Since the very beginning of television broadcasting in the 1950s, the three main U.S. TV networks (ABC, NBC, and CBS) have sponsored press tours. At these lavish junkets (which brought together television critics from across the nation), reporters were wined and dined by network executives and talent eager to showcase their new programming line-ups (and who expected to receive favorable reviews).

Hosted at some of the poshest hotels in the Los Angeles area, the networks covered flights, rooms, and meals for the multi-week tours. Some of the reporters even received “cab money” — envelopes of cash on top of their 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, and coming of age in a post-Watergate America, 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 voted unanimously to create the Television Critics of America (TCA) to assert their independence. The first officers were Lee Winfrey (Philadelphia Inquirer) as president, Barbara Holsopple (Pittsburgh Press) as vice president, Steve Hoffman (Cincinnati Enquirer) as secretary, and William Henry II (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 where the critics could gather to discuss the state of the television medium.

This event served as a chance to hash out issues beyond the fall line-up. 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 Larry Grossman, president of public TV network PBS, to give a speech at the following years’ 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 decision was made to address the networks’ common practice of ‘freezing out’ critics who gave their programs unfavorable reviews. Without access to the press tour, critics’ ability to do their job was severely compromised.

In 1984-1985, in a further move to establish their independence and boost their 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 having the best news program. Three years earlier, when the awards were being discussed by the officers, it was decided that they would not 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.

In an effort to put an end to a long-standing source of friction, ABC and CBS stopped paying for the hotel rooms and flights of journalists attending the press tours. The TCA applauded the decision, as it advocated for newspapers paying 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. Starting with the 1989 TCA, officers would also take over negotiating hotel rates for the tour.

The networks continued to supply all the meals, their rationale being that critics going out of the hotel to seek out their own meals would take time away from the tour, which, although already over two weeks in length during the summer and 10 days in the winter, still took over 12 hours a day to fit in all the press conferences.

On July 17, 1998, after 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 effort was undertaken to counter the seeming arms race between networks, which 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 still remain both within the TCA and with the networks. As with film reviewing, critics face a pressing need both to maintain their independence and not to offend those whose products they are reviewing, for fear of being denied access to sources.

That being said, the TCA has made remarkable progress at asserting its 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.  (By Michael Flood)

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