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TCA: five awkward questions for networks this summer

Date July 24, 2013

By Tim Molloy

NEW YORK (TheWrap.com) - When TV executives, show runners and stars go before critics, they get a lot of maddening questions. Some of them ("Isn't this a total ripoff of 'Lost'?") are enough to make sitting onstage in an air-conditioned ballroom seem like a very bad gig.

But some questions cry out to be asked. And a few are even important. Yes, the Television Critics Association summer press tour, starting Wednesday at the Beverly Hilton, will include plenty of queries from cranks out to prove that no one does anything original anymore, or that cable is smarter than broadcast. But the TCAs are as unpredictable as humanity itself: Sometimes critics will jettison objectivity if they collectively deem a panelist adorable.

But the twice-annual junket - it's also held in January - is one of the only times network executives come close to answering to the public. Yes, viewers can express their feelings by not tuning in, or with Twitter tirades. But on TCA tours, those who cover the industry pass on those complaints. (Okay, we pass on those complaints between mouthfuls of sugary bribes provided by the networks we're supposed to hold responsible. But still.)

Here are five of the biggest questions going into this year's TCA summer press tour.

1. What are you doing about Netflix?

There's nothing critics love more than the chance to be topical, as you would have noticed if you heard the endless questions in January about what network executives were personally doing to prevent another Sandy Hook. (Answer: "Um, uh, being sensitive and conscientious? Anyone have a question about our disappointing ratings? Please?")

This year, Netflix is on a tear with "House of Cards," "Orange is the New Black," "Hemlock Grove" and "Arrested Development." "House of Cards" (starring Kevin Spacey, left) cleaned up in the Emmy nominations, which is sort of embarrassing for TV networks because Netflix isn't even a TV network.

Netflix isn't coming to TCA, which means executives at other networks will have to ask how they're dealing with the streaming service's model of letting viewers watch what they want, when they want.

2. What about ratings?

Here's another question that's most relevant to the big broadcast networks. ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC all slipped in the key demo this past season, and all but CBS were down in total viewers. CBS was slightly up.

So what do networks do now? They should come up with more hits, of course. But that's easier said than done - NBC's "Revolution" and Fox's "The Following" were the only new shows to crack the top 30 in the key 18-49 demo last season.

The other option: Produce more shows, like musical competitions or live sports, that play out in real time, so viewers feel compelled to watch live. That's the logic behind NBC's upcoming "Million Second Quiz."

Other possibilities? Maybe ask Nik Wallenda to walk across things twenty-four hours a day. And but why stop at just one Super Bowl?

3. Respectfully, and we hate to have to ask this, what's the plan for "Glee"?

The panel with Fox entertainment president Kevin Reilly will be an uncomfortable one. No one wants to ask about Cory Monteith, but someone has to. Ugh.

"Glee" co-creator Ryan Murphy has given a couple of interviews saying Monteith's character will die on the show, which unfortunately leads to many more questions. Will he, like the tragic actor who played him, die of an overdose? Ugh. We guess we'll raise our hands? Unless… no, after you. Really, go right ahead.

4. How is this year different from last year?

There's a special vanity in thinking that this year, the year when you're alive and writing about television, is the most important one in the history of television. But we still kind of feel like this is a really important year. The broadcast model is under attack from all sides: A cable drama, "The Walking Dead" was TV's top scripted show last season for the first time ever. Then there's Netflix. Amazon is making ambitious moves. And there's YouTube, Hulu, and all the rest.

Meanwhile, have you noticed how much good stuff is on? It's absurd. We've had more fun watching "Breaking Bad" and "Game of Thrones" and "Boardwalk Empire" and "Mad Men" than we have watching any movie in the last year.

Do networks need to change completely, to become not so much show delivery systems, but brands whose names indicate a particular kind of entertainment? HBO would seem to be the model - it's transcended television with HBO go, and the HBO name promises prestige drama with actors you can't quite believe you get to watch every week. Maybe we could start by not calling it the Television Critics Association anymore. 5. Isn't this show a total ripoff of "Lost"?

Perhaps the most common question at TCA is whether a show is just a ripoff of another show. TV critics, it turns out, have incredibly long memories. And they can't help but point out, often awkwardly, that "Magic City" may owe a debt to "Mad Men," or that "Game of Thrones" may have cleared the way for "Vikings."

Showrunners always shuffle in their seats during these questions, express their respect for the original show, and deflect with a joke about who in their cast they'd like to sleep with. But here's the answer they'd all like to give:

"You try making a show, genius. Everything comes from somewhere. It all goes back to the Bible or' The Iliad' or 'The Dukes of Hazzard.' Guess what? Executives aren't willing to commit to anything that doesn't have some sort of proven track record, whether it's the stars or the creator or a similarity to something that's already popular, and I need to keep my kids in gluten-free waffles and iPads.

"Do you know what a critic is? A genius who's never created anything, dismissing the work of the idiots who have."

Or at least, that's the answer we'd like them to give.

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