Beverly Hills, CA -- At a time when so many networks are increasingly finding ways to cut costs during their segments of the Television Critics Association tours – either by appearing at only one of the two annual tours, or eliminating the evening parties for which they were once known, or sharing resources with corporate siblings that also present programming at TCA – those companies that choose to take maximum advantage and seize every opportunity to put their talent and executives together with as many as 250 television journalists from across the country and Canada tend to stand out as favorites with this organization.
At this tour, which has already completed its first week, the outstanding participants so far have been Hallmark Channels, National Geographic Channels and BBC America. It is no coincidence that all three sponsored deluxe evening parties at which critics and reporters could freely mingle with and interview talent and network executives. It's not that TCA members want to be pampered at parties. Rather, most of them find the casual interview opportunities that parties present to be invaluable in their coverage of the tour and in justifying the expense of it to their editors and publishers back home.
In recent years it seems that there has always been at least one party-pooper in the TCA mix. This time around it's ABC, which has been generating bad buzz all week, well in advance of its presentation day (July 15), by eliminating the valuable opportunity for members to talk with talent from its new and returning shows in a party atmosphere. ABC is replacing its usual all-star tour party with a cocktail reception at the end of its day attended by show-runners only. (I have attended TCA tours for 25 years and I don't remember a broadcast network ever doing this during a summer tour.) It's going to be a very long day, because ABC has chosen to put all of its panels into one marathon day, along with two sessions for ABC Family. The fact that ABC has shrunk itself down to one day isn't going over well, either.
Happily, with CBS, NBC and Fox it is business as usual; each of them has chosen to once again fill one day with panels for its new shows and make its second day available to its sibling cable networks. Each of them also has scheduled a party featuring talent from most of the properties included in their two days of tour time. The CBS party for example will include talent from The CW and Showtime. Fox's party will include stars of FX series, though that is hardly necessary, because the mighty FX is filling an entire TCA day all on its own, including breakfast, lunch, a press conference with FX Networks CEO John Landgraf, panels for nine shows on FX and FXX and an early evening cocktail party. That's more than some broadcast networks have been known to do at TCA tours.
The Hallmark affair last Tuesday night was a story in itself. Pegged to the network's Christmas in July initiative, Hallmark rented out one of those Beverly Hills mansions one only sees in the most unreal Bravo reality shows. It featured a dining room with a glass floor that looked down on an art deco indoor pool, a bowling alley, a ballroom, walls lined with Warhols and Lichtensteins and giant front doors that even the Adams family butler Lurch would have difficulty opening. A massive Christmas tree was set up on the lower lawn where dinner was served to TCA members and more than two dozen stars from Hallmark movies and series. No other network group so consistently brings together television talent from yesterday, today and tomorrow at its tour events – from Morgan Fairchild and Jon Voight to Kim Fields and Lisa Welchel to Alison Sweeney, Autumn Reeser and 2013 American Idol winner Candice Glover.
Hallmark's parties have become the most eagerly anticipated events of these tours. They are so productive, in fact, that Hallmark hasn't held an actual press conference at a TCA tour this year, as there has been no need to do so.
In terms of anticipation and effectiveness, BBC America's parties are a close second to Hallmark's. They tend to be more intimate, and the talent at them is usually limited to the stars and producers of whatever programs the network presented at panels earlier in the day. This year the talent included the casts and/or creators of the upcoming series Intruders (with Mira Sorvino) and The Game (with Brian Cox and Tom Hughes) and the film A Poet in New York, about Dylan Thomas, starring Tom Hollander. The importance of the relationships that are formed and/or strengthened between TCA members and BBC America executives at these parties cannot be understated. The resultant coverage BBCA shows receive in the press is extremely valuable, as well.
And then there is National Geographic, which for two years now has kicked off the summer tours with opening night festivities in the penthouse at the Beverly Hilton Hotel featuring executives from NGC and Nat Geo WILD along with most of the talent to be featured in sessions the following day. The opportunity to talk with these people in a relaxed setting sure beats wrestling with pushy reporters in aggravating scrums after press conferences.
Last Thursday, El Rey Network founder Robert Rodriguez hosted a party, also in the penthouse, along with the casts of his network's first two scripted series, From Dusk to Dawn and Matador. Even though El Rey had presented press conferences earlier in the day the opportunity to talk at length with Rodriguez and the actors from his shows, including Wilmer Valderrama and D.J. Cotrona (from "Dusk") and Gabriel Luna and Alfred Molina (from "Matador") made a difference. Rodriguez is especially good at positioning his network and outlining his plans for its growth.
Another important aspect of these parties is that TCA members get to know programming executives and network publicists, something that is difficult to do at TCA tours as they become increasingly shorter and overcrowded. They are the people journalists must deal with after the tours come to an end.
This is not to say that a network or network group cannot make an impact at TCA unless it hosts a party. Well-orchestrated panels, breakfasts, lunches and set visits can work wonders. Lunches last week featuring talent and executives from TVGN and GSN were effective, as was a Cartoon Network breakfast that introduced an upcoming ten-part animated miniseries titled Over the Garden Wall. HBO's usual three-hour block of panels Thursday afternoon drew a standing room only crowd. The grand evening parties that HBO once offered but several years ago discontinued are still much missed, but its block of press conferences remains a highlight of every TCA tour.
Opportunities to make connections and conduct interviews outside of press conferences are not necessarily expected from networks and streaming services that present at TCA tours, but they are appreciated and they tend to be productive. A TCA tour remains the single most effective way for a network or streaming service to get the word out about new and returning programs – even more than events during the Upfront and NewFront -- but only if said network or service takes full advantage of it. Amazon and Hulu were here on Saturday to promote their original series. Bizarrely, Netflix continues to stay away from TCA.