In-Person TCAs Are Back. Some Networks and Streamers Would Rather Keep It Virtual
Back in January 2020, the TCAs — the twice-annual gathering of television critics and reporters, network executives, and talent in Los Angeles — was on life support, a waning version of a once-crucial industry event that had been cannibalized by new technologies and its own industry’s raging competitiveness. And, then: Covid.
After a few fits and starts — more fits, really — on January 9, the in-person Television Critics Association press tour returns to Pasadena, California for the first time in three years. However, it’s not exactly getting the old gang back together: The scrums are gone, there are fewer 1:1 opportunities, and a number of networks and streaming platforms plan to skip it altogether.
Warner Bros. Discovery’s many platforms, the Paramount Global-owned Showtime, and the very much revamping CW are all slated as no shows; each bailed on Summer TCA shortly before its outright cancellation. There is also no Fox, no CBS, no Starz, no Amazon Prime Video, and no Netflix. (Global and Amazon are not fully abandoning TCA; Paramount+ and MGM+ plan to attend.)
IndieWire spoke with insiders from six nonparticipating platforms for this story, all of whom requested anonymity. Half acknowledged that cost was among the major factors for skipping the upcoming event. A full day at TCA costs a network north of a half-million dollars, especially when considering the cost of shuttering any series in production so talent can attend TCA.
The TCAs were a product of a different time: for press, for media, for TV schedules, and production schedules. Yes, a lot has changed in 40 years. Hell, TCA was the place where in 2014 former Fox chief Kevin Reilly first declared pilot season “dead” — and by now, it basically is.
When the TCAs launched in 1984, they were a vital promotional event for network programming. TCA members — TV journalists from all over the U.S. and Canada — would travel to a (subsidized) five-star hotel, watch screeners for new shows, and bank reviews and interviews for their local publications. That usually meant newspapers, which were then the primary resource of TV coverage. It was a one-stop shop for access, schmoozing, and boozing.
Like everything else, the internet changed all that. Local newspapers laid off TV critics, or folded. As TCA ballrooms filled with bloggers and freelancers, the attendees’ average readership declined; social media allowed for instant sharing of answers and information from ballroom stages. Those who took full advantage of that practice cannibalized the entire point of the exclusivity (and arguably, of the press tour itself) all for the fleeting benefit of “being first.”
Soon, networks saw that while TCAs allowed a measure of narrative control, they could no longer control its placement or timing. Combined with rising costs, health concerns, and the rise of Zoom, it looked like more problems, less solutions.
The cast and creators of HBO Max series “Genera+ion” at Winter 2021’s virtual TCA
WarnerMedia via Getty Images
Networks told IndieWire that, more important than straight-up investment, was the lack of a return. Almost everyone we spoke with saw in-person TCAs as valuable — but not enough to offset the costs and risks.
Speaking of costs, those networks that committed to the in-person Summer 2022 TCAs were screwed by its last-minute cancellation. One person we spoke with said they had to pay a kill fee for a day’s worth of technology at the Langham Huntington hotel. The Langham also lost money with many canceled reservations and no one to ply with shaken martinis and scrambled eggs.
The hotel (and the TCA) demanded that the networks provide written guarantees for their in-person attendance this winter, the person told us. A person from a second network corroborated that information. A TCA representative told IndieWire: “There have always been contracts between the hotel and the networks, and the hotel and the TCA. The TCA also asked for, as you put it, a written guarantee from our network partners to do all we could to ensure this tour would proceed in person.”
Most network insiders who spoke with us felt that in the years leading up to the pandemic, the quality of attending journalists declined. With many reporters and critics from smaller outlets, they feel it results in less-impactful coverage.
Several sources mentioned that their existing midseason schedules just didn’t make sense for a TCA day. Several people, including (but not limited to) those we spoke with from broadcast-television networks, said they value Summer TCA over Winter TCA as the fall schedule is more important than winter or spring (and especially summer). One major streaming platform we spoke with acknowledged they weighed their peers not participating as part of its decision to skip.
The governing sentiment of the non-attending networks was pretty simple: Virtual TCAs are better for them. They’re cheaper and easier to organize. Pulling talent from set to their trailer is magnitudes more manageable than pulling them from Vancouver to Pasadena. Now that so many productions are thousands of miles away from Los Angeles, in-person TCA can make a real dent in a production schedule.
The network sources we spoke with find virtual TCAs to be nearly as effective as in-person. It’s safer and they have more control. One specifically told us they choose questions in the Zoom queue based not entirely on the order of hands being raised, but on the quality of the journalist and publication.
Another said that while an in-person ballroom panel usually draws about 150-200 journalists, they still get more than 100 attendees for a virtual session. Not as good, but good enough.
Will Smith attends the NBC Winter TCA Press Tour on January 6, 1991 at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Marina del Rey, California
Ron Galella Collection via Getty
Speaking as a TCA member from a major outlet, I’d like to chime in here: Virtual TCAs sucked for reporters and critics. There were audio problems, almost no barriers to entry, and no skin in the game for those attending. Although in-person TCAs are long, they are generally tight and well-run. There were still things to complain about (and believe me, I did), but without a captive audience virtual TCAs dragged out over weeks. The human touch was also lost, as were the post-panel scrums, many one-on-one opportunities, and the more casual banter at parties.
And now, they’re back — but the post-panel scrums will not be. Those small-group sessions following the larger, more formal Q&A often yielded the best stuff. (That’s why networks hated them. They’re gone, we’re told, because of Covid.) There are fewer one-on-one opportunities; the party situation is murky, since everyone is required to wear masks at all times while indoors.
The Television Critics Association has 237 members, all of whom may register to attend the press tours. Host networks may also invite press who are not TCA members. The Winter 2023 TCAs run for nine days, about half the length of recent in-person press tours. (They used to be even longer.)
See the current schedule below.
- Jan. 9: Paramount+
- Jan. 10: CTAM: AMC and MGM+
- Jan. 11: ABC, Freeform, and Disney TV Studios set visit
- Jan. 12: FX
- Jan. 13: Disney+, Disney Branded TV, and NatGeo
- Jan. 14: Hulu/Onyx Collective
- Jan. 15: NBC Universal
- Jan. 16 and 17: PBS
- Jan. 18: CTAM: Apple TV+
See you in Pasadena.
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