Executives used to have an easier time at the Television Critics Association (TCA) press tour, which begins its 13-day winter confab Jan. 10 in Pasadena, Calif. “Over the past 10 years, TCA has evolved,” CBS and UPN Senior VP of Communications Chris Ender observes. “It used to be mostly about programming. But now the questions are more evenly divided between programming and business/media issues.”
This year, execs might find technology to be more of a focus. Tech questions have slowly crept in during recent years, but TCA President Rob Owen, TV editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, expects interest to be especially intense after the recent flurry of iPod, Web­-cast and video-on-demand (VOD) announcements.
“It speaks to the issues surrounding the future of television distribution,” Owen says. “Not that anyone has answers.”
In fact, curiosity is running so high among the estimated 140 to 160 TCA members this winter, the organization has lined up a special panel. Slated for the standalone TCA Day Jan. 15, the panel will feature specially invited participants from Yahoo!, Disney/ABC, CBS and Horizon Media.
Since TV viewers can easily “choose” their programming by grabbing their remotes and roaming, television critics don't have the clout of theater critics, who can fold a play overnight, or movie critics, who can either fill a cinema or help create a multimillion-dollar disaster.
Owen is hopeful that, with the shift toward more on-demand viewing, television critics can play a larger role in influencing viewer choices among those now making their own scheduling decisions. They already might be doing that: NBC's critically acclaimed sitcom The Office is now the most downloaded TV show on Apple's iTunes, even though the U.S. version of the British original is not a breakout TV hit yet.
But even if TV critics aren't as powerful as they may be in the future, they can still be a pain in the here and now. For example, at the press tour, The WB, after touting its new strategy of broadening its demo reach to TCA last summer, will have to return to defend itself to the press after stumbling badly in that area.
Critics may save their heat for NBC, which ends the winter TCAfest on Jan. 22. Writers will likely pepper NBC about its continuing prime time woes, and execs will no doubt be quizzed about the controversial midseason series The Book of Daniel. (Last week, Nexstar Broadcasting affiliates in Terre Haute, Ind., and Little Rock, Ark., preempted the premiere.)
Oddly, the tone is usually different when it comes to cable, encompassing the first four days of TCA this winter. Writers remain mostly focused on programming, despite a slew of issues facing the industry, ranging from indecency to the recurring threat of offering cable networks on an à la carte basis.
Dave Kenin, executive VP of programming for the Hallmark Channel, whose first TCA stretches back more than 20 years, says that in all the time he has worked on the cable side, critics have had few questions for him about business dealings and corporate gamesmanship.
That will remain true if Kenin, a former president of CBS Sports, avoids being pressed this week about the proposed sale of his own network.
He theorizes that critics may be more focused on broadcast networks “because of the networks' concentration of economic interest and power.”
Maybe there's another reason critics don't ask cable execs good questions. In a kind-spirited letter sent to networks appearing at TCA, Rick Kushman, the Sacramento Bee critic and TCA treasurer, offers tips.
Kushman says cable networks often “blow half their time” rattling off ratings in long speeches. “Your executives would be just as well served to stand there and sing,” he writes. Helpfully, Kushman also suggests the networks issue name tags to unknown stars at network parties.
Kushman calms network execs who may fear what critics might ask. He notes that “peer pressure has in the past been applied to habitual nutcase questioners.” (The entire memo is published on B&C's blog, BCBeat.com.)