Ask anyone who writes about or reports on television and they will tell you: Under most circumstances, talking to actors is almost always a complicated affair. Schedules have to be nailed down, publicists (of both the personal and corporate varieties) have to be assuaged and, more often than not, the actors themselves have to be somehow cajoled into sitting down and talking with the press. If photography is involved, the complication factor instantly triples.
Similar and sometimes more intense challenges arise when journalists wish to visit a set, especially one for a series that has not yet made its debut. And if those journalists wish to take a few pictures as they are being escorted around a studio the stress level can be titanic. In most cases, photography simply isn't allowed, except under tightly controlled circumstances. Anything resembling a spoiler or even a sneak peak can be met with pain of torture, if not worse, for the reporter and others who are involved.
These harsh realities make Syfy's recent Digital Press Tour in Toronto not simply a stimulating and productive event, but a borderline miraculous accomplishment. In a break from its annual tours of recent years, at which dozens of digerati traveled to Orlando to participate in brief press conferences and prolonged informal conversations with talent from many of the network's shows, Syfy this year hosted online reporters and bloggers on the Toronto sets of its current hit Warehouse 13 and its upcoming science-fiction fantasy Defiance, scheduled to debut in April 2013. (Set in what's left of the United States after an invasion by multiple alien species, the cross-platform Defiance franchise is actually a first of its kind: A scripted series that exists alongside a massively multi-player online game of the same name, developed by Trion. Characters from the series will make appearances in the ongoing game in response to storyline development and fan response to same.)
As set visits go, these trips to the studios that are home to Warehouse 13 and Defiance could not have been more different. Warehouse provided the opportunity for journalists to explore sets with which they have grown increasingly familiar during the previous four seasons of a popular series. Defiance offered them a chance to be among the first people to see a mammoth post-apocalyptic outdoor environment along with cavernous indoor sets for a show that is almost certain to evoke the kind of wild fan enthusiasm that supported the likes of Battlestar Galactica, Fringe, Lost and this season's NBC success The Revolution.
What was most remarkable about both visits was the total unfettered access the press had to everyone and everything. It went something like this: You want to grab quick interviews with the talent and producers, or senior Syfy executives (all of whom were on hand and ready to talk throughout the event)? Help yourself. You need to take a few pictures of them or with them (something that is expressly forbidden at Television Critics Association parties and other significant industry events)? Go right ahead, and let us know if you want us to assist you. You want to shoot pictures or videos of the sets, in detail or from a distance? There is no need even to ask.
It is the tradition of Syfy's Digital Press Tour to encourage all press attendees to actively engage in social media during all activities. This year those activities included an opening night dinner (in the dazzling C5 Restaurant at Toronto's Royal Ontario Museum) attended by the casts of two other Syfy staples, Being Human and Haven, all of them eager to be interviewed and to pose for pictures. The next day, reporters were asked to solicit questions via Twitter during brief press conferences on the Warehouse 13 and Defiance sets and to tweet every detail during those sessions. There were Foursquare check-ins everywhere the digerati went. All the while, representatives from Syfy and New Media Strategies cobbled together tweets and Instagram photos to curate the entire tour on Storify.
In short, in terms of access and communication there were no boundaries of any kind during any time at the tour. It's anyone's guess how Syfy broke through all the silly paranoia, corporate clutter and egregious egomania that can often compromise similar press functions to produce so positive and productive and – for reporters, executives and talent alike—so enjoyable a publicity event. There must be a workable formula for this, because Syfy manages to do the same thing every year, regardless of location. And it remains the only network to so aggressively and effectively cultivate relationships with dozens of bloggers and other online writers who aren't necessarily nestled within the mainstream media.