The Television Critics Association tours have changed a lot since they began in the Seventies. There used to be four every year. (Since sometime in the late Eighties there have been only two.) In addition to Los Angeles, their only home for more than 30 years, they used to take place in New York City and Washington, D.C. (CBS sometimes flew the entire group to Arizona to hold their sessions at a resort in Phoenix.) They once were dominated by CBS, NBC, ABC and PBS. (Then along came syndication, cable, Fox, The CW and, most recently, the streaming services.) They used to get longer by the year, topping out in the mid-Nineties at 24 or 26 days (depending on whom you ask), though since the aughts they have contracted (even as the number of networks and services they include has increased). They were created and structured by and once placed primary importance on hard-working newspaper critics, who provided primary access through their columns to the viewing public. (We know what happened there.) Newspaper people used to pay full attention to each panel and take notes during sessions, then dash away to file copy. (Today, TCA members spend their days madly typing behind laptop lids, filing and socializing every word they hear, which some people who take the stage find off-putting.)
And now, like so many other activities in life that have been compromised by the COVID-19 pandemic, TCA panels have gone virtual. The MediaVillage TV team is watching and participating from their homes.
For a time, it seemed that the Summer 2020 TCA tour would simply be cancelled. Then CTAM, which coordinates the cable and streaming segments of each tour, and the always reliable PBS stepped up with plans to offer virtual presentations to promote their upcoming fall and winter programs, rather than do nothing at all. (Among cable, the streamers and PBS, many programs were finished with physical production prior to the pandemic and subsequent quarantines.) The TCA Board of Directors agreed, and now here we are, touring at home. (The broadcast networks -- the entities that started it all -- are sitting this one out due to a lack of content.)
Last week, over the course of three afternoons, PBS presented 14 panels to TCA members via Zoom. This week, and for two afternoons next week, cable networks and streaming services will also be offerings virtual sessions. While the experience does not come close to being in the room with the talent and executives involved, not to mention a crowd of journalists from all over the United States and Canada sharing the same experience in-person, the PBS panels proved surprisingly functional and effective. That is to say, the PBS team did a terrific job in gathering TCA members together (with many e-mail reminders, right up until the start of each panel), organizing executives and other notables from far and wide to appear live on screen at scheduled times, and managing each Q&A session in such a way as to generate maximum content for all interested parties. It felt very much like the traditional TCA experience, but without the excitement of actually being there.
The timing was certainly interesting for PBS, given that it will this fall mark the 50th anniversary of its launch (on October 4, to be exact). Collectively, PBS always puts on an extraordinary presentation at TCA tours, and one can only imagine what it would have pulled together for a physical celebration of this major milestone. “Needless to say, this isn’t how we thought we would be marking our 50th,” PBS President and CEO Paula Kerger remarked at the top of her session, which opened PBS’ virtual experience. “But I strongly believe that everything we have done over the past five decades has prepared us to meet this moment.
“When COVID-19 shuttered large parts of the country, PBS and our 335 member stations made quick changes to our schedule to help our audience navigate these challenging times: creating special programs to keep people informed about the virus, including a PBS Newshour virtual town hall and several timely documentaries produced by Frontline and Nova; tapping into our rich library of content, such as Ken Burns' films that remind us that our country has overcome periods of great adversity when we've pulled together, and starting up a multiplatform, at-home learning initiative to help close the learning gap for millions of children. We also provided digital resources to educators and families through PBS LearningMedia, our free distance learning platform, which saw its traffic quadruple to 4 million users a month. And we continued to offer high-quality educational [content] through the PBS Kids 24/7 channel, which has been especially vital to homes with limited access to broadband.”
Kerger also spoke about the ongoing social unrest following the killing of George Floyd. “During this wrenching time, as our country grapples with legacies of systemic racism and inequality, we are committed to leveraging the unique strengths of public television to enable meaningful change,” she said. “Covering these issues is not new for PBS. PBS is home to Henry Hampton's Eyes on the Prize, Stanley Nelson's Freedom Riders and Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr.'s African-Americans: Many Rivers to Cross, among many other important films. We have a longstanding commitment to diverse stories and storytelling, working with partners like P.O.V., Independent Lens, World Channel and the National Multicultural Alliance. And we prioritize diversity and inclusion across our children's programming [as well].
“In the coming months we will continue to share programs that shed light and foster dialogue,” she continued. “Our commitment runs deep within PBS and throughout public television. We will look at every opportunity to take what I think has been good work and make it better, to bring new voices and new storytellers into our system and to ensure all of our audiences can see their experiences reflected on the screen.”
PBS continued its 50th anniversary virtual event with Ken Burns, Judy Woodruff and Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. joining Kerger to talk about the history of PBS and the state of the country today. Not surprisingly, Burns delivered one of the most profound statements of the day when asked what concerns him most about the state of the nation.
“It would probably be the division and the way it seems to be in the interest of people to drive wedges between other groups,” he replied. “I think it is the absence of education. I have spent my entire professional life in the Public Broadcasting Service because I think it is hugely important that we know where we have been in order to know where we are and where we are going. It is in the interest of dictators and authoritarian rulers to have a populace uneducated about the history and Constitution and rule of law. The thing that worries me most is the way that our media culture has permitted this to atrophy, except here [at PBS]. We don't do that here. We practice civics in every program that we have. We are in a direct relationship with our – I don't want to say our customers, but with our citizens. We have a relationship [with them] and a story to tell, and a story to listen to. That's our job 24/7. We have been doing it for 50 years.”
PBS followed that session with 13 more over three days, all of them stimulating and informative. Today, seven days of CTAM panels begin. They include sessions from Lifetime, National Geographic, Netflix, WarnerMedia (HBO, HBO Max, TNT and TBS), Amazon Prime Video, AMC Networks, Hulu and Peacock, among others.
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