Politics & Policy

Tour De Force

Networks put on a show for journalists.

The latest twist in Nipplegate is that CBS chief Les Moonves has been threatening to sue the FCC if it imposes fines on the network because of Janet Jackson’s infamous “wardrobe malfunction.” But let’s put this in perspective: The threat came from a response to a question posed during the twice-yearly TV press tour, which just finished last week.

As a former actor, Moonves seems to keep in mind that a press conference is basically a performance. So he’s always getting into a big swinging you-know-what contest with someone for our benefit.

Now don’t get me wrong–I like this in a man, especially in network execs at press conferences, because I’ve seen enough to know how boring they can be when lesser showmen are in charge. When the painfully circumspect Stu Bloomberg and Lloyd Braun were running ABC, you practically had to prop your eyelids open with toothpicks to stay awake.

Les Moonves, on the other hand, is always entertainingly candid. But some of what he says in public to reporters really should be taken with several tablespoons of salt.

At the previous tour (in January), Moonves locked horns with Donald Trump, who’d called him “the most overrated executive in television” at NBC’s The Apprentice press conference, continuing, “and unlike most people, I like Les Moonves.” The CBS chief responded a few days later, “I’ll just chalk up [Trump’s] behavior to having a very bad hair day.” So that was fun. (The bad-blood back-story here is that Trump used to be partners with CBS in the Miss Universe contest, which then moved to NBC.)

Would Les Moonves really take the FCC to court, though? It’s possible. But probably he’s just posturing.

Complaining about the TV press tour–formally known as the Television Critics Association (TCA) tour–is the favorite sport of those attending. But I find the tour valuable and even occasionally fun, despite the Lord of the Flies aspect of being stuck in a hotel for over two weeks with a bunch of journalists.

Just seeing the network and cable presentations can be useful, in the way that watching a political stump speech can be useful: Yes, they’re dishing out what they want you to hear, but there’s information to be gleaned just from that. Plus, execs, stars, and producers are usually available for impromptu one-on-one chats. They may as well cooperate; they’re stuck there with you anyway.

The heart of the tour, though, is its day-long lineups of back-to-back press conferences. I’ve come to appreciate the familiar motifs and characters at these things for their entertaining predictability–the way even mediocre sitcoms can grow on you over the years.

A continuing theme is that of the journalist as concerned social worker/disgruntled utopian, depending on temperament. At a panel for the WB sitcom Reba, for instance, which had the family’s 17-year-old daughter announcing she’s pregnant and planning to marry the baby’s father in the first episode, one reporter sternly demanded: “Abortion isn’t even discussed as an option. What kind of message are you sending?”

Then during a session for The Apprentice, someone asked Trump whether it was fair for his own daughter–a sometime model who wants to go into her father’s business–to be judged on her looks when Trump himself hasn’t been.

“No, it’s never fair,” Trump shrugged. “Some horrible people do that, and they should be ashamed of themselves.”

I hate to say it as a journalist, but the TCA is one forum where interviewees often make their interviewers seem rather silly. One exception was Monica Lewinsky, whom reporters reduced to tears last year during a session for the HBO documentary Monica In Black and White. “They hated her the minute she walked in the room,” HBO chief Chris Albrecht complained afterward to the Los Angeles Times. But that was ridiculous: We hate everyone the minute they walk in the room.

And for all his silly political opinions, at least Al Franken knows how to slap around a roomful of grumpy, overfed journalists. I’ve seen him do this at the TCA a couple of times. “TV critics just get warmer and warmer,” Franken once announced in fakely sincere Stuart Smalley tones, as he looked over his listless audience. “And better looking! I remember last time I was here. I said, ‘Get a VCR and a treadmill, and watch the shows while you’re working out.’ And it looks like a lot of you have followed my advice!” Everyone laughed, or at least woke up.

Some reporters, afraid of being scooped, only ask questions privately, in the lobby later. But then it’s easier for someone to give a dodgy answer, or just refuse to comment. Put on the spot in front of an audience, people have to say something.

Of course, you risk looking like a boor or an idiot if you ask a really tactless question, which I seem to be in the habit of doing. Last year when Comedy Central premiered Kid Notorious, the cartoon series about producer Robert Evans, I asked Evans if he’d wanted to be a cartoon so he could look impossibly younger onscreen. I detected a little she’s-so-mean buzz from my colleagues at that. But wasn’t it an obvious question?

And Evans didn’t mind, because as everyone knows he’ll talk about anything, and in fact opened the session with an extremely dirty (and no doubt untrue) story about his nurse when he was in the hospital.

When the economy tanked in 2001, Los Angeles-based reporters were surprised when CBS–and only CBS–suddenly refused to validate parking. Gee, I thought, that’s kind of odd for the Tiffany network; were upfront sales that weak?

So I asked CBS chief Les Moonves exactly that when he walked onstage–emphasizing that I wasn’t complaining, but I did want to know what this said about business.

“OK, I’m humiliated,” Moonves responded, adding–with a brusque wave at the CBS staffers in the back of the room–”take care of this.” He’s so smooth he just ignored the question about business, but CBS immediately began validating parking again. The incident was a lesson in how easy it is to get things wrong, though. Because here’s how the Washington Post’s Lisa De Moraes reported it:

’I have to know why,’ complained the local reporter, oblivious to the hostile reaction in the room that was packed with out-of-town critics whose employers are shelling out thousands of dollars so they can cover the tour… CBS announced later that it would pay the reporter’s parking tab.

I was so pleased at the notion of throwing a monkey wrench into the travel costs of big out-of-town media corporations that I didn’t realize until later how the Post story mangled a couple of key facts: I’d made it clear I wasn’t complaining, and CBS never announced it would pay my parking tab–the network just returned to its old policy of paying everybody’s. That oblivious-to-the-hostile-reaction bit was probably accurate, though.

TCA members can be fantastically defensive about their twice-yearly confab. It’s not a junket, they insist; it’s not, it’s not, it’s not! Even though the three meals a day are all gratis, and the hotel rate ($115 a night at the Century Plaza) is artificially low and obviously indirectly subsidized by the TV networks, which bring millions of dollars in business to the hotel with their presentations. The TCA awards-night banquet is described by members as a “gift from the hotel,” e.g., it’s certainly not paid for by the TCA budget, which charges just $50 a year in dues. Actually, of course, it’s a gift from the networks.

Yet what a kerfuffle happened during this tour because of that awards night. The problem, as reported by Scott Collins in the L.A. Times, was that the TCA accepted–even solicited!–network ads for its 20th-anniversary awards-night program on July 17. Which led to a rancorous, nearly three-hour meeting that morning. As Collins wrote:

Many members were outraged, believing that accepting network ad money gave the group at least the appearance of a conflict of interest.

The fact that their own newspaper and magazine employers of course accept and solicit ad money from businesses the publications cover seems not to have occurred to these outraged members. So they want the TCA to apologize to the networks and refund the money paid for the program ads.

Journalism’s a funny thing: We don’t have to pass any tests to work as reporters, and we can’t be disbarred. So maybe that’s why we so often overshoot (or undershoot) target guidelines for ethical behavior.

And then we all have our own little rules. I, for instance, felt I needed to see for professional reasons Fahrenheit 9/11, but giving Michael Moore one dollar of my money violated my own personal ethical code. So when Showtime offered TCA members a free screening as the evening’s entertainment last week, I took it. Problem solved!

Catherine Seipp is a writer in California who publishes the weblog Cathy’s World. She is an NRO contributor.

Catherine SeippCatherine Seipp had been a frequent contributor to National Review Online prior to her death in 2007.

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