Looking back over the many presentations by basic cable networks at the Winter 2013 Television Critics Association tour, it's clear that FX once again towered over the rest, offering a session that rivaled in size, scope and news value not only pay-cable competitors HBO and Showtime but broadcasters CBS and The CW, as well.
FX didn't exactly do anything new at this tour. It simply continued to do what it has done so well for so many years: Give TCA members what they want and foster an enduring bond between the network and the press. Rather than simply promote a new series or two and then split, as other cable networks tend to do, FX puts on a broadcast network-worthy presentation that gives as much weight to returning series as to new ones. Last week, that meant appearances by the stars and producers of veteran series "Justified," new drama "The Americans" and returning late-night comedy series "Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell," plus a luncheon to promote "The Ultimate Fighter."
As always, FX opened its half-day with a session with FX Networks President and General Manager John Landgraf, whose appearances at TCA tours are now as eagerly anticipated by critics and reporters as those of top broadcast executives. Landgraf always gives journalists something to write about, whether revealing details about his network's shows or commenting on issues of huge importance to the television industry (as he did last week with a series of very compelling statements about violence in entertainment and the responsibility of media companies in dealing with same). This relationship between Landgraf and the TCA didn't happen overnight; rather, it has been fostered during the last decade by FX publicity chief John Solberg, who has a similarly unique bond with reporters.
Part of FX's very smart strategy has been to keep veteran series at the forefront of the network's publicity and promotional efforts -- hence repeated appearances at TCA tours by the casts of "Justified," "Sons of Anarchy," "Louie" and others. As the shows grow, and as support for them in the press continues to expand, so does the formidable FX-press connection. (Seriously, ongoing participation by the full casts of successful and acclaimed series on broadcast, basic cable and pay cable is not as common as one might think at TCA tours.)
This is not to suggest that FX is the only basic cable network (or network group) to consistently make a positive impact at TCA tours. The star-packed dinner that Hallmark Channel and Hallmark Movie Channel host at every Winter tour has in three years become the gold standard of TCA events. ABC during its TCA days very successfully includes multiple panels and for and visits to the sets of series on ABC Family. (It can be argued that the inclusion last week during ABC's first day at TCA of a session with the cast of "Pretty Little Liars" generated as much excitement as anything else ABC offered that day.) BBC America is also a force to reckon with at TCA tours, consistently offering compelling panels for series that can only be described as critic-magnets and hosting very successful evening events during Summer TCA gatherings. And the National Geographic Channels group has in recent years become a major TCA player, offering evening events apart from its regularly scheduled sessions and also effectively finding new ways to make those sessions stand out from the dozens of panels included during TCA's cable days.
But it was NBC Universal's basic cable group that really stepped up at the Winter 2013 tour. No show-runner could ask for sexier support than that provided by USA Network last week for its upcoming action-drama "Graceland." The network devoted its entire presence at TCA to this show, with a sponsored breakfast, a press conference and an overall environment that positioned it perfectly. Frankly, I would have welcomed additional USA panels for the recently reignited "Burn Notice," which is better than ever but seems to have slipped below the media's radar, and "Covert Affairs," which last year was as riveting as any other drama on television. Similarly, the TCA can't get enough of "White Collar" star Matt Bomer. I think USA could bring him to every tour and generate all kinds of positive buzz.
NBCU's cable day also included a session for Oxygen's very promising new competition series "The Face," hosted by supermodel Naomi Campbell; a surprisingly engaging session for the Golf Channel with the hosts of two of its series, David Feherty and Jimmy Roberts; a panel for CNBC's first two reality series, "Treasure Detectives" and "The Car Chasers"; and another very popular tour tradition, a lavish lunch featuring talent from E!, which this time introduced to TCA members the girl-band The Saturdays. They will be featured in the upcoming series "Chasing the Saturdays."
The day ended with a panel and party for Syfy's upcoming adventure series "Defiance," the much buzzed about television series and massive multiplayer online game hybrid that debuts in April. Had the only exposure for this wildly ambitious project been a traditional press conference it might not have received the attention it deserves. Fortunately, Syfy pumped up additional interest in "Defiance" with a lavish cocktail party following the panel, in a ballroom here at the Langham Huntington Hotel that had been transformed into the bar at the Need Want, the brothel that is a significant locale in the series. TCA members were able to talk at great length with the cast and producers of the show, but they were also able to play a version of the "Defiance" game and speak with executives from Trion, Syfy's partner in this project. Wisely, Syfy also brought stars from some of its other series to the party, including the cast of "Being Human," who were in town for a panel at the Paley Center the following evening.