Facebook made its TCA debut in hopes of talking up Facebook Watch, but wound up swatting at questions about its distribution of conspiracy peddler InfoWars. Netflix and Amazon returned to the semi-annual TV confab after being MIA for two years.
Broadcasters took a back seat, literally and figuratively, at this year’s summer press tour, with ABC and NBC’s presence shrinking to half a day each that wound down the 15-day event. But CBS programming chief Kelly Kahl may have clocked the most headlines just by virtue of showing up, as his boss is under investigation over allegations of sexual misconduct.
After getting trashed over its Cambridge Analytica data scandal, then hitting a record stock price on news of its biggest sports streaming deal yet, Facebook was given a place of honor in the early days of TCA when journalists are at their brightest. Facebook presented no program casts and creators, opting instead to let Fidji Simo, VP Product for Video, and Ricky Van Veen, Head of Global Creative Strategy, come to walk the press through the company’s ramp-up of original programming on Facebook Watch. That may have been a mistake.
“I think we have limited time,” Van Veen responded after one of several InfoWars questions. Only after shouts of “Answer the question!” did Simon tried to frame it as a question of fairness saying “We are trying to show a range of programming that shows a range of the political spectrum.”
Other streamers knew to bring stars to the conference. Amazon wowed the crowd with Julia Roberts’ appearance to promote Homecoming, Netflix wowed with Michael Douglas touting The Kominsky Method, while Laura Linney and Jason Bateman chatted up Ozark. Ryan Murphy came to FX’s TCA day to talk up Pose, immediately after a Q&A for the latest installment of his American Horror Story, but the specter of his $300M five-year Netflix deal hung over those festivities, despite his assurances he is committed to his FX franchises.
Broadcasters could not compete, star-wattage-wise.
While bigwigs at ABC and NBC dodged the dais at this summer’s TCA, CBS Entertainment chief Kelly Kahl took a bullet for his network, taking the stage to take questions on the record, though his boss/mentor, CBS Corp CEO Leslie Moonves, is under investigation over allegations of sexual misconduct/harassment.
“I know there was some speculation we might cancel today,” Kahl began. “We wanted to be here. There are literally thousands of talented producers, writers, actors, and crews, not to mention all the people at CBS who have been preparing for months to launch the fall season. They’ve worked incredibly hard, and we think they deserve our best efforts to share all the new shows with all of you.”
He pointed reporters to comments about Moonves from CBS Films president Terry Press, adding that Stephen Colbert “spoke thoughtfully and powerfully on his show this past week” about Les.
“They both struggled to express their feelings; I struggle as well,” Kahl said. “Leslie has been an excellent boss and a mentor for a long time, and he put me in this job. At the same time, we must respect the voices that come forward. All allegations need to be and are being taken seriously.”
With two outside law firms retained to investigate, Kahl told journalists there was nothing more he could say about Moonves or the probe.
Journalists listened, then ignored that remark, raising the curtain on another edition of TCA Theater. That’s where the journalists take turns plastering an exec with different iterations of same question, in hopes Controversial Person eventually snaps at the bait. Kahl took many Moonves questions, as well as queries about allegations concerning Star Trek: Discovery, NCIS, Brad Kern, Morgan Freeman, former CBS star Jeremy Piven, and CBS News which does not report to Kahl.
Moonves drowned out the story CBS wanted to tell, about improvements to minority casting in its primetime, including Brandon Micheal Hall, who came to TCA to discuss his starring role in the network’s new God Friended Me.
Instead, CBS’ TCA at-bat mostly went as John Oliver had predicted the previous night via video, when he picked up his TCA Award for Best Sketch/Variety Show.
Noting critics had been holed up in the hotel for what seemed like eternity, Oliver bucked them up with the reminder “tomorrow is CBS Day at TCA!”
“What EVER will you all talk about?!” Oliver wondered, forecasting, “The next season of Blue Bloods will be the question on nobody’s lips” and that Moonves would show up “to answer ALL of your NCIS” questions!
Kahl cleared the way for CW chief Mark Pedowitz and Showtime big cheese David Nevins, who the next day fielded zero Moonves questions from TCA-ers during their onstage Q&As.
“I cannot discuss CBS,” Pedowitz said in the scrum afterwards, explaining CW is a “joint venture” between CBS and Warner Bros, and therefore a “different place, different culture, different world”; Moonves is one of the people to whom he reports.
Nevins, meanwhile, opened his Q&A with statement in which he never mentioned Moonves by name, but acknowledged “some of the issues in the news right now, about our parent company,” assuring the reporters, “I understand you may have questions for which you want answers – and I do too.”
CBS’ big comedy-creating star Chuck Lorre actually took the Moonves question before Kahl; appearing early in TCA to talk about Netflix’s The Kominsky Method, he told reporters it was not the time or place.
But, on the broader issue of sexual harassment in the workplace, Lorre observed, “I do think it is important to have a safe work environment. I have been in some unsafe work environments in television – you can read about them,” he added, getting a laugh, having famously exited Roseanne over creative differences with star Roseanne Barr.
“You can’t do good work in an unsafe environment and it has to be made safe for everyone,” Lorre said.
While Kahl braved TCA, two other broadcast network executives dodged the on-the-record ordeal at this summer’s event.
Six months after assuring TV critics “I truly mean it, I think the TCA’s are one of the most valuable things that we do,” ABC programming chief Channing Dungey was a no-show. That’s because, an ABC rep explained from the stage, “as many of you know, the Walt Disney Company is reporting earnings today, and we thought it best not to have an executive session compete with that.” Executives we polled around town about that fell mostly into the “Patently Ridiculous Excuse” school of thought.
But NBC Entertainment chief Bob Greenblatt also gave the semi-annual on-the-record executive panel a miss, and his network actually won the TV season. Increasingly, broadcast network programming chiefs are dodging the microphone at TCA, preferring to sit down with hand-selected journalists – mirroring Donald Trump’s approach to their press availability. Which maybe the TCA journalists, or someone at the White House, will note next time ABC News or MSNBC chides POTUS for not coming on one of their programs, or declines to take their questions.
Speaking of President Trump, as he grows increasingly rabid/unhinged at rallies and on Twitter with midterm elections and Robert Mueller’s investigation looming, so too did talk of Trump at TCA.
Murphy Brown creator Diane English said she might need security protection given the “scary times” in which she’s bringing the CBS comedy back to tackle Donald Trump America. “I might have to have some protection,” English told reporters in a scrum after her show’s Q&A panel. “I’m not kidding.” English referenced the “scary times” in which the show is coming back with original episodes after two decades.
The very first episode “really sticks our head into the lion’s mouth,” said star Candice Bergen, boasting, “This show has no fear of anyone.”
HBO’s Oliver came to TCA where he compared Trump to a fire hose: a gift that keeps on giving but that you wish “would stop occasionally.” And when one TV critic noted that mocking Trump means ratings, and asked if it would be a problem for late-night hosts if “for any reason he went away,” Oliver shot back, “You sound like a mob boss.”
Jim Carrey, attending TCA to talk about his Showtime series Kidding, was asked about his political art and explained, “You can tweet all you want, but there is something about a picture.” Carrey suspected Trump “loves them on some level. I’m sure it’s insulting and it pisses him off at the same time,” adding, “We’re dealing with a narcissist.”
And, Amy Poehler, at TCA to pitch her new NBC series I Feel Bad, credited the network’s SNL for the “amazing job” it’s doing in its parodies of the Trump administration, while constantly under attack from thin-skinned POTUS.