomes clear no one is happy. Writers on the TV beat are, or feel, obligated to remain where the action is even when the action fails to materialize; those networks and streaming services who go to the trouble and effort of presenting real slates of programming later in tour face down an audience whose attention spans have, at least a bit, faded. Cutting or condensing the network portion — allowing outlets who are already doing the absolute minimum to do nothing at all — would solve the problem of TCA sprawl.

And it wouldn’t have to be permanent. Netflix’s presence at the tour is occasional — but they deserve credit for, when they show up, really showing up. This past summer, the streamer presented a thought-through, impressive day’s worth of panels, including access to candid and open VP of originals Cindy Holland. Would it be better if they made their presence felt every tour? As someone interested in access generally and in the specific case of the corporation setting the pace for the entertainment industry, the answer is obviously yes. But occasional, meaningful presence outweighs consistent diffidence.

Netflix, of course, has no historical allegiance to the TCA press tour, having missed the first decades of the tour’s existence by dint of not existing yet. And the networks, once the core of the television business, have a sentimental as well as a practical importance (more people do watch “The Masked Singer” than most of what’s on cable, after all). A tour without them would feel odd. But there’s a distinction worth drawing between longstanding tradition and inertia. If networks and press alike are not being served by ABC, NBC, CBS, and Fox’s presence at TCA, a conversation is worth having about at least one of the four being the network to bite the bullet and walk away for a cycle. They’d miss out on the opportunity for coverage, sure, but it’s one they’re barely capitalizing on as it stands, and wasting their own money and other people’s time in the process.

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