What is TCA? A Short Explainer

Jaded TV professionals, you can probably skip this one.

Hello. Perhaps you’ve found this post because your Twitter feed has been suddenly inundated with hashtags like #TCA or #TCA16. You’re seeing stories about a show or actor you like, and the add-on seems insiderish, maybe unnecessary, so you decided to Google: What is TCA?

Good for you: TCA is insidery. And not necessary in the way that, say, water is necessary. But it exists, and I’m attending today for the sixth or seventh time. So I’ll try to explain it to you now, in Q&A format used in TCA panels.

Question: Enough, Jesus, just tell me what TCA is.

Answer: The abbreviation refers to the Television Critics Association, which is what it sounds like: a group of nice people who review TV shows for a living.

In the parlance of TV people, TCA also refers to the winter and summer “press tours” that the TCA holds every year. You know when you see some movie about a crazy artist where he goes to a press conference, and a bunch of French journalists shout questions? TCA panels are just like that, except the journalists are American, the questions are mostly sedate, and instead of asking about movies, we ask about TV. (I’m sitting in a TCA panel as I write this. Sample question from a second ago: “Will MTV ever play music again?”)

The talent and creatives sit on a stage with bottled water, and press people wait for them to say something they consider worthy of a story. Or, rarely, try to provoke them to say something interesting.

The TCA has been around for decades. One veteran member of the group told me once that in the early days, in the 1950s, critics and TV stars would take a cross-country train, get drunk, and really get to know each other. I have no way of confirming any of this is true.

Today, TCA is carefully staged. It is attended by reporters of all kinds — not just TV critics — including business reporters looking for face time with network executives, TV reporters who want to keep abreast of everything coming out, gossip bloggers who ask about breakups and weight-loss tips, and critics who want a deeper understanding of the shows they cover.

What kinds of questions do people ask?

Most are of the “why did you do this project” variety. Politically minded reporters might stretch a bit, asking if a particular character peddles stereotypes. Because TV runs the gamut from fun fashion shows to serious news programs, the tone of the questions can fluctuate wildly.

Where does TCA happen?

In very nice hotels: The Langham Huntington in Pasadena for a couple of weeks in January, and the Beverly Hilton for a couple of weeks in the summer. Members of TCA get wildly discounted rates, presumably because the hotels like the business and publicity they receive. No hotel has ever complained about too many celebrities in its lobby.

So. Are there bribes?

Kind of.

The reporters are fed lots of very good food, provided by the networks we cover. My lunch today — a turkey wrap with a side of pasta salad, with an apple, brownie, and bag of chips, was provided courtesy of A&E, as A&E noted in signs next to the lunch boxes. Networks want reporters to be fat and happy, and tend to go big, because they would hate for us to subconsciously favor one network over another based on the quality of the free food they hand out. There are also open bars every night. It’s really hard to be healthy at TCA.

Those sound like bribes. Are there other bribes?

As I type these words, VICELAND, which is presenting at TCA for the first time, just placed a nice flash drive on my desk with information about their shows. I, and everyone else here, will erase this flash drive and use it to save drafts of my never-to-be-published novel. We also get things that might be intended as bribes, but are not perceived as such, like this Khloe Kardashian folder someone just handed me. I’ve never come home from TCA without some great T-shirts, DVDs, or books that I will never read.

Are there other perks?

Yes. No matter what you ask, with a few exceptions, the nice celebrities on stage will answer your questions. At the parties each night, they will smile and be nice to you no matter how much of a goof you are.

That sounds amazing. How do I join TCA?

Write insightful things about TCA and apply to join the group.

Is TCA fun?

For a while, and then, weirdly, no. Las Vegas for two days is amazing. Las Vegas for three days is not. Now imagine Las Vegas lasts weeks, and that after three days you begin to sense that everyone in Vegas is only pretending to be nice to you, and secretly thinks you’re a jerk. Add to this your own feelings of inadequacy when you meet writers who did finish their novels, and are now getting them made into premium cable shows. Or when you see people you were in an improv class with, 10 years ago, who are now sitting on stage and don’t remember that great scene you did where you were both talking dogs.

I don’t suspect TCA is much fun at all for celebrities or publicists at all. Once at a CBS party I watched a PR person have to sternly tell a young actor: “Two drinks. That’s it.”

Should I care about TCA?

It depends on who you are. If you’re a critic, yes. Critics designed TCA to be as pleasant as possible for critics — the idea is that they can interview many of the people they want in one place.

If you’re a superfan of a given show, you should also care. TCA is where networks tend to break news about shows being renewed, upcoming storylines, and special guests. Occasionally a reporter will corner a show creator or star and get the authoritative inside story of that show.

If you’re a celebrity or publicist, you should stress out a lot about TCA, unfortunately. There are a lot of reporters in one place, and if someone says something they shouldn’t, or is misinterpreted by reporters half-paying attention between meals, things can go very badly. Don’t have more than two drinks.

I thought this was going to be short.

I know. But like I said, I’m writing this at TCA. And for all the glamour and free brownies, TCA can be a little boring.