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#TCA14: Why almost every TV reporter in America is in the same hotel ballroom this week

Jennifer Salke, president of NBC Entertainment; Robert Greenblatt, chairman of NBC Entertainment; and Paul Telegdy, president of alternative and late-night programming for NBC Entertainment, at this year's summer press tour.
Jennifer Salke, president of NBC Entertainment; Robert Greenblatt, chairman of NBC Entertainment; and Paul Telegdy, president of alternative and late-night programming for NBC Entertainment, at this year's summer press tour.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Over the next several days, I will be attending the Television Critics Association press tour and covering the various events there. The tour actually began last Tuesday, but due to a variety of other commitments, I'm only going to begin coverage now. If you want to follow the complete series of events, you can check out my blog here, or you can just follow me on Twitter for up to the minute, probably too comprehensive updates. If you're curious about fall television, this just might be the thing for you.

What this doesn't answer, however, is just what the press tour is. And for that, I could just refer you to Alan Sepinwall's excellent rundown of the event, but here are a few quick answers to your most pressing questions.

What is the TCA press tour?

Basically, it's nearly every television reporter in the country locked together in a hotel ballroom, peppering the stars of the small screen with questions about new shows, many of which won't live to see the next press tour. You may best know it from the #TCA14 hashtag, which occasionally trends on Twitter and can seem inexplicable if you don't follow lots of TV critics. That's all you really need to know. Beyond that, things get more interesting.

What is the TCA?

The Television Critics Association is a professional organization of TV reporters, columnists, and, yes, critics who have banded together to better cover the medium, promote the best it has to offer (via the group's annual awards), and just generally offer each other support for what can be a grueling beat to cover. (Yeah, it's just watching TV, but have you seen how much TV there is nowadays?) In that regard, it's like pretty much any other trade organization.

What is unique about the TCA is that in the late ‘70s, it used its influence to convince the networks to host an event twice per year ­– in January and July –  that would run for two to three weeks (and, in the ‘80s, sometimes as long as the whole month) and allow the membership access to the networks' executives, creative personnel, and acting talent. This revolutionized how reporters from, say, Kansas City were able to cover television, allowing critics a better sense of how promising (or not-so-promising) shows were coming together, and allowing reporters and columnists a chance to talk with hometown kids who'd made it big or other figures of interest in the industry. Each major network would take over a handful of days, presenting panels on new shows, offering interview opportunities with actors and writers, and throwing parties that were simultaneously a chance for reporters to connect with even more TV talent and a way for networks to celebrate their good fortune (or drink away the lack thereof).

The tradition continues to this day, despite the fact that the tour could seem like a hidebound leftover from the days when newspapers ruled the media machine.

But, uh, isn't the tour a hidebound leftover from the days when newspapers ruled the media machine?

Yes and no. On the one hand, it's difficult to imagine an event of this scale being mounted for the first time ever today. Almost everything about the press tour, right down to the amount of time offered to every network, is a barely evolved version of what existed in the ‘80s and ‘90s. There are almost certainly elements within every network that believe this could all be handled by press release, thus removing the unpredictability of the whole affair.

But it's the unpredictability that makes press tour so valuable. Few other industries have anything like it. The panels and press conferences, for example, offer the sort of unfettered access journalists on most other beats would kill for. Every major network (and a few of the non-major ones) will bring its head to the stage for grilling from a ballroom full of reporters who are just a little punchy from having been locked in that ballroom for days on end.

Hearing answers to questions about new shows – and even returning ones – will allow critics a better sense of how those shows are coming together. And for those in the room who are writing profiles of the actors or creators up there on stage, here's a great chance to get quotes without having to go through publicist after publicist.

Yes, everybody is coached to give answers to the questions network publicists think are most likely to come up. But in nearly every session, there's at least one moment when something completely out of the blue happens. And in that moment, you can learn a lot.

Give me an example!

Okay! A few years ago, when Homeland was first debuting, amid the usual questions about where the show would go after its pilot came a completely out-of-nowhere question about whether there was any truth to the rumors that ABC had canceled My So-Called Life at the request of Claire Danes, the star of both that teen drama and Homeland. Danes, who's typically poised and sure-footed at these sorts of things, stammered briefly, before finally giving an answer that landed somewhere in between the story as reported and completely exonerating herself, before admitting that, look, the network wasn't going to let the ultimate decision on whether to cancel one of its programs rest with a teenage girl. (Homeland has a tortured production history and Danes always gives good soundbite. So the show has had a lot of great TCA panels, and it will have another coming up later this week.)

This is just one example of how TCA can allow reporters to not just answer questions about current shows but also fill in gaps in TV history and help reporters better understand how the business functions.

When you say this is valuable to critics, what do you mean?

Like it or not, a lot of TV criticism is about grading a pilot on potential. The truth of the matter is that the vast majority of pilots are fairly mediocre. You can count the number of genuinely great comedy pilots on two hands, and the number of genuinely great drama pilots might spread to your toes. Getting to talk with the producers and stars who are enmeshed in making episodes two and three and four and onward is often enlightening. Reporters can get a sense for whether the creative minds behind a show understand the creative hurdles they has to clear, or whether they are flailing around with no idea what they are doing.

Even more valuable are the rare occasions when, as my friend Linda Holmes of NPR notes, you can simply tell that everybody on stage doesn't believe in what they're doing. These shows usually sink without a trace. Holmes brought it up a few years ago in connection with the latest attempt to reboot Charlie's Angels, and, indeed, that series completely disappeared after a few showings.

What's the schedule?

We've already gotten through most cable networks and NBC as of today. ABC is up Tuesday, with a day of visiting sets (including the set of Masters of Sex) on Wednesday. Thursday and Friday are for CBS, The CW, and Showtime, and Saturday will bring the TCA awards. On Sunday and Monday, Fox and FX will present, with PBS finishing out the tour the two days after that. (I will likely miss the second PBS day in order to head to San Diego Comic-Con.)

That sounds exhausting!

It is. But it's also rewarding and a key part of many, many TV reporters' jobs. For as much as some might worry that the whole thing has shifted far too much toward instant updates on Twitter and websites (and you can follow all the action at the #TCA14 hashtag on Twitter), this is still an event that provides context, detail, and information. And that's worth a few late nights and early mornings to battle traffic on the 405.

What are you looking forward to?

The ABC executive session, featuring the beleaguered network's president Paul Lee, is always a hoot, mostly to see how many questions Lee tries to dodge. In the opposite direction, Fox's executive session should be interesting, because no one is sure who will be coming. (Fox's former president, Kevin Reilly, just left his job, after the network had a disastrous year.) In general, the executive sessions are the best thing about TCA, so I'll be looking forward to all of them. But ABC and Fox hold the most interest in general.

As far as panels for individual shows, I've got a surprising number I'm looking forward to. It's a better fall than usual for new shows, which simply means that the mediocrity is not as completely all-encompassing as it has been the last few falls. In particular, I'm interested to hear how the producers for both of The CW's new offerings (The Flash and Jane the Virgin) ABC's Black-ish, Fox's Gotham and Red Band Society, and CBS's gloriously stupid Scorpion plan to handle their shows going forward.

If that sounds fun, join me over at the blog. If it doesn't, go read about foreign policy or something, I guess. It's a big website!