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From AJR,   October 1998  issue

Spoon-fed News   

When the nationís television critics make the pilgrimage to Pasadena twice a year, the networks lavish them with heavy doses of propaganda along with free meals, glitzy parties and trinkets. Is this trip necessary?

By Sharon Waxman
Sharon Waxman covers Hollywood for the Washington Post.     

There's a pile of loot that's been sitting in my office for months while i figure what to make of an event I attended for the first time this year--the Television Critics Association conference, a biannual lovefest between network executives, television stars and the press.

What do we have for the lucky journalists who went? Well, let's see, there's a "The Young and the Restless" cookbook (try Victor and Diane's "lemony custard cake clouds with marinated strawberries"), a wool "NYPD Blue" baseball cap, bright blue flannel "Today" show pajamas and a brown denim backpack from ABC to take home the haul. There were several high-quality freebies that I missed, including a toaster from CBS (no kidding), binoculars from Showtime and an enormous stuffed Rugrats toy from Nickelodeon.

Still, NBC made sure I got my leather-collared denim jacket, which arrived by Federal Express two weeks after the January conference. Then there were books, CDs, T-shirts, workout water bottles--and microwave popcorn to boot.

Veterans of the TV critics press tour are accustomed to the networks' calculated largesse. They are also familiar with the shock of first-timers at these events. Who wouldn't be surprised? When I showed up at CBS' main press conference to cover the event for the Washington Post, journalists were carting around large, cellophane-wrapped-and-bowed baskets of goodies.

No wonder newcomers often write what the regulars call "pigs at the trough" articles.

But this event is a mainstay of coverage of the television industry, and it warrants a look beyond knee-jerk sanctimony--though there's plenty of room for that.

Journalistically, the Television Critics Association press tour is a tough one, an opportunity for journalists to work their sources, but more often an opportunity for those sources to curry favor with journalists. The gifts are only a small part of what is problematic about it. More than 100 television critics and feature writers from publications across the country flock to the Ritz-Carlton in Pasadena for a nonstop, promotional marathon mounted, sponsored and run by the networks. The broadcasters set the agenda, orchestrate access to their stars, provide a press room and even schedule time for journalists to write and file stories.

But at least the networks show up. Unlike their movie industry counterparts, network brass attending the meetings expose themselves to a forum that is open to discussion, debate and a virtually unlimited number of questions. While some journalists attend news conferences and then spew back the networks' spin to their readers, executives can also be buttonholed and forced to address specific issues. The news conferences inevitably yield some tough questions.

Then there are the parties, thrown by the networks for the journalists, where reporters can luck into relaxed, rewarding discussions with actors, writers and producers, in addition to the suits.

Nevertheless, the critics who faithfully attend the press tour know that there is something distasteful about the constant taking of what the networks have to give. "I won't rationalize the tchotchkes delivered to the room--the T-shirts, the candies--fine, you're right," says Tom Jicha, critic and writer for Fort Lauderdale's Sun-Sentinel. "But all that junk doesn't cost what one lunch costs, and there you are in line, ready to eat."

Indeed I was. What else was there to do? Pop out to McDonald's and be back for the question-and-answer session? I considered it; it seemed ridiculous.

But the effect of this constant face- and pocket-stuffing is insidious. It contributes to an atmosphere of collusion rather than one of skepticism, and it very subtly undermines the credibility of journalists who are there not as guests of the networks, but as (we presume) critical observers of the hows and whys of television programming.

At long last, the TCA seems to have figured this out. At its meeting in July--with rumors flying about this article going to press and the preparation of another for the new magazine Brill's Content--members voted unanimously to "limit outside material to informational uses only." In other words, the networks were being requested to cease and desist from their deluge of freebies, like that handsome wheel-on luggage handed out by Turner during the July tour.

TCA President Bob Curtright of the Wichita Eagle explains that the association could not "ban" gifts outright since the networks organize the press tour. It remains to be seen to what degree the networks will comply.

In addition, the group adopted a code of conduct barring members from soliciting work from the networks or producers during the press tour.

Was the timing of the reforms a coincidence? Hardly. "If you didn't know that AJR and Brill's Content were examining us before the tour, then you certainly did by the time we had our meeting. There's no way that goes unnoticed," says David Glasier, a former TCA president and TV critic for the News-Herald in Willoughby, Ohio. "My feeling was that if getting rid of the trinkets eliminates one possible gray area, then great."

But eliminating the freebies does not address the bigger problem: Worse than eating what the networks serve for lunch (and breakfast and dinner) is swallowing their spoon-fed news. "It's ludicrous," says Nikki Finke, New York magazine's West Coast editor and a veteran Hollywood reporter. Finke refuses to attend the meetings, saying they provide no useful information. "It's always the same. If you're the No. 3 network you're moving up. If you're No. 2 you're almost at the top, and if you're No. 1 you're staying there."

Finke says that many of the journalists who go to the press tour meetings (and the editors who send them) are just plain lazy, content to fill their notebooks with quotes that will provide fodder for a couple of months' worth of feature stories and TV columns.

Gary Dretzka, a senior writer based in Los Angeles for the Chicago Tribune, agrees. "It's filler," he says. "And editors who take television coverage not seriously at all think it's $3,000 well invested." But Dretzka usually attends the news conferences with network executives.

Is this any way to cover the most influential medium of popular American culture? Finke says it isn't. "If you're interested in TV as a business, you'll have sources... There are agents, managers, producers, lawyers, studios--there is a whole range of people who run the industry," she says. "But those journalists never talk to the other people."

Ouch. She has a point. The meetings seduce journalists into thinking that they're doing real reporting, when in fact real reporting only happens as an adjunct to the main event. The networks keep you so busy with "news conferences" (read: promotional events) that it's easy to forget that the reporter's objective is not the same as the networks'.

