BEVERLY HILLS, LA — It’s that time of year again — the Television Critics Association Summer Press Tour. If you’re new to this ritual, it’s a three-week foray into the world of fall television, as reported on by 200-plus members of a North American organization who critique or report on TV full-time.
During that period, cable and network entities (think everyone from NatGeo and Hulu to NBC and HBO) take turns presenting panels and running individual interviews for their upcoming or returning series, so that press can write about what people should be watching.
Behind the scenes, critics gab about their favourite picks, make predictions about what will do well and what could fail, and also judge the panels to gather more intel about the likelihood of those projects becoming a bonafide hit. Then there’s all of the “schmoozing” with celebrities, a.k.a. trying to barge into a gaggle of people angling for the same quotes at a party or during a scrum on the stage after the presentation. It’s a pretty full three weeks, spent at a fairly nice hotel in Los Angeles.
I’ve been attending this craziness since I first became a member back in 2008. This summer marks my 14th time attending such a tour (TCA also gathers in January for a winter session), so it’s fair to say that I’ve seen a thing or two. I’ve also made a fool of myself plenty of times. Between falling down hills at outdoor parties in heels, mixing up celebrities mid-interview and even hitting my head in the Grotto at the Playboy Mansion (I almost fell in), I’ve had an interesting few years.
So I feel as though that experience allows me to write that yes, I have one of the coolest jobs on the planet–one that I absolutely love doing. But there’s a dark, and not-so-glamorous side to TCA press tour as well, one that doesn’t involve fancy food, parties and hobnobbing with celebs. Such as?
The awkward moments
If the room doesn’t like the show being presented, you can tell. Mic runners suddenly slow down as people fail to ask questions about the latest comedic flop or overly convoluted drama. Sometimes things get testy, such as the time a non-TCA member who was reporting on a comedy panel asked Zooey Deschanel what her name means. Or when someone else basically accused Lena Dunham of tricking him into seeing her naked (stage rage ensued). Or when a conversation about racism took a dark turn during a Two Broke Girls panel.
These things may SOUND like they’re fun to witness, and they definitely make great fodder for articles coming out of tour. But at the end of the day it’s like watching your parents fight at the dinner table about their sex lives. You kind of just want to crawl under that table and be transported anywhere else.
A casino factor
When you’re at tour, you no longer know what hour of the day it is. You know if it’s time to eat (which is always thanks to a plethora of food options), and what panel is presenting next. You know WHO is presenting that day, but not what day of the week it is. (What’s that, friend back home? You just went out on a Saturday picnic? Sorry, I was at CBS day.)
Part of that is because you’re just really busy doing work, and another part of that is that unless there’s an outdoor panel or set visits planned, chances are we’re in a dark ballroom, hunkered down with our laptops and no windows for 12 hours straight. It’s worth it, because we can bank nearly 100 stories for use later on, but when you’re in the thick of it the schedule feels pretty demanding.
It’s basically summer camp
When you were little and you went away to camp every summer (whether via a Judy Blume novel or because your parents could afford to send you there), you looked forward to seeing familiar faces and resuming fun activities. But by the end of your time, you were kind of ready to go home.
That’s how it gets at Press Tour (or as a friend of mine, Tim Goodman, once popularly coined–The Death March With Cocktails). You get pumped to talk nothing but TV with everyone else who also loves TV and gets to cover it for a living. But midway through you start to miss your own friends and family, and sometimes struggle to figure out what to talk about OTHER than TV. Even though you have plenty of other interests in your everyday life. Or at least, you thought you did.
The kicker? If you have to miss a tour, it’s the loneliest feeling in the world. After all, all your other friends got to go to camp.
The U.N. has nothing on us
If I had a dollar for every U.N. joke an actor has made on stage when they come out just to see an unimpressed group of critics typing away in rows at their laptops… well you know how that saying goes. Part of the problem is that aforementioned awkwardness; TCA members do not clap for talent coming on stage, even if they’re an Oscar winner or Nobel Peace Prize nominee. The other part of the problem is that sometimes a panel can be slow to kick off, either because people are just settling back into their seats after a hectic (fought for) scrum, or because a mic runner hasn’t gotten there yet. (Nope, TCA members don’t shout either.)
It actually is work
In a typical TCA day, I could write 5,000 words worth of stories, tweet quotes from and ask questions in roughly a dozen panels, blog about the events that went down the night before, attend sessions from 8 a.m. until 6 p.m., work the room at a party (obviously with a cocktail in hand) for another three hours, then head back to my hotel room to screen two or three shows so that I’m ready for the next day. I can’t even imagine what it’s like for the locals commuting to and from this thing.
That’s one day. If you’re here for 18 days like that in a row, your brain does turn to mush eventually. Especially when you look at the variety of subjects we write about while we’re here. The trick is to pace yourself, prep as far in advance as possible, and pick which stories you think are best to cover. Then, be prepared to throw all of that out the window and expect the unexpected.
There are no naps
There’s just no time to duck out for a quick 20 minutes of shut-eye. That doesn’t happen. If you do skip a session, it’s probably because you can no longer focus on writing to your deadline while also listening to a panel. And because there are no naps, we get cranky.
Cranky critics in a room together is always dangerous. Especially when we’re also trying to fuel ourselves with lots of refined sugar, caffeine and greasy food (there are few healthy options at a tour full of buffets, unless you’re able to come early and get to a grocery store). Some of us (my hand goes up here) attempt to work out in the mornings to keep our energy up. Others just can’t even fathom giving up that extra hour of sleep or writing time.
Whatever the method, everyone is pretty much allowed to have one day where they hit that wall so hard, it hits them back. We get punchy, and then we forgive each other. That’s the TCA way of life. We eat a cookie and move on.
Eventually you just run out of clean clothes
Remember when packing for a week was hard? Try three. Day outfits, night outfits, gym outfits, lounging outfits… an outfit in case you get that rare day off. Your suitcase gets packed (plus, you want to leave extra room just in case you get any cool swag that you just HAVE to take home). So eventually, there is going to come a point where you’re out of clean socks, underwear, pants or shirts. You just have to suck it up and wear something a little less fresh. The good news is that we’ve all done it (I’ve even tried to do laundry in my hotel shower). The better news? It usually happens around the same time, so we’re all just too smelly to notice each other. (Or, truth time–maybe that’s just me?)
You’re sad when it’s over
I’m not talking about that sweet, sweet moment when you’re in your car driving home or exhaling in the cab on the way to the airport. I’m talking about a maybe a week later, when your post-TCA diet makes you start missing those daily bacon breakfasts. When you miss talking to people who know TV just as well as you do, and understand the organized “sport” of celebrity interviewing. When you realize that it’s going to be months before you see all of your summer camp friends in the same room again, and that some of them–whose budgets have been cut–will never be there again. There’s a saying when we’re here: treat every TCA Tour as though it’s your last. Because you just never know.
And that, aside from this being the most valuable few weeks of the year work-wise, is why six months later we’re all itching to get back.
Amber is currently reporting from the 2015 Summer Television Critics Association Press Tour.
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