TV Executives Plan To Skip Q&A Session With Critics

Dec 5, 2016
Originally published on December 6, 2016 10:38 am
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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

OK, twice a year, journalists and critics gather in Los Angeles for the Television Critics Association press tour. This is two to three weeks of nonstop press conferences offered by television networks, cable channels and streaming companies to show off all their new programs. But here's this - 3 of the 4 biggest broadcast networks say they're not going to bring their top executives to press conferences at January's tour. And NPR TV critic Eric Deggans says this is a troubling precedent.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: When new CBS Entertainment President Glenn Geller faced TV critics in August to talk about the network's new fall shows, the first question he got was straight to the point.

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MAUREEN RYAN: Why is it so difficult to get more inclusion for people of color in the top level of casting at CBS? And what message does it send that the leads of your shows are all heterosexual white men?

DEGGANS: That was Maureen Ryan, TV critic for Variety, laying out the biggest problem many writers had with CBS' fall lineup. Geller responded like a guy who expected the question but still knew he was on the spot.

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GLENN GELLER: I'm really glad this question came up first because we're very mindful at CBS about the importance of diversity and inclusion. And I'm glad we're having this conversation first.

DEGGANS: Well, he didn't sound particularly glad to be having that conversation, but these interactions can provide important and revealing moments. It's where critics can speak on behalf of viewers, asking tough questions about the images and values shown on TV. I had a similar moment with HBO's president of programming, Casey Bloys. He seemed to deflect a question about sexual violence against women in HBO shows by saying violence is perpetrated against male characters, too. That prompted a little conversation.

CASEY BLOYS: My point is the violence is kind of spread equally amongst...

DEGGANS: I think the point is that that kind of violence directed against women is different. Rape against women is a particular kind of violence. It's about oppressing women.

BLOYS: Right.

DEGGANS: And there are many critics who are concerned that these shows seem to normalize that.

Both of these discussions sparked pieces by other journalists on the issues. I've attended these tours since 1997 and found that kind of public discussion invaluable. That's why I was concerned to hear that executives at ABC, CBS and NBC plan to skip press conferences with their top executives at January's press tour. The FOX network also planned to cancel their executive session but reinstated it Friday amid backlash from critics.

The networks say it's mostly about making the best use of their time. They want to pack press conferences in January with stars and producers from their midseason shows. But some critics are concerned the networks are ducking tough questions, especially after a fall season without big breakout hits. The executives will be available for some one-on-one interviews offstage, but it still looks like the networks are trying to shield their leaders from criticism.

I think they underestimated how controversial these actions would be. The networks could learn a thing or two from FX President John Landgraf. He's a savvy programmer who made the term peak TV a national topic by using it to describe today's glut of TV programming at one of his press conferences. In August, Landgraf announced he had pushed FX to hire more female and non-white directors after seeing a story by Maureen Ryan in Variety noting they had some of the worst diversity levels in that category.

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JOHN LANDGRAF: I want to thank Mo Ryan for giving us and the rest of our industry a good, swift, well-deserved kick in the butt. We hope the example sends a message to our whole industry that it's well past time for change to happen.

DEGGANS: That's how these interactions work best, when executives use the public feedback from critics to make changes that improve TV for everyone. That's why I hope more networks reconsider and reinstate their executive sessions in January because better transparency eventually leads to better television. I'm Eric Deggans. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.