But there's another facet to this problem. For many of the critic/feature writers there is little alternative to the network-run meetings. On a practical level, say TCA members, the press tour is the only access journalists from smaller and mid-size newspapers will get to top network brass and TV talent. Sure, New York Times reporters can call up ABC Entertainment chief Stu Bloomberg any time. But what about writers for the Wichita Eagle? Meanwhile, the networks claim (with some justification) that it is far more efficient to present an entertainment schedule to a single group of TV reporters and critics than to call each one on the phone.

Some reporters insist that they can do good reporting at the Pasadena meetings despite the ingratiating atmosphere. "We are spoon-fed by these people, but what we make of it is up to us," says Gail Shister, the Philadelphia Inquirer's TV columnist. "Compare it to a political convention--it depends on your own enterprise as a reporter, how you work it. For me, the real news is not on the podium, it's on the floor. And what the press tour affords you is an enormous floor, seven days a week, and you can work the floor every day, every night. For me it's a gold mine; not only do I file every day, but I always come back with six or seven columns in the can."

As examples, Shister points to an off-the-cuff interview she did with actress Camryn Manheim of "The Practice" during a party for that show and producer David E. Kelley's other program, "Ally McBeal." Manheim spoke openly about being an overweight actress in a model-thin environment, and Shister was able to quickly gather comments from Manheim's colleagues, an exercise that would have taken days of phone work.

"That's why I go to the tour," she says. "It's the Super Bowl of TV coverage. You have to be there."

But Finke scoffs that even the better reporters at the TV meetings are playing the networks' game. She counters: "I've compared interviews I've done with executives and producers on their own, and they have literally said things 180 degrees different than what they said at the TV critics' thing. Because it's bogus. Who's going to speak honestly when all their bosses are standing right there?"

However graft-ridden and stage-managed the television critics' press tour seems today, the event used to be much, much worse. Back in the late 1960s when it was first organized by the networks, some 30 television writers were flown in and put up at a Century City hotel. Flights, hotel, meals and parties were provided.

In the early days, no "real" journalism was expected or required. Publicists handed out lists of questions for reporters to ask the actors (there were no sessions with network executives), and complete articles sometimes appeared under the doors of journalists in the morning, courtesy of the networks. Once a network flew the critics to London to interview the actors in "Robin Hood," according to Jicha. Another time they were flown to Hawaii to interview actor Jack Lord from "Hawaii Five-O."

Gradually, with the ethical changes in journalism prompted by Watergate and the subsequent questioning of the relationship between reporters and the people on their beat, the rules changed. By the mid-'70s, about a third of the newspapers decided to pay their own way. The percentage gradually grew, but some freeloaders hung on until as late as 1988. In 1977, the television critics began to organize in order to have more control over the press tour proceedings, and so the Television Critics Association was born.

With that came a decision to challenge the networks on the free meals. "It just came down to logistics," says Jicha. The network heads said it was easier to organize a working meal for the journalists, saying, " 'When we pay for lunch, it keeps you here. If we allow you to scatter around Los Angeles, it would be 3 [p.m.] before we reassemble,' " Jicha recalls being told. "We said, 'OK, we'll pay for the meals.' They said, 'No, we don't think you will.' Back then at the Century Plaza lunch was about $35, dinner about $80."

The networks were right. The newspapers wouldn't pay that much. So the networks never stopped footing the bills.

The TCA's recent about-face on the question of freebies may not break the hearts of network executives, who have been scaling back their participation in the press tours. NBC hosted only two days in July rather than three and will host only one in January 1999, while other networks are similarly ramping down.

"What is most disappointing for the whole press tour concept is putting on a session that gets very low attendance," says Pat Schultz, NBC's vice president for entertainment press and publicity. Some journalists, she continues, "can go to a party and never talk to the people you want them to talk to. People may go to party and not do any work. That's frustrating."

When all is said and done, is the Television Critics Association press tour a necessary evil? There are two ways to look at this question.

One is to consider whether it would be possible to cover the networks' program schedules any other way. Could diligent television journalists come to Los Angeles for several days of no-frills interviews? Only those newspapers really devoted to serious coverage of the television industry would bother. Says Jicha: "I yearn for it. We'd be there half as long; we'd ask pointed questions."

But this begs another question: Is it really necessary to be writing promotional stories about every new show that passes through the tube? Because let's face it, that is the main point of the press tours.

Would journalists' time be better spent elsewhere? Finke thinks so. "I have six stories planned in the next three months about the TV entertainment business," she says. "Not one of those stories could be reported at the TV critics meetings, or has any relation to the TV critics meetings."

But, some might ask, how important is all of this anyway? After all, it's only television.

The answer is "all of this" is increasingly important. In a universe where entertainment occupies such a huge space in contemporary culture, responsible coverage of the industry is of growing significance. As the media devote ever more column inches and broadcast time to coverage of the entertainment industry, higher standards must be demanded.

The standards of the critics' association may have been appropriate and even laudable in the late 1970s; today the association itself seems to recognize a need to achieve a greater measure of distance and skepticism.

But there's not an easy solution. Journalists would be stupid to forgo the chance to meet with the network heads out of purist spite. The fact is the press tour provides rare, unfettered access to people at all levels of the television industry; it would be foolish to pass that up.

The problem is when the press tour is not the starting point for coverage of the television industry, but the only point. Instead of being a sideshow providing useful insight into the way television shows are made or how programming decisions are made, it too easily becomes the main event.

"The newspapers have allowed the networks to blow the tune, to control the pace of the dance," says the Chicago Tribune's Dretzka. "A lot of people come back with garbage. They can't help but promote the TV shows. I just don't see how it's worthwhile."