Jerrod Carmichael, lamenting what he called the “terrible” state of TV comedy, asked his audience if they’d seen some of it. Staring back at the comedian was a hotel ballroom filled with journalists whose job it is to cover television.
“I think they see all of it,” helpfully offered Ramy Youssef, his fellow producer and star of their new Hulu sitcom.
“Poor y’all,” Carmichael said, a sympathetic coda to a semiannual event in which broadcast networks, cable channels and streaming platforms parade the shows and stars they hope will get attention from the 250 members of the Television Critics Association and, in turn, viewers.
The group, TCA for short, has been meeting twice a year, winter and summer, since it was founded in 1978. TV producers, actors and sometimes executives trek to a hotel — or more accurately, limo there, and mostly within upscale L.A.-adjacent areas — to answer questions about their shows and mingle with reporters at cocktail parties for more questions.
The stars are easy to spot: they’re well-dressed. Reporters, not so much, but they have the upper hand and a microphone during the Q&A sessions that are the core of the roughly two-week-long event. Adherence to the journalistic maxim of “no cheering in the press box” means celebrities face the unnerving sound of silence as they step out on an ad hoc stage.
“They can’t applaud?” a puzzled Ruth Westheimer, aka sex expert Dr. Ruth and the subject of a new documentary, said at this month’s just-ended meeting at the Langham Huntington hotel.
Dustin Hoffman, touting the short-lived series “Luck” in 2012, felt likewise.
“That was the thinnest applause I’ve ever heard. If it was a play, we would know we were in a flop,” he said, which drew zero response from the room and more from Hoffman: “I don’t even get a laugh for that.”
There’s further uneasiness to be had. With every reporter now online — whether they work for a newspaper or a website — their stories, tweets and blogs are posted as soon as a celebrity offers up a remark bearing a hint of news. That means a roomful of reporters making more eye contact with their laptops than with the panelists, who in turn are left staring at rows of Mac logos.
“I wish I’d bought Apple stock before coming out here,” is an oft-repeated wisecrack, said TCA President Daniel Fienberg. Then there’s the similarly familiar response from actors asked about plot twists in spoiler-inclined shows: “I’d tell you, but I’d have to kill you.”
“The number of drinking games that you could play associated with your typical TCA (meeting) is myriad,” said Fienberg, chief TV critic for The Hollywood Reporter.
Sometimes the questions can be downright rude. Jon Bon Jovi discovered that when he was invited to the stage by Fox — for reasons still unclear — during the network’s promotion of a new season of “American Idol.”
The first reporter given a microphone asked him, “What are you doing here?”
Not the rock star adulation he’s accustomed to. But HBO’s session for “Big Little Lies” last week was an example of press tour at its best.
It was packed with star power you’d rarely see gathered together in front of the media — Meryl Streep, Nicole Kidman, Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern and Zoe Kravitz — displaying an easy camaraderie as they gave smart answers to smart questions. They offered priceless quips, like Witherspoon’s mock gripe that she’s always left with the tab when they go out, along with insights about the upcoming second season.
Less stellar was the session on PBS’ upcoming “Nova” series about the planets, in which a scientist on the Mars Rover expedition was asked if it was true that stars twinkle but planets don’t, and commanded by another reporter to “talk about Mars.”
Whether the questions were uniformly better back in the day, the TCA meetings nicknamed “press tours” — for no apparent reason, since touring isn’t involved — belonged to a very different universe, a pre-digital version.
“Without any question, the internet and the immediacy of this event have changed completely. It’s a different creature,” said the TCA’s Fienberg.
In the late ’70s, with cable TV on the cusp of expansion and Netflix not yet a noun, ABC, CBS and NBC defined television. TCA members came from the daily newspapers that had plenty of pages to give to TV features, with scribes from the Philadelphia Enquirer, Houston Chronicle and Boston Globe among the group’s first officers.
Networks offered reporters three full days of round-table interviews with industry figures and wooed them with splashy entertainment featuring such stars as Garry Shandling, recalled Fred Rothenberg, who covered TV for The Associated Press from 1981-86 and later became a network producer. Broadcasters had “a lot of money back in the ’80s,” he said, and the big spending paid off for everyone involved.
“Most of the TV critics had a vacation,” Rothenberg said, stockpiling interviews for feature stories to be written and published later, when a show aired. There were also occasional flurries of stories when executives such as then-NBC chief executive Grant Tinker took part and made newsier comments.
Networks still field TCA panels, but they’ve cut back to one day or even less as the critical darlings of cable and streaming, such as HBO’s Game of Thrones” and Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale,” increasingly distract journalists.
There’s always an Acorn TV to fill the network void: The niche streaming platform that caters to fans of U.K. series was glad simply to have the chance to be noticed by TV’s tastemakers and promote new shows including “Manhunt,” said Matthew Graham, Acorn’s general manager.
And what reporter would want to miss moments such as the one from the “Big Little Lies” session, in which Streep fielded a question about personal stories the co-stars shared during the production in a coastal California town.
“What happens in Monterey, stays in Monterey,” she said, smiling.
This story corrects the spelling of Fienberg’s name in two references.