For the first time in the organization's 30-year history, a Television Critics Association tour has been cancelled.
Word came down late Monday night that the Writers Guild of America strike has managed to do what the Gulf War, the Northridge earthquake and 9/11 could not -- terminate the upcoming winter TCA tour, which had been scheduled to begin on January 8. The cancellation follows weeks of difficult meetings between TCA board members and publicity executives from the broadcast and cable networks.
Citing logistical difficulties and hotel business concerns among other matters, TCA president Dave Walker (of the Times-Picayune in New Orleans) and the TCA board yesterday determined that the tour had to be cancelled, even if the strike were to end before January 8.
Since the strike began, the broadcast networks have made no secret of the fact that they would likely not participate in the winter tour if matters were not settled by mid-December. Amid growing concerns over lost revenues brought on by the strike and fears about aggravating striking writers, the broadcasters seemed increasingly disinterested in going forward with a tour that would emphasize interviews with executives (who could have addressed the impact of the current strike and the threat of upcoming walkouts by members of the Screen Actors Guild and the Directors Guild of America) and news personalities (who could have talked about their plans for coverage of the 2008 presidential election campaigns), not to mention the networks' big-ticket reality shows. Given the support and enthusiasm critics continue to show for CBS' Survivor, The Amazing Race, The Power of 10 and Big Brother; ABC's Dancing with the Stars and upcoming Dance War; Fox' American Idol, So You Think You Can Dance and Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader; and The CW's America's Next Top Model and Beauty and the Geek, among others, it could have been a very productive tour focused on unscripted television.
While the broadcast networks continued to hold off on making formal commitments to the January event, PBS for several weeks asserted that it would present a full one-and-a-half day schedule as usual. In an e-mail to TCA members yesterday, Walker identified a recent "abrupt reversal" on this plan by PBS as yet another factor in the decision to cancel the tour. Several cable networks have also expressed reluctance to go forward with tour planning, though it appeared as of yesterday that the cable portion of the tour was largely still in place.
Walker also explained to members that the decision to cancel the tour was made this week out of fairness to the Universal Hilton, the hotel that was to be the site of the January event. The timing allows the Hilton time to schedule other activities and recoup some of the financial losses it will suffer because of the cancellation.
Longtime members of TCA note that the tour was not cancelled during the last WGA strike in 1988. In fact, one member who attended that long-ago strike tour tells me that the writers were happy to talk with TCA members and gave them buttons. (Compensation aside, WGA members have long considered television journalists and critics their peers and have always welcomed the opportunity to spend time with them during TCA events. Every year during the summer tour the WGA hosts a reception for TCA attendees, allowing show writers and critics to mingle and form relationships in an informal atmosphere, unencumbered by network and studio publicists.)
Veteran TCA members (myself included) also recall that earlier January tours took place despite hardships far more extreme than the WGA strike. The Gulf War broke out during the January 1991 tour, but the networks continued with their scheduled presentations. (Howard Stringer, who at the time was the president of CBS, was memorably masterful when he addressed the TCA about his network's coverage of the war, declaring that he would remain undeterred despite concerns about the cost of such coverage.) The January 1994 gathering almost didn't happen because the intended site of that tour, the Century Plaza Hotel, booked a larger event on top of TCA one month before its start date and informed critics they would have to look elsewhere for lodgings. (TCA then moved to the Ritz-Carlton Huntington Hotel in Pasadena, which would become its home for years to come.) The catastrophic Northridge earthquake later impacted the cable portion of that same tour, but most of the networks continued with their presentations. The January 2002 tour took place as scheduled during the unsettled aftermath of 9/11, despite the fact that network budgets had been gutted by the costs of covering the terrorist attacks and the war in Afghanistan.