Twice a year, cable networks catch a few precious moments to plug their latest wares to television critics visiting Los Angeles from all over the nation. Programmers painstakingly select shows, line up talent to draw jaded critics and plunk down prized promotional dollars. But presenting at the Television Critics Association tour, which starts this week in Hollywood, doesn't always translate to ratings success.
The Big Four broadcast networks are lavished with two days each to present their new programs, while cable networks get at most a few hours. Some smaller networks, like Oxygen and BBC America, don't always get a slot at all.
Still, with hopes of drumming up more publicity than billboards and on-air spots can buy, cable networks can spend $100,000 to $150,000 to parade their wares at TCA.
It isn't always money well spent, as it turns out. Some shows don't get noticed. Others might be well received by critics but cast aside by viewers.
At the last summer's tour, the Hallmark Channel trotted out Burt Reynolds and Tom Berenger, the stars of its Western Johnson County War, but the movie turned out disappointing ratings. Lifetime hyped its freshman legal drama For the People
but since elected to dump the show after one season.
Still, most channels can't pass up the opportunity to get critics' attention. "We pick shows we're getting behind in other [promotional] ways," said Court TV's EVP of Programming Art Bell. "You have to take shows that are important to you."
Boldly straying from the herd, however, is MTV Networks, which is opting out for the second straight tour. MTV's general entertainment network, TNN, was slated to present its new animated block, but the shows aren't ready. MTV's biggest program, The Osbournes, debuted its second season last month, and VH1 has nothing big in the works. Strangely, they're passing on what others consider a golden promotional opportunity.
"It's not worth the money for us this time," an MTV Networks executive said. "The timing of our shows just isn't right. The TCA is afraid we'll never be back. We'll go back, but only when it really suits what we're promoting."
Other networks would like to skip out too but wouldn't dare. With more than 50 major-sized cable networks, once a channel opts out, TCA could easily find a replacement.