Why TCA Is So Boring

A certain sameness has set in among the nation’s TV makers and the reporters who cover them

2016 Television Critics Association winter press tour
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Last week at the Television Critics Association winter press tour, a reporter asked Khloe Kardashian how her husband, Lamar Odom, was doing.

She responded with a perky, “Lamar is good, thank you,” then pivoted to another topic.

The answer was indicative of everything the current TCA tour has been — rehearsed, inconsequential and boring.

The twice-annual junket — in which the nation’s TV reporters, bloggers, and critics ask questions of TV creators and stars — in a series of mini-press conferences called panels — has failed to generate much of any news of interest.

It’s a wasted opportunity all around: For two weeks, TCA puts the entire TV-making apparatus in the same hotel ballroom as TV-coverage apparatus. This creates opportunities for big ideas to emerge and change the way we think about TV — such as when FX’s John Landgraf declared last year that we live in an era of too much television, or former Fox boss Kevin Reilly announced in 2014 that pilot season was dead.

But those moments were orchestrated. Landgraf coined the term “peak TV” on his way to arguing that FX was better positioned than most brands to survive a future apocalypse. Reilly didn’t manage to kill pilot season, but he did distract people from Fox’s then-worsening ratings.

Better are the genuine surprises — such as when NBC’s Bob Greenblatt apparently decided in front of a room full of people to renew “Parks and Recreation” or Amazon’s Roy Price was knocked back on his heels by tough questions about Woody Allen and Jeremy Clarkson.

Those moments are too few. The norm is what happened with Kardashian. Soon after the no-news panel, she gave a lengthy, revealing interview to Howard Stern, whose Q&As are the opposite of TCA panels: freewheeling, blunt, spontaneous.

Most news that comes out of TCA does so by design. Most of the questions asked have been prepared for. Of all the thousands of things said inside the ballroom, few feel fresh or interesting.

When Landgraf dropped his peak-TV knowledge bomb, he spoke about the difficulty of standing out from the crowd at a time when more content than ever is being produced and distributed. The media reporting on TV is under the same pressure. When newspapers, like mammoths, ruled the earth, news moved slowly and its value couldn’t be measured by the traffic it generated. Now news happens in real time and is easily commodified.

The people onstage are well aware that everything they say is potential grist, and their primary concern, understandably, is to not get caught in the mill.

This makes most of press tour boring and low-value — for those attending, sure, but more importantly for those reading about it. Fans are given a bunch of stories from multiple outlets that are all virtually identical, save the occasional true scoop or contrarian analysis.

TCA provides a wide range of reporters with access to the people who make TV. On the surface, that’s a good thing. But when everyone is in the same room together listening to the same thing for 15 days straight, they, are, most of the time, going to do the same thing in response. And that means no one is doing anything special.