How stars are born
Star-struck reporters make even bad shows look good at the Pasadena summer TV conference
By Carl Kozlowski 06/07/2012
Remember when summertime television programming was a wasteland of sitcom reruns, old films and remaining episodes of quickly-canceled shows? This was the time of year when NBC, ABC, CBS and FOX collectively raised their white flags and challenged viewers to do something — anything — other than watch TV.
But today, with cable stations creating programming of their own, things have changed, well, dramatically.
As basic cable networks, such as TNT, TBS, USA, FX, AMC, A&E, History and Syfy, began making original programs to high ratings and sometimes critical praise, the four old-school networks were forced to improve their games as well. As a result, one of the most frenzied spectacles in the world of entertainment journalism — the Television Critics Association (TCA) summer press days, which alternate annually between Beverly Hills and the Langham Hotel in Pasadena — was born.
Here, each network picks a day to take over the hotel’s meeting and dining areas and trots out their stars for interviews with TV reporters and bloggers, who are then fed lavish amounts of sumptuous food in an attempt to convince them to make the bad shows look good and the good shows look spectacular.
The Weekly normally doesn’t cover television, but NBC Universal has been kindly sending to the office DVD samplers of a seemingly endless stream of new USA and Syfy productions, along with attention-getting gimmicks, like a plush shark toy and DVD collection used to promote the upcoming Syfy movie “Jersey Shore Shark Attack” (whose catchphrase is “Your next fist bump could be your last!”)
So when NBC Universal invited us to come see their spring press day, we headed off to the Langham to witness how even the messiest of shows are made to seem magical.
“For a network like NBC, it’s a promotional thing for their summer slate of programs, which are largely reality programming,” explains Los Angeles Times TV Editor Martin Miller, who’s been covering TV for the past five years. “There are some excellent bloggers who attend these, but it’s not the White House press corps up there. Some of the people who show up to these are just glad to be there, covering stuff very lightly without a lot of skepticism.”
Indeed, President Obama and Mitt Romney would be delighted to be faced with the kid-gloves treatment some of the 100 or more TCA scribes, who sat jammed next to each other in long rows with just enough space to set up a laptop, give these stars, who were asked more about their beauty regimens and dating habits than their shows.
Despite the fact that NBC has exactly one top show on its entire schedule — the hit singing competition “The Voice” — it was somewhat surprising that the day kicked off with the return of “Love in the Wild,” a dating show hosted by the nearly-forgotten ’90s super-bimbo Jenny McCarthy. The producers seem to take this show seriously, describing it as a way to get past the polite stages of dating and really get to know someone quickly by forcing them to bond while competing in a jungle.
For some reason, Emmy-winning actress Mariska Hargitay stopped by to represent “Law and Order: SVU,” instantly increasing the room’s already wanting dignity quotient. While Hargitay was inexplicably asked about her fitness tips, she tried to keep things relevant by noting, “The series used to be known for ripping the stories straight out of the news, but sadly there’s been a major reversal, and now the news stories almost seem ripped off from us.”
But for every award-winning juggernaut like “SVU” there was a “Ready for Love,” a new dating show co-produced by “Desperate Housewives” star Eva Longoria, who told reporters, “I made this show because I believe in love and I’m in love with love.”
Then there’s E!’s “Mrs. Eastwood & Company,” following movie icon Clint Eastwood’s wife and daughters as they try to manage a British boy band all the way to fame in America. Clint is not the star, but the promise of him wandering through the house scowling is perhaps the show’s greatest hope for ratings glory.
But even the prospect of Clint Eastwood acting crazy wasn’t enough to match the excitement shown toward the celebrity judges of “The Voice,” which features singer Adam Levine of the band Maroon 5, pop diva Christina Aguilera, producer/performer Cee-Lo Green and country star Blake Shelton each picking teams of singers relying only on the sound of their voices. Levine and Aguilera didn’t even bother showing up, leaving a clearly annoyed producer to say that they were “working.”
Add in a panel of everyone on “America’s Got Talent” except the overhyped Howard Stern, plus Emmy-winning former “Will & Grace” star Sean Hayes showing up as a producer of the show “Grimm,” a couple of stars from “Community” who weren’t Joel McHale or Chevy Chase and scrumptious samples from the new Bravo series “Around the World in 80 Plates,” and despite the surface madness of it all, this ultimately was a fun time.
For veteran entertainment reporter Fred Topel, the Pasadena experience is a big key to his success. “I think TCA is a fantastic way for us to do journalism,” says Topel. “We get great access to stars and creators of shows so we can write stories the rest of the year. To have it all this concentrated is great.”