In January 2006 when I launched MediaShift, I sat on a panel at the TV Critics Association (TCA) press tour in Pasadena, Calif., and saw an audience of aging TV critics working at newspapers, largely keeping notes on pen and paper, writing up stories that would run weeks and months later in print. When I returned to the press tour last weekend, I saw how things had changed among the TV critics at TCA: Many critics were now gone due to newspaper layoffs, more bloggers were in the room, and many people had laptops open to live-blog or Twitter the sessions.

The old workflow — critics preview the networks’ TV shows, interview the stars and withhold coverage until later in the year — was now obsolete. In its place was a new workflow. Critics now would have the biggest news from the press tour posted to their Twitter feeds and blogs and only run longer stories in print that happened outside the ballroom.

The biggest change this year was that the press tour took place in August, rather than July, so that when critics buzzed about a new show or documentary, it would be closer to when the show actually went on air. The other change was the growing prominence of online-only critics such as Daniel Fienberg from HitFix, who has been on the TCA board for a year. [SEE UPDATE BELOW FROM FIENBERG.]

“The crowd has been different, the size has been the same but there’s a lot of new people — bloggers and younger people and less middle-aged newspaper folk,” said Alan Sepinwall of the Newark (NJ) Star-Ledger in a video interview. “The questions are different. There’s a lot more blogging going on and Twittering; there’s more interactivity in the ballroom even as things are going on on-stage.”

Sepinwall told me he definitely has a lot more work to do maintaining his blog Twitter feed and print reports for the Star-Ledger. He did notice that with more people on laptops during the panels, the back-channel chatter has increased considerably — almost to an intolerable point.

“There are times when you’re instant-messaging one person, while tweeting another, direct-messaging a third and emailing a fourth person,” he said. “There is no lack of ways to pass notes now that there’s wireless Internet at the press tour. There are times I say to myself, ‘Put down the Twitter, pay attention to what’s going on here in front of you.’”

Check out my full interview with Alan Sepinwall on the press tour:

Using Blogs, Twitter Effectively

Some old-school newspaper critics are trying to feel their way around social media. The Hartford Courant’s Roger Catlin just started a Twitter feed last January, and says he’s still not certain what his audience wants from him on that medium.

“On Twitter, I know I can do jokes,” Catlin told me in a video interview. “I used to think that tweets were sentences for a future blog. I would collect them for a blog post later. Sometimes, just like the way blogs would be published in a paper later, you can do the same thing with tweets used as blog posts [later].”

Catlin said that his editors want him on social media, but he’s not sure if they’re reading his output.

“Blogs now seem like writing books compared to Twitter,” Catlin said. “And blogs used to feel shorter than what we write in the paper. Everything seems to be getting shorter…Our editors want us involved in it, so we’re doing it, but I don’t know where it’s going. When we have meetings about how we can get more hits or more followers, I ask, ‘What are you trying to get from this?’ There has to be greed involved, I just don’t know.”

Check out my full video interview with Roger Catlin from the press tour:

Sepinwall agrees with Catlin about blogging adding to his workload — but he also sees the big value in getting instant feedback from his audience.

“Blogging takes up a ton of my time, sometimes more than the time it takes to write my newspaper columns,” Sepinwall said. “It’s very gratifying. I used to be writing into the wilderness, I got some emails and snail mail letters. Now I get dozens and hundreds of comments on my blog per day, and replies to my tweets. I don’t feel like I’m on my own.”

Aaron Barnhart, the TV critic at the Kansas City Star who also runs the TVBarn blog, has shied away from putting too much effort into “hyper-blogging” every moment on press tour.

“I don’t think hyper-blogging really adds to the number of page views…or justifies the expenditure of effort,” Barnhart said. “At my newspaper, the print product is the profit driver; we’ve experienced less circulation decline than most major daily newspapers. We’re in an extremely strong position in our market vs. our competitors. So when I put something on the web, it’s something I think will get some traction.”

More Change in Store?

As TCA becomes more a venue for online critics than for newspaper critics, how much more will the dynamic change? Will the whole concept of the press tour become outmoded in an age when reviews come out so quickly? Barnhart doesn’t think the need for the press tour will go away. He told me that as long as there are TV critics who don’t live on the coasts and don’t have access to the stars and people who make the shows, they will need the collective power of the TCA to get them that access.

“If we didn’t have TCA we would not have an effective way, for those of us who don’t work on the coasts, to engage with the people who make television,” Barnhart said. “It would be like telling a sportswriter who covers the NBA that they can’t go to the NBA Finals, or telling a movie critic they can’t go to Toronto or Sundance. This is the place where we preview new television programs. We need access and can’t get it by ourselves, so need the cooperative power of the TCA.”

Barnhart has been going to the TCA press tour on and off since 1996, and says he uses the trip to Southern California to go on studio visits and pursue other enterprise stories. He doesn’t just depend on the packaged stories fed to him by publicists at each panel.

“I don’t report everything that happens here,” he said. “There are people here giving the blow-by-blow by Twitter, so I don’t think I’m adding anything to what they’re saying. I don’t have to do a roundup column for my paper. Instead I do, once a day, a big feature off of the tour. This weekend I wrote about the MTV reality programs taking a more documentary angle, that’s interesting and encouraging for me. That tends to be my M.O. — not to scrape up everything with columns of smaller items but to do one good story a day.”


You can watch Barnhart’s videotaped answers to my questions in these videos:

What do you think about the TCA press tour and how TV criticism is changing? What other ways do you think the TCA could cater to online journalists and bloggers? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

UPDATE: Daniel Fienberg from HitFix emailed me to say that his presence was not new this year, and that he’s been going for five years and is now on the TCA board. But he did say moving the tour up to August was new this year:

The lateness of this tour put an added premium and value on immediacy as far as both the writers and networks are concerned. The proliferation of instant-information through live-blogging or tweeting is just an extension of that. It’s a new evolution of the tour’s buzz-building potential, though presumably the fruits of the tour will still extend into the fall, even if it’s initially front-loaded.

News cycles are changing with every passing year and this is just the latest extension of that. Networks are aware of that progression and writers are just trying to stay on the crest of the avalanche of potential content.

UPDATE 2: Rick Ellis of AllYourTV believes that the TCA press tour does need to change radically from its old ways due to the immediacy of the web. Here’s what he wrote in a blog post on the subject:

Many TV critics complain about the web, and bemoan the fact that every scrap of television news is now instantly disseminated the minute it’s released. While that’s true, that’s always been the case for news in almost any other category. Sportswriters don’t have the luxury of hearing in July that their local team is going to trade someone in November, then hold the news until the date arrives. Financial reporters aren’t afforded the luxury of preparing pieces on stock market crashes that won’t take place for months.

So this instant gratification method of reporting is certainly frustrating. But there’s no going back to that old way of television coverage. And attempts to convince the networks to hold news until the TCA is just bound to fail. Networks have moved into an almost 52-week-a-year schedule. And if the twice-a-year press tours can’t reflect that, then it’s the critics who will have to change.