Press Tour 2008: No Country For Old Men

Heading down to LA in the morning to join the TCA press tour, which officially began yesterday and runs through until July 22. There has been much speculation that this is the last tour, that the newspaper business and the TV business are in a mad dash to see who goes over the cliff first.
TV critics, if you didn’t already know by reading this blog, are an endangered species. They’re disappearing faster than City-TV on air personalities.
Many veterans have been packaged off the beat since the last tour, including dean of critics Dusty Saunders from Denver, who put in over 50 years at the Rocky Mountain News. Other critics are soldiering on despite the fact they’ve been bounced from their beats (and in some cases their jobs), working the tour as freelancers and bunking with tour pals still on an expense account.
Take the above photo, for example. Shot during the last press tour, there are nine critics in the snap. A year later, two have been downsized, one was packed out, one was recently told he was off the beat and one–Winnipeg Free Press critic Brad Oswald, in the centre, is recovering from an operation (which puts all of this downsizing in perspective. Best wishes for a speedy recovery). The rest are holding their breath and keeping their fingers crossed.
Three of the greats–Ed Bark, Saunders and David Bianculli–severed ties with their long time print beats in the past two years. Bark and Bianculli are still working it on line (at unclebarky.com and at tvworthwatching.com). Not having them on tour is a loss for readers and a bigger loss for colleagues. (although, good news, Bianculli arrives Sunday).

Rob Salem called this tidal wave of a sea change “the beginning of the end of the TV world as we know it,” in yesterday’s Toronto Star. Read the rest of his clear-eyed take on this year’s tour here.
Salem is in a position to comment. Elected to the TCA board a year ago, he’s seen one tour, last January, get called off (due to the writer’s strike) and saw the Star’s once mighty TV team of reporters shrink to one–him.
Yet here it is, July, and the usual suspects are ensconced at the Beverly Hilton, undeterred that the networks are no longer providing free phones (but still providing free meals). Brandon Tartikoff’s dismissive phrase for us still rings in my ears every tour: “America’s guests.”
Except some of us work out asses off, throwing stories back to our markets with both fists. You’ve got to work this sucker, especially if you are a freelancer down on your own dime. The stories and interviews have to add up to a living for the next three to six months.
This July’s schedule works for me. The tour is a bit shorter, with fewer network offerings, but the sessions they do have sound pretty cool. All five Desperate Housewives, for example, are paneling over at ABC. There are also set visits planned to ER (exiting after 15 seasons), Pushing Daisies and Joss Whedon’s new series, Dollhouse.
Cable is ponying up with the likes of George Foreman (promoting Family Foreman, a reality show featuring his 10 children, five of whom are also named George) and the cast of Mad Men, all in sessions today. There’s also a panel for something called Dogtown: Saving The Michael Vicks Dogs, which in bountiful years past would have been followed by a quick shuttle ride to a local dog track.
Tomorrow, when I arrive, Elvis Costello will be in the house promoting Spectacle: Elvis Costello With…, a star chat series featuring the singer yakking with pals like Elton John. It airs on Sundance and CTV in December.
That’s followed by the HBO sessions headlined this year by Alan Ball’s new vampire drama, True Blood. I’ve seen the first two episodes and can report it is a visceral experience, filled with graphic, explicit (especially sexual) content held together by a remarkably strong performance by Anna Paquin. This tale of modern day vampires trying to integrate into southern society is an unsettling show and it took me until half way through the second episode to get into it, but eventually it does get its fangs into you.
The HBO sessions are generally regarded as the real start of the tour, the point where the room gets a little more crowded. How crowded it gets this year–given the almost daily layoff notices in media watchdog sites such as Romenesko–will be monitored carefully this July by the networks, the critics and the LA hotel industry. Shows continue to get made and networks continue to seek promotion, but if nobody is watching any of this stuff, well, Michael Vicks dogs won’t be the only things on the TCA endangered species list.

UPDATE: Today’s CHML radio chit chat with Scott Thompson covers the press tour and the general state of the industry, as well as some scoop from my recent visits to the sets of Dexter and Californication. Listen in here.

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