It's that time again.
For the next couple of weeks, I'll be writing from the Television Critics Association Press Tour, where a couple hundred critics convene in a giant hotel ballroom to question producers, writers, network executives, actors, and sometimes other folks about what's coming up on TV. It can bring out both the punchy and the grumpy in many folks you know who write about all this: Tim Goodman at The Hollywood Reporter calls it the Death March With Cocktails. (A little later on, my NPR colleague Eric Deggans will be here, too.)
It can definitely make one's eyes glaze over to hear many of the same things said about show after show, year after year – that was the focus of a fever-dreamed piece I wrote in 2010 speculating about what it would look like if you presented your upcoming appendectomy like they present an upcoming new show. So it's often not just the answers themselves that are interesting.
When I started coming to tour in January of 2010 (they have them twice a year; after that first one, I only go in the summer), there was cable and there was broadcast when it came to original programming. This year, there's a significant chunk of time set aside for Hulu, Amazon, and some other digital outlets to present. (Netflix isn't coming, which could mean they don't think it's worth it overall, or they don't think it's worth it given where they are in the cycle of rolling out new and returning shows.) The speed with which online spaces have become players in making original content shows in that scheduling shift. A couple of years ago, if they'd taken time to do many digital-first panels at all, I suspect a lot of critics wouldn't have shown up (nobody goes to everything; you'd go bonkers). This year, my guess is that they'll do fine.
It's also a place to catalog anxieties, even those that aren't entirely articulated. Before many of the critics in the room were confident that Netflix originals were likely to make much of a mark or pose any kind of a challenge to what people could get on television, John Landgraf, who runs the show at FX, took time out of his executive session to stress that Netflix wasn't going to be subject to regular ratings systems and shouldn't be permitted by reporters to claim "hit" status for anything without producing some actual evidence. That was the first time I thought, "Well, if Landgraf is irritated about them, maybe they are serious." And they were. And they claim "hit" status for things, and they don't produce any evidence, and lots of writers – some who were and some who weren't in the room that day – push back, but it still happens.
Press tour also offers an opportunity to follow some of the comings and goings of executives. Last summer, Kevin Reilly from Fox started his session with a presentation about the limitations of the current ratings system for capturing what people actually watch. Fox went on to have a tough year. This summer, we don't yet know who's going to present from Fox, but it won't be him.
One thing that's going to be interesting this summer is that tour was moved up so that it's right before, rather than right after, Comic-Con in San Diego. It has been known to frustrate writers in the past that all the news was being broken at Comic-Con in front of friendly audiences of fans who had little opportunity to ask potentially critical questions; now, before they hit San Diego, they'll meet a room full of folks who are not fans and who do have that opportunity.
The general outline is that cable and digital will present from today (Tuesday) through Saturday. Remember, "cable" includes a lot – all the Discovery stuff, Nat Geo, the Turner channels, BBC America, the Viacom channels like MTV, and so forth. And in fact, some of the network affiliated cable, like the NBC Universal cable channels and Showtime (which is tied to CBS) and FX (tied to Fox), aren't even in those five days; they'll come later attached to their networks. But once cable and digital have gone, we'll move through the broadcast networks: NBC, then ABC, then CBS, then Fox. And then at the end, there are two days of PBS, including the now-traditional dinner panel with the Downton Abbey cast, which will be perfect for when everybody is completely out of gas. Which we will be.
If you follow a lot of people on Twitter who write about television, be aware that you'll get lots of Twitter coverage of panels from them; most will hashtag their tweets so you can mute them if you like (I'll be using #TCAs14, where the "s" stands for "summer"). But if you're interested in what looks interesting, turn 'em back on now and then, because it really is a good time to get a sense of what's working, what's not working, and what's coming.