January 2014
Volume 34 No. 1

January 2014
View complete issue as a PDF»

TV Critics Association Up From a Bumpy Past

By Michael Flood

There are three times in the calendar year in which members of the TV and film press actually get some respect in the U.S. and perhaps internationally: During the annual Golden Globe Awards and the twice-annual Television Critics Association Press Tours.


The first event, held annually in January just before the Oscars, is organized by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association (HFPA), which has been around for some 70 years. The second event — held twice a year — is staged by the 36-year-old Television Critics Association (TCA).
What is surprising about the whole situation is that in the HFPA, there are hardly any full-time or mainstream media journalists. In the case of the TCA, no one knows when exactly the Press Tours started.

The studios’ lack of enthusiasm for the Golden Globes stems from the fact that, among HFPA’s 90 members, only a few of them write for recognized non-U.S. publications, and when they do, they’re stringers or freelance. An Internet search indicated that some HFPA members write for their own websites, others are mainly would-be actors and still others are freelance photojournalists. Criticism doesn’t come only from the studios, but from the media itself. Here’s how the HFPA is described in a New York Times article from 2005: “The association does not represent internationally renowned publications like Le Monde or The Times of London. Indeed, it has repeatedly rejected applications from a correspondent for Le Monde, while accepting applications from freelance writers from Bangladesh and South Korea.”

Ironically, VideoAge contributed to the revival and ultimate success of the Golden Globes with an article in its October 1992 Issue, with the title crying, “Save HFPA.” In that article VideoAge wrote: “As the Golden Globe Awards approaches its 50th anniversary, many people in the industry are revaluating the HFPA.”

For some 36 years, the New York-incorporated but Hollywood-based Television Critics Association — representing 220 journalists writing about TV in the U.S. and Canada — has been organizing a TV Critics Association Press Tour twice a year with the past two years alternating between the venue in Pasadena, Calif. at the Langham Huntington Hotel in January, and the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Beverly Hills in late July.

At last summer’s 15-day Press Tour, which ended August 7, executives from six broadcasting organizations, cable TV representatives, Showtime and Hulu discussed programming and how television viewing is changing.

But the idea of a TV press tour did not begin with the TCA. From the beginning of regular U.S. television broadcasting in the 1950s the three main networks (ABC, NBC and CBS) have sponsored press tours. At these lavish junkets, which brought together newspaper television critics from across the nation, reporters were wined and dined by network executives and talent eager to showcase (and receive favorable reviews for) their new programming lineups.

Hosted at some of the poshest hotels in Los Angeles, the networks covered flights, rooms and meals for the multi-week tours. Notoriously, some of the reporters even received “cab money,” envelopes of cash on top of their ordinary room-and-board expenses.

In the summer of 1978, that comfortable but compromised world began to change. The new generation of television critics, schooled primarily in journalism rather than the arts, came of age in a post-Watergate America and insisted on having their role as reporters of news taken more seriously. They resented the efforts of the networks to win their favor by paying all their expenses.

On June 28, 1978, the attending critics all voted unanimously to create the Television Critics Association to assert their independence. The first officers were Lee Winfrey (Philadelphia Inquirer) as president, Barbara Holsopple (Pittsburgh Press) as vice president, Steve Hoffman (Cincinatti Enquirer) as secretary, and William Henry III (Boston Globe) as treasurer.

The first change the critics made to the tour was the creation of a TCA Day, one day out of the normally packed schedule of press conferences and banquets in which the critics could gather to discuss the state of television. This event served as a chance to discuss issues beyond the new fall lineup.

Among the topics addressed at the first TCA Day were how to curb advertising aimed at children and how to foster more independent television production. To further the second topic, the critics invited PBS president Larry Grossman to give a speech at the following year’s TCA Day, a year before PBS and its programming would become regular parts of the tour.

In 1980, the TCA made its first major statement of independence from the networks. The members passed a unanimous resolution supporting the right of any print journalist writing about television to attend any media-related event in their field, and condemning any attempt to limit that right. This was to address the networks’ common practice of “freezing out” critics who gave their programs unfavorable reviews. Without access to the press tour, a critic’s ability to do his or her job was severely compromised.

In 1984-85, in a further move to establish participants’ independence and credentials as critics, the TCA held its first annual TCA awards, recognizing excellence in television across eight categories: Comedy, Drama, Special, Children, News, Sports, Career and Program of the Year. That season The Cosby Show won for Best Comedy and Ted Koppel was honored for Best News Program. Three years earlier, when the awards were being discussed by the officers, it was decided not to sell the rights to broadcast the awards to the networks, as this would have created a clear conflict of interest — turning reporters whose job it was to report on news about television into suppliers of content for the medium.

ABC and CBS, ending a longstanding source of friction, stopped paying for the hotel rooms and flights of journalists attending the press tours. The TCA applauded the decision, as it advocated for newspapers to pay for their own critics to come to the event.

This change also gave the TCA more leverage in scheduling the tours, a role that had previously been entirely in the hands of the networks. In 1989 TCA officers also took over negotiating hotel rates for the tour.

The networks continued to supply all the meals, their rationale being that having critics leave the hotel to find their own meals would take time away from the tour, which — although already over two weeks in length during the summer and ten days in the winter — still required over twelve hours a day to fit in all the press conferences.

On July 17, 1998, ending years of controversy, stalemates and general disagreements, the TCA unanimously adopted a code of professional conduct for use during the press tours. Among the principles agreed to were that TCA members not use the tour for non-journalistic self-promotion. This included trying to sell their own scripts to network heads, requesting autographs, or monopolizing the time of producers and actors rather than allowing everyone a chance to ask questions.

The TCA also surprised the networks and cable services by requesting that they cease handing out branded merchandise (T-shirts, key chains, gym bags, etc.) irrelevant to their function as journalists. They let it be known that they would still welcome books, DVDs and CDs related to the shows, products that contained information rather than just branding. This was to counter the arms race between networks that were often spending upwards of $15,000 per tour producing logo-emblazoned memorabilia to give to attending critics.

The 2000s were largely business as usual for the TCA: organizing the press tour, interviewing network talent and hosting discussions about the current direction and future of television. After over 30 years, tensions remain both within the TCA and with the networks.

As in film reviewing, critics face a pressing need to both maintain their independence and to not greatly offend those whose products they are reviewing, for fear of being denied access to sources. That being said, the TCA has made remarkable progress toward asserting their members’ rights as journalists and in gaining control over the press tours that bring them and the networks together. They have transformed an industry-controlled promotional event, one that treated them like associate publicity agents, into a journalistic opportunity.