If the opening day of the broadcast portion of the 2008 Summer Television Critics Association tour is any indication, the critics and journalists in attendance don't seem to be fired up about anything. That may be because, unlike virtually every summer TCA tour of the last 20 years, they arrived at this one having seen only a handful of new fall shows rather than the usual 30-plus, so they actually have little to talk about. (You can blame the WGA strike for that.)
Perhaps the press is depressed by the lingering threat of a strike by members of the Screen Actors Guild that could render irrelevant (or at least compromise) much of the information taken in during this tour. It could also be their own professional concerns: The state of the media economy is such that there is hardly a critic or journalist here who feels certain that he or she will still have the same job (or any job) six months from now.
The cumulative result of these matters seems to be a kinder, gentler TCA, or perhaps just a wearier one. Tellingly, issues raised during a press conference with Fox Entertainment President Kevin Reilly yesterday that might have caught fire in previous years came and went without much excitement.
There wasn't even a dust-up over diversity or the lack thereof in next fall's new broadcast programs. "Given that the new season's largest part for a minority is in [the Family Guy spin-off The Cleveland Show], what do you think about the state of diversity, both in Fox's lineup and across the television landscape at this point?" one reporter asked. [Note: The new Fox comedy Do Not Disturb stars an African American actress in a lead role.]
"The commitment to diversity, which at one time at the networks was a department that would coordinate yearly meetings, was not on the agenda front and center," Reilly replied. "It is now woven into the fabric of what we do every day. In terms of creating characters and casting characters it's really a strange disconnect to see the final result or the numbers not reflect that. This fall, I think, is somewhat a product of the strike. There is not as much new product."
Then Reilly said something I have been hearing for almost twenty years during TCA executive press conferences: "I hope there's a day soon when this question doesn't even come up."
That was that. Moving on, what about gays on television? After all, Fox recently landed dead last for the second year in a row among the major networks in GLAAD's latest Network Responsibility Index.
"I can say that we've got several shows now moving forward with gay characters in them," Reilly revealed. "Sometimes you've actually got great representation and then for creative reasons something gets cancelled and your numbers go down. We're in production on a pilot, Virtuality, that Ron Moore and Michael Taylor created. It's got a gay relationship that is as dimensional and as honest as anything I've ever seen portrayed on television."
How about really crappy reality programs like The Moment of Truth seeping back onto the Fox schedule like sewer sludge, evoking unfortunate memories of Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?, My Big Fat Obnoxious Fiancé, Playing It Straight and other vintage Fox horrors? That always gets a rise out of the press.
"One of the things I love about Fox is we never give up our DNA," Reilly said when asked about Truth, seemingly inviting much teasing, but provoking only a couple of titters in the room. "I'm going to continue to do quality scripted shows. [Reilly knows quality when he develops it, having left NBC with Friday Night Lights, Heroes, 30 Rock, My Name is Earl, The Office, Life and Chuck.] I really feel that this season is going to be a big step forward in that, particularly the shows we're going to put on in the second half of the season. Fox is free to do those kinds of things and we're going to do them."
Yes, it seems to be a kinder, more understanding TCA … or perhaps just a more exhausted one, given that the Reilly session took place on day seven of the Summer Tour.
At one point Reilly brought up the subject of anxiety, though he was talking about distress in Hollywood, not in newsrooms across the land.
"This is a very anxious time," he observed. "Never mind the macro-economy or the outcome of the [WGA] strike or the fact that one [possible] strike [by members of SAG] is still hanging over us or the macro-digital concerns. I feel there is a tremendous amount of anxiety in this business, and there tends [to be] a doomsday scenario [in which] the digital media is the poison that is invading.
"I started getting caught up in it and I decided to go the other way," he smiled. "We don't know a lot about [digital media]. It's all under the heading of 'experiment.' Two years ago people said, 'No one's going to watch long-form content on the Web. They're not interested.' Well, that's not the truth. We know they will stream episodes. People said streaming was going to cannibalize the airwaves. We don't really see any evidence of that. DVR penetration is growing rapidly, but the presumption that everybody will zap commercials is statistically just not the case.
"We have a lot of years to learn this," he continued. "This is going to be an age of anxiety, but we've got to be in all these businesses. I think that Hollywood is very adaptable. Unlike Detroit, where you've got to retool a factory to change a product that comes out maybe three years from now, we can move very, very quickly."
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