TCA Press Tour: Still a Kick 25 Years Later

The Arizona Biltmore: scene of the crime
Egads! I’m heading down to the annual Television Critics Association summer press tour and I feel like I’ve stepped into Marty McFly’s DeLoren. Tom Selleck, Jim Belushi, Cloris Leachman and William Shatner all have new series to sell. Didn’t I already attend this press tour–in 1985?
Actually, 1985 was the year I really did first attend a TCA press tour. Way back then, I was a punk photo editor/writer at TV Guide Canada. Not sure why the late great Richard Charteris singled me out for the plumb TCA assignment, but it may have had something to do with the fact that the CBS/PBS leg of the tour that year was in Phoenix, Az., and nobody else was crazy enough to want to head down to the desert in June.
It was a fascinating, eye-opening, big time experience and probably has a lot to do with why I’m still typing about television. Networks were still in their king of all media glory, buoyed by the monster success of The Cosby Show. The only thing digital was the odd wrist watch. A blogger was what you call a bleer after you’d had a few. The room was a little smaller, with network heads calling critics by their first names. Instead of one gigantic ballroom, talent and TV columnists were gathered into smaller nooks and crannies. It was all very chummy.

The fabulously eccentric Arizona Biltmore hotel was like a great, ivy league college campus in the desert. Frank Lloyd Wright had a hand in designing the joint, although he apparently hated the final Textile Block construction. The hotel opened in 1929, just before the crash and the Great Depression. The Wrigley mansion, I’m told, still stands on a hill right next door.

Flip Wilson: Killer dug the derby
I’ll have to ask Robert Conrad if he remembers that press tour. He made it memorable, heckling his boss, CBS chief Bud Grant, in a bizarre executive session ambush. Conrad, who was pointlessly promoting the forgettable series High Mountain Rangers at the time, had a rep as a hothead and he let it rip that sizzling summer. Grant didn’t seem like a guy you’d want to cross and Conrad didn’t work so much on TV after that.
Also at the ’84 tour: Angela Landsbury, who was promoting the second season of Murder, She Wrote. Reporters were split into cozy groups of 10 or 12 for round robin sessions back then (care was taken to separate reporters from competing markets) and everything was on a much more intimate level. It was like sitting around a table with no food, just great conversation. Landsbury was lovely, but I remember Redd Foxx was so agitated he could barely sit down. He slammed his own tape recorder on the table and let everyone know he was recording us. The dude was so defensive, I thought the big one was coming and he would be joining Elizabeth.
Between sessions, it was easy to approach the stars (NO personal publicists were anywhere near the network gatherings then) and all seemed amenable to having their picture taken. Flip Wilson (left), then on the downside after being a A-List variety star in the ’70s, insisted on keeping his sporty bowler on when I took his photo. That’s me with Larry, Darryl and Darryl (William Sanderson, Tony Papenfuss and John Voldstad). Whatdyamean which is which?? Those three were like the Hansen Brothers without skates. Sanderson can still be seen in True Blood. The other two went straight into the witness protection program.
Darryl, Larry, Darryl and other brother Darryl from Canada
CBS had a “Big Chill” ripoff that fall called Hometown. I went to the session, then, to escape the smothering heat, took a quick dip in the hotel pool. To my shock, there in the deep end was one of the stars from the session that had just ended. Under the bathing cap was a very young Jane Kaczmarek (below), years before her Emmy-winning stint as Lois from Malcolm in the Middle. I remember being so shocked that an actual TV star would share chlorinated pool water with reporters and the rest of us great unwashed.
Hometown: Jane Kaczmarek and two Hal  wanabees
CBS had a terrible development that year, I think they went one-for-16 that season,with The Equalizer the only non dud. Edward Woodward, sadly, was only at that tour via satellite, which was a pretty neat (and expensive) trick back then. One of their misfires was Stir Crazy, a lame remake of the Richard Pryor/Gene Wilder feature starring Larry Riley and Joseph Guzaldo (below). It lasted a month; Riley later appeared on Knots Landing. Guzaldo, who knows.
Another bad idea CBS had that summer was hiring 89-year-old George Burns to host the anthology comedy series called George Burns Comedy Week. Steve Martin was among the producers and was at the press tour with Burns. The session was more memorable than the show. Hiring an 89-year-old for a network series seemed impossible back then, but then again, lookit Betty White.
Stir Crazy: why NBC rules the ’80s
Press tour was much more leisurely back then. Nobody was filing off the floor from laptops. Nobody even thought to cover the tour itself as an event. Why piss off people who can’t be here, we figured. 
Heavy IBM Selectras were set up in rows in a press room and the wire guys would be in there hammering away after executive sessions but that was about it. You could fax copy, I guess; I just brought it all home and spat it out for the September fall preview issue.
Many of the newspaper reporters were Watergate era guys, pretty no-nonsense and aggressive. It was good to see a few friendly faces. I was a Toronto Star reader and had enjoyed Jim Bawden’s TV coverage for years as well as the late Eirik Knutsen who wrote the “Ask Starweek” column. The two of them welcomed me into the brotherhood and pointed out the characters to stay away from around the room.

Bawden’s stories from earlier press tours are epic (he and the critic from the Buffalo News had a private dinner at Lucy’s house in the ’70s); please Jim, write that book.
The evening events were mind blowing; I remember being shuttled to a neighbouring ranch where we we invited to check out the Arabian horses. Magicians wandered around offering card tricks in case a report or two looked a little bored.

TCA Summer 1985: send a critic to camp
Each network took four days to present their shows (today, NBC, Fox, CBS and ABC do it in a day and even cram some of their cable station stuff into an hour or so). There was enough time during the PBS session for something called “River Journeys” to take a real river Arizona journey. About a dozen of us snuck off in a couple of vans and were turned loose in a river on giant inner tubes. The van guy picked us up about ten mikes down stream. Beer was available and lashed to the tubes, staying chilled in the water. Jim Slotek from the Toronto Sun and Bob Remington from Edmonton Journal went along for the ride. Former TCA presidents Rich Heldenfels, Babara Holsopple, Barry Garon and Bob Curtwright can also be spotted in this photo.
There won’t be any river journeys this week and next at the Beverly Hilton in Los Angeles. But Robert Conrad will be there, dammit. Anything could still happen.

One Response to “TCA Press Tour: Still a Kick 25 Years Later”

  1. The photo of the river tour is too scary, Bill. I remember it well. Well, most of it.
    – Bob Remington


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