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TCA press tour: Critics chafe under scrimping networks' tough-love diet

Anyone searching for yet another leading economic indicator in these hard times should have a good look at what's on the critics' plates at the TV press tour in Universal City.

Even just a few years ago, the network-catered lunches were lavish enough that carb-loaded journalists sometimes slumped home after two or three weeks with another inch or two on their waistlines.

This year, though, those of us in the media scrum went on the networks' new tough-love diet -- we were lucky if we scored ice water and a box of peanuts. Reporters griped that ABC wouldn't host a wrap-up party Friday night, and NBC refused to cater breakfast or lunch Thursday (Fox, however, offered hot food galore -- which is maybe what happens when you have the No. 1 show on TV for four years running). Sometime soon, the networks are going to rip a page from the airlines and charge journos $25 for every laptop they tote to the news conferences.

Even more attendees were buzzing about dire prospects for TV press tour going forward. Attendance at this week's tour slipped about 10%, to 120 Television Critics Assn. members, compared with 2007 (due to the writers strike, there was no January tour last year), according to TCA president Dave Walker. With newspapers in free fall and network bean-counters slicing budgets, executives grumbled (off the record, of course) that the January tour is a waste of time and money. And they still haven't committed to specific days for the July-August press tour in Pasadena -- usually, the contracts are all wrapped up by now -- although when pressed they all promise their companies will indeed show up.

"It's really uncertain," TCA president Dave Walker said in an interview. 

It's true that networks have for years been questioning the expense and effectiveness of the press tour. Typically, a day or two of news conferences, room rentals and meals can set a network back by at least $100,000. Walker said that networks' desire to limit or dump their tour participation had become a "constant subterranean discussion." And in times of deep layoffs everywhere, it's not surprising that the executive complaints are hitting high volumes. Reporters being reporters, TCA members just want as much access as they can wrangle.

But there are some deeper divisions at work too. Even confirmed Luddites now see that technology is rapidly reconstituting the media. The networks are struggling with TCA over what role those changes will play in coverage of the shows that millions of viewers watch.

The networks, for example, want to save money by making more use of streaming webcasts for panel sessions with executives, actors and producers. But much of the TCA membership has resisted such a move, fearing it would undercut their rationale for being sent to cover the tour. Likewise, many critics frown on PR departments that e-mail transcripts of news conferences because those messages might end up in the hands of non-credentialed bloggers and other unsavory types. It's generally not proved wise to resist broad-based technological advancement, but that is the position the critics' group is finding itself in.

"If the editors know it's all available some other way, they will stop sending people here," Walker, a critic for the New Orleans Times-Picayune, said, summing up many colleagues' fears. (Actually, many editors already have stopped sending people, or what people remain on their layoff-ravaged staffs.) "There's a very protective instinct with this group that's allowed this event to be ongoing."

And so it will go on. For how long, no one can say.

-- Scott Collins

 
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