I’m back in Boston today, after a whirlwind weekend at the Television Critics Association 2012 Winter Press Tour. It was my first time attending such an event, and as such I spent most of my brief time there pretending like I knew exactly what I was doing lest others point, laugh, and then give me wedgies.
The TCA press tour is something many who follow television coverage online know about, but it’s still something that feels fairly foreign for those who have not attended. In no way am I now close to be an expert about the event after having spent ten days there, but I thought it might be valuable to share with you ten things that I learned while out there. Some of these things are important. Most of them are not. But they are all from my particular perspective from the event that I was lucky enough to attend in Pasadena.
1) Having good colleagues guide you through the process will help you ensure that you at least survive, if not succeed. I’m not a member of the TCA, but was fortunate enough to get credentials for both the cable portion of the tour (which ran Friday and Saturday) and the FX portion. For that, I heartily thank those to whom I reached out for access and was granted it. Once there, I got to finally meet many of my virtual critics and journalists in the flesh, all of who were happy to take this noob under their wing and help make sure I didn’t actually wander onstage in order to get a better view of the panel.
2) Stephen Root will be returning to “Justified” this season. In what might be my one true scoop of the weekend, I learned from Root at one of the TCA’s social events that he will indeed be reprising the role of Judge Mike “The Hammer” Reardon at some point over the next few weeks. He couldn’t give me specifics on the role, but assured me that we would one again be seeing him (and his underwear) in Harlan before the end of the season.
3) Panels are hit and miss, but attending as many as possible is key. I can’t tell you how many panels I attended out of professional obligation that turned into eye-opening experiences. The first panel on Saturday morning was for the Ovation Network, a network that quite frankly had to research if it was even on my own cable package. (Spoiler alert: Yes!) But the programs on the panel, the docu-soap “Motor City Rising” and the film “We’ll Take Manhattan,” featured strong material and even stronger on-stage personalities help selling the material. I came for “Doctor Who”’s Karen Gillan, who is a lead in “Manhattan,” but stayed for Sean Forbes, a deaf rapper from Detroit who was one of the more dynamic personalities onstage all weekend.
4) Watching people speak live is vastly different from seeing them in print. This is in some ways an obvious point, but it’s still one that struck me over and over again during my three days there. I’m not even talking about one-on-one interviews, although that holds true there. I mean that there are times in which things like tone, body language, and other things that either augment or belie what’s being said really help inform an opinion on that verbal content. I’ve railed in the past about the ways some attending TCA use their Twitter feed as a two-week transcription service, but I understand the impulse more now. There are things that, because of the way in which they are said, make them feel compulsory to share as quickly as possible. On another level, it’s one thing to see press releases about a show like Comedy Central’s “Key & Peele,” which promises to explore race in a way not seen since “Chappelle’s Show.” But it was altogether different to hear stars Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele talk about it in the room in front of 100+ skeptical critics/journalists. They were smart, engaged, and had fascinating takes on their material. By the time their thirty-minute session was done, I was one of many in the room sold on the show’s potential.
5) We as a critical industry are not covering nearly enough shows. This might be the biggest take away that I gleaned from my time there. The sheer number of networks, never mind actual shows, onstage during my time there was overwhelming. It reinforced something that I wrote about a few months ago: the online television industry is set up to redundantly cover the same 30-40 shows at a given time, whereas the number of shows actually worth watching and discussing is at LEAST triple that, if not more. The biggest case in point: Sundance Channel’s “Push Girls”, which had its panel late on the penultimate day of the tour. While I had only been there forty-eight hours at this point, I was already tired from the whirlwind nature of the event. We had just suffered through a panel about Shannen Doherty’s upcoming reality series about her wedding, and weren’t exactly in the best mood. But then came the sizzle reel for “Push Girls,” a docu-series about women in Los Angelese living with paralysis. In the middle of the normal whiplash editing came an extended two-minute sequence in which one of the women decides to go swimming for the first time since her accident. You could hear a PIN DROP in the room during these 120 seconds. I found myself unable to breathe. Hell, I’m getting choked up just TYPING this all out. When the women came onstage to all tell their stories of survival, the room spontaneously applauded, which I’ve been assured by long-time attending members simply doesn’t happen.
And know what? I bet this show barely gets covered. Why? Because there’s no economic model in which it’s valuable to do so. There’s either money in covering shows that are popular or value in covering shows that are collectively deemed worthy of coverage as a form of cultural cache. And that’s a damn shame, since “Push Girls” is not only the type of show reality television should aspire to be, but it’s out job as critics and lovers of television to help foster an environment online that makes those shows worthwhile for production companies to make and networks to air. Hundreds of sites cover “Glee.” Hell, I cover “Glee.” But I wish hundreds of sites could cover “Push Girls” and all those shows not normally deemed worth of ongoing coverage. There’s literally no limit to the amount of space we can dedicate online to as many shows as we want. Once we get past trying to copy what everyone else is doing and start carving out spaces of our own, it will be a lot more Shannen Doherty and a lot less “Push Girls.”