Wednesday, January 17, 2007

The TCA Convention

For the most part I’ve gotten along with TV critics. Okay, Tom Shayles once blamed me personally for the downfall of television but he may have been right. Plus, in my capacity as blog wise-ass, I’ve done my own share of TV critiquing. So I have empathy for them. When some stink burger crosses my screen I can turn it off. They have to watch it…along with four additional episodes that are even worse. Hell, just the TEN COMMANDMENTS mini-series would kill me.

Currently the nation’s TV critics have gathered in Pasadena for the bi-annual spin fest called the TCA Convention. Here networks, show runners, and stars ply them with shrimp and Bloody Marys hoping to get good reviews and favorable press. On the surface it sounds like a good deal. Free trip to LA, comped room at the Ritz-Carlton. But then you realize what’s expected of them. Sitting in a conference room eight hours a day for two weeks hearing one dog and pony show after another. Imagine being trapped in a room while the producer of WHO’S YOUR DADDY talked for an hour about how groundbreaking and important to society his show was. If networks gave out ice picks as swag you’d jam it in your skull.

On the other hand, this TCA dance is no fun for producers either. Three times I have had the pleasure of sitting on stage touting my shows. I looked out at a room of 100 bored restless people who dared me to say anything they hadn’t heard fifteen times already… that day.

For one of our sessions we followed a producer who insulted all of the critics, made fun of one member’s accent, and listed every euphemism for vagina he could think of. By the time we got up to speak there was almost a mutiny.

Another time we confronted them after our studio’s crack PR department gave them swag so cheap and insulting that we became the laughing stock of the convention. We got questions like, “Will your show be in color?”

Only once did we have a good session, and that’s thanks to actor, Kevin Kilner. It was the first year of ALMOST PERFECT. Along with fellow co-creators David Isaacs and Robin Schiff, the show’s stars, Nancy Travis and Kevin Kilner joined us on the panel. For the first half hour it was the usual -- they asked rote questions and typed our rote answers even before we gave them. Finally, one reporter asked Kevin Kilner what his background was. He said that before he became an actor he was an accountant for a chicken farm. And then he said, “Do any of you guys know how they slaughter chickens?” I thought, “Oh Christ, we’re so dead.” But the critics all woke up. Suddenly a topic they hadn’t heard. So Kevin described in graphic neck-snapping detail how chickens are killed and for the next fifteen minutes we held them in rapt attention. And ALMOST PERFECT got the best reviews in our career.

So the lesson here is if you’re a producer scheduled to meet the press later this week, talk about anything other than your show. I think the topic of what goes into hotdogs is still open.

And if you’re one of the critics, the conference room now has Wifi. Go to There are hundreds of free online games.

And we’ll see you again in July and do it all over again. With fifty great NEW shows, much better than the 50 great new shows that are premiering now.


Anonymous said...

Ken, what is that saying...."Those who love hotdogs and respect television should never watch either one being made?"

Anonymous said...

One can only seriously hope that the next 50 are better than this crop of 50. There are more dogs this season than you should be able to shake a stick at. Legally. Oy ve. That being said, there are a few gems to be sure. But, sadly, there are few and far between. Some shows so bad, I started to daydream about the main characters of each dog show surprisingly showing up in an episode of Dexter as his next serial killer kill of the week. *sigh* Good times.


Anonymous said...

For reasons relating to work I have had occasion to listen the TCA presentations of one of the Networks for more than a decade.

What amuses me about the process is that they will give a hundred reasons why this years slate of shows is likely the best they've ever had, is filled with can't miss hits and will change the face of television. One month into the new season 80% of the can't miss shows are axed and they're running Munsters reruns or 'When Squirrels Attack'.

And yet... 12 months later there they are back at the TCA's saying the exact same thing about their new slate of shows.

I guess you have to admire their tenacity and optimism.

Ger Apeldoorn said...

And after the first season Kevin Kilner was slaughtered as a sacrificial chicken, so that's a very apt anecdote!

Anonymous said...

Ken, you're more than entitled to your views on the TCA press tour and the questions that get asked. For most TV critics, what they put into it is what they get out of it. You're dead wrong about one thing, though. Critics pay their own way to Pasadena and pay for their hotel rooms, as well. The networks discontinued the comps about two decades ago (where have you been?)and, even then, most papers were paying their own expenses.

By Ken Levine said...


Let me check that out. If the critics had to PAY for this out of their own pockets then really, what are they doing there?? No one is that masochistic.

Thanks for the alert.


Anonymous said...

Ken, Barry is absolutely right. My hat's always off to my fellow scribes here at tour, but also to their editors for continuing to fund our trips.

I spent six years away from TCA trying to DIY set visits. It was a huge struggle -- I mean, what's the No. 31 market to most studio publicists? But yesterday, 60 of us pooled in two buses and visited four sets, more than any of us would be able to swing in one day, hell, more than I was ever able to cobble together in one week. Good shows, too: "Ugly Betty," "24," even the latest Bellasario contrivance "NCIS" was a pretty good visit (though I never knew LA County extended that far).

I know you're being facetious, but we're here because our readers care, our editors care, and we care. I mean, on that criteria why would any sportswriter go to the most of the first 39 Super Bowls?

By Ken Levine said...


I know you guys care and like I said, I empathize with you guys. Ask anyone who's gone to any convention and after two days they're exhausted and want to go home. You guys are there for two weeks, twice a year. Even if the first time is a novelty and you sneak away to Disneyland one day, it's a grind and you have to be dedicated to say goodbye to your families for essentially a month a year to come out here on behalf of your readers.

If ALMOST PERFECT was still going we'd invite you all to the set. The only time we did that was for the Foreign Press, hoping a lunch would buy us a nomination. It didn't.

writer said...

I spent 10 years doing the semi-annual TCA confabs. Luckily, I began my career as a TV critic the year "Seinfeld" debuted and ended it the year "American Idol" hit the airwaves, so I got a good run of quality TV in there before reality programming ate up the scripted shows.

At a TCA press conference, you can always tell if a show is going to tank (or get terrible reviews) if a certain female critic (LA-based) is allowed to ask a panel of actors a series of softballs about how they relate to their characters. If she's holding onto the mike without a challenge, your show's a dog and no other critic in the room sees any reason to waste time talking to you about it.

Sometimes the entreaties from TV people are just too, too desperate. I remember a long-ago session with a stand-up comic named Rick Reynolds. He was getting his own show, co-starring Pam Dawber as his wife, and he was a pathetic sight up on the dais at TCA, begging critics to like the show. Getting his own sitcom was his lifelong dream, he said. And if it didn't become a hit, he said, "I don't know what I'll do...I guess I'll kill myself."

The show aired once and bombed. I don't recall a second episode airing (at least I didn't see it). I assume Reynolds found a reason to live.

But I still wonder....

Mike Barer said...

The lady on the left is not what I would picture a critic looking like!

Anonymous said...

I know this is a couple of days late, but Aaron's got a very interesting assessment of NBC's programming plans, which tie into some of what's been discussed here over the past few months.

The link's on his name above.