TV executives need to better answer tough questions, not duck the press

It’s official: Refusing to meet the press is in. President-elect Donald Trump has gone ages without a news conference. And now, CBS’ Glenn Geller, ABC’s Channing Dungey, Fox’s Gary Newman and Dana Walden and NBC’s Bob Greenblatt — the people in charge of programming at these networks — have announced that they won’t hold news conferences for reporters and critics at the Television Critics Association press tour in January.

They claim they want critics to focus on the new series they’ll be presenting and promise that they’ll reinstate the sessions this summer. Amazon and Netflix won’t be presenting either new content or making executives available either. (Amazon CEO Jeffrey P. Bezos owns The Washington Post.) I’ll be waiting to see if they keep the promise to come back and face the press before booking tickets to this summer’s tour.

If this sounds like a bit like media inside baseball, it is. But the press tour, which happens twice a year in January and July, is one of the few opportunities for reporters from all over the country to meet with the people who make television, and the people who decide what television gets made. And in recent years, it has become an event that produces pointed headlines about the state of the industry, especially with regard to race and gender.

As Lesley Goldberg suggested in the Hollywood Reporter, it’s possible this is a decision that reflects that:

Another way to “maintain a positive news cycle,” frankly, would be for executives to come up with better answers to recurring or obvious questions.

When I first went to the Television Critics Association press tour in January of 2012, I got laughed at when I asked Greenblatt if he might consider making another show like “Living Single,” a sitcom about a group of black women navigating their work and love lives in New York.

In the years since, questions about inclusiveness and diversity have become routine, and not because reporters have an agenda. There’s a genuine artistic and consumer movement challenging the stagnant nature of pop culture’s offerings, and figuring out if and how executives are responding to viewers’ demands is a basic requirement of anyone who reports on TV. If, in the nine press tours that followed, network executives haven’t come up with better answers for those questions, much less substantive efforts to back those answers up, any bad publicity that results is on them.

And really, it’s as easy to generate good press around questions of diversity as it is to end up in a social media maelstrom for saying something mealy-mouthed about diversity. It may have taken Marvel a while to pivot, but signing writers such as Ta-Nehisi Coates and Roxane Gay for “Black Panther” and “World of Wakanda” comics, and tapping Ryan Coogler to direct the upcoming “Black Panther” movie have produced a regular stream of breathless headlines and enthusiastic tweets.

Obviously, green-lighting a television show is a more expensive proposition than signing off on a run of a comic book. But network executives could certainly generate good headlines by talking about actors they’re excited to have cast, development deals they’re excited to have signed or the early results of their diversity programs. Individual success stories don’t make up for stagnant employment statistics, but showing some effort is better than constant unfulfilled — and vague — pledges to “do better.”

Similarly, questions about how NBC would handle its relationship with Trump during and in the aftermath of his presidential campaign were completely predictable, just as HBO executives might field questions if “Ballers” star Dwayne Johnson made good on his constant hints about running for president. And in subsequent press tours, NBC will — and should — get asked tough questions about the workplace environment on “The Apprentice,” which became an issue in the end stages of the presidential campaign.

The best way to generate good press around these inevitable questions is not to duck them, but to have clear, forceful answers for the press and the public. Actors and reality television stars have been migrating to politics for decades, and they’re unlikely to stop after Trump’s victory. The time to work out when those stars will have to stop appearing on air and the standard response for when an employee like Trump advocates something that differs from company policy is now, if that hasn’t already happened.

If embarrassments around these issues aren’t the reason these executives are avoiding the January press tour, then in a way, I’m even more annoyed by their decision. Doing two lousy hours of news conferences in highly controlled circumstances each year is not an imposition, especially when you work in a consumer-facing business that garners tons of adulatory coverage. And at a moment when the television business faces substantial challenges, it’s an opportunity for executives to explain those transitions.

Industry reporters like dealing with FX President John Landgraf, who routinely shines at press tours, because he does something relatively simple: He comes prepared with data and big ideas about where his business is headed. Those presentations give reporters something to chew on (and conveniently for him, they also cut down on the time reporters have to ask questions).

If executives have mistaken the questioning they get at press tours for adversarial reporting, I’m afraid they’re mistaken. If they decide to shun critics and industry reporters — and even if they reverse themselves in January or July — this is a good spur for me and to all of my fellow television writers to show them what aggressive coverage really looks like.

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