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Tuned In: Press tour no junket but chance for access

Thursday, January 03, 2002

By Rob Owen Post-Gazette TV Editor

Bright lights! Big city! More celebrities than you can shake a stick at! That's instinctively what people think when I tell them I'm headed to Los Angeles next week for the twice annual Television Critics Association press tour. But the reality is more akin to long hours, crazy deadlines (thanks to a three-hour time difference) and lots of work.

Don't take that as a complaint. It's just a reality check.

So what exactly do I do on these trips? Who else is there? I don't think I've ever really explained press tour, so let's start with what it's not: Press tour is not a junket; the networks do not pay for TV critics to attend.

At most movie junkets, legitimate critics whose papers pay their own way mingle with the ethics-challenged who allow studios to foot their bill. That's not even an issue for TV critics, though it once was. The Television Critics Association (full disclosure: I was elected the group's secretary in July) was formed in 1978 in part to stem that gravy train and ensure journalistic integrity, credibility and legitimacy.

Currently held at the Ritz-Carlton Huntington Hotel in Pasadena, Calif., press tour has been called "a death march with cocktails," which is too simplistic and not very illuminating. Some of press tour's detractors think reporters are led lemming-like from session to session. Not true. By and large, reporters set the agenda with their questions. And press tour gives us access to bigwig executives and stars we'd never get on the phone for an interview from our newsroom desks.

Press tour includes a series of press conferences where reporters toss questions to network executives and series stars.

More useful is the follow-up time after the press conference when we can ask additional questions or get answers to specific questions whose answers might be of specific interest to Pittsburghers (i.e. What inspired Squirrel Hill native Jon Beckerman to create "Ed"? Why did Sewickley native Dan Cortese get involved with the dreadful "Veronica's Closet"?).

The day starts as early as 9 a.m. and press conferences (with a break for writing in mid-morning and lunch in early afternoon) can run as late as 6 p.m. Then each network throws a party in the evening where the stars and executives turn out. It's a good opportunity to corral actors from returning series or ask still more questions of those featured on panels during the day.

You never know what a star will say. Just when you're feeling jaded and think all actors have their answers memorized, a star will blurt out something unscripted.

Last summer the venerable star of a now-canceled freshman drama series told me off the record his memories of attending a Western Pennsylvania college. Those recollections included getting the drama teacher's wife pregnant.

"I probably should not get into that," he said after the revelation.

Probably not.

Traditionally, press tour days have been organized with each broadcast network making its presentations over one day in January and two days in July, with PBS getting two days and cable networks spread out over four days.

That model is changing to reflect the current nature of the TV business by grouping together all the networks owned by, say, ABC (ABC, ESPN, Disney Channel, ABC Family, etc.). There's also an effort to get reporters onto the sets of TV shows more often to avoid the stagnation that results from sitting in a hotel ballroom for too many press conferences.

Among the networks, The WB puts on the most fun and entertaining day, opening with a stand-up comedy monologue by publicist Keith Marder, a former TV critic with a scathing wit.

"Actually, UPN -- which now stands for the Used Parts Network -- was able to overpay for 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer' because they don't [have] a development team anymore," Marder cracked in July. "[UPN president] Dean Valentine is replacing them with a subscription to TV Guide."

The WB, Fox and, perhaps surprisingly, dependent-on-donations PBS, make the most effort to gussy up the ballroom where press conferences take place (CBS and NBC do the least).

Press tour is also an opportunity for TV writers to get to know the publicists who work on prime-time series. WB and CBS publicists are currently the most friendly and helpful, although that changes as network administrations change.

What else should you know about press tour? Before I traveled to L.A. in July, PG Food Editor Suzanne Martinson was interested in knowing what people wear.

Critics vary wildly in style, but generally we're not the most well-dressed lot, favoring a casual Friday look every day we're in Pasadena. New York Times cultural columnist Maureen Dowd, who isn't a TV critic but attends press tour anyway and annually crashes the TCA Awards, which are members-only affairs, was spotted last summer attending a press conference in jeans, although I'm sure they were designer jeans.

The dress among critics probably mirrors the trends of Hollywood power brokers. CBS's Les Moonves is one of the only network executives to still wear a suit and tie; most executives wear a jacket and open-collar button-down shirt. That would be dressy for some actors and show runners, who often show up in T-shirts and shorts.

Phenomenal 'Philly'

ABC's legal drama "Philly" continues to improve. Next Tuesday's episode, airing at 10 p.m. on WTAE, grounds the show in real character development as both Will (Tom Everett Scott) and Kathleen (Kim Delaney) take more away from their clients than a retainer: Each gets perspective.

It could be maudlin in a "learning a very special lesson" way, but thanks to subtle writing and nice guest turns by Red Buttons, Ossie Davis and Judd Hirsch, this "Philly" is a winner.

WPXI set changes

Viewers may have noticed Channel 11's newscasts have been coming from the PCNC 10 p.m. news set since just before Christmas. The station is doing some much-needed renovations to its main set.

Assistant news director Pat Maday said the set won't be entirely new but will feature some modifications, including a new backdrop, which will be a combination of cityscape and graphic design. "The weather center will probably look more changed than the anchor area," Maday said.

The new set is expected to debut sometime next week.

More DBS local channels

Subscribers to the two dominant direct broadcast satellite services now have the option of getting additional local channels.

Both DirecTV and EchoStar's DISH Network now offer local WB (WCWB), UPN (WNPA) and PBS (WQED) channels. Cornerstone TeleVision-owned Christian station WPCB, Channel 40, was also added.

Pax correction

When AT&T announced it would add Pax TV to its cable lineup, we were told it would air on 38b for City of Pittsburgh residents in non-rebuilt areas, which is what Sunday's TV Week said. Turns out it's 38a.


Rob Owen can be reached at 412-263-2582 or rowen@post-gazette.com. Post questions or comments about TV to www.post-gazette.com/tv under PG Online Talk.

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