Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

'Was TV colour back then, mister?'

It's been a quarter-century since our first television press tour and the small-screen landscape is vastly different

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Oh, my, how things have changed.

In preparing for the latest edition of the U.S. networks' press tour in Los Angeles -- the semi-annual gathering of TV critics from around North America and the producers, network executives, actors and writers who make the television programs that fill the prime-time schedule -- it occurred to me the other day that this summer's jaunt to southern California marks the 25th anniversary of the first time I made the trip.

Which, of course, prompts a few reflective thoughts:

Where has the time gone?

Jeepers, I'm quickly approaching crusty-old-guy territory (some might argue I'm already there).

And, mostly, television is a very different medium now compared with what it was in the summer of 1989, when I attended my first TV press tour in L.A.

Back then, there were only four full-time U.S. broadcast networks -- ABC, CBS and NBC, along with the public broadcaster, PBS. Fox, which was not yet available to Winnipeg viewers, was a cheeky upstart that was airing only original programming (including Married... With Children, 21 Jump Street, It's Garry Shandling's Show and The Tracey Ullman Show; The Simpsons' arrival was still five months away) three nights a week.

The cable-TV realm was also still in its early adolescence, with only a few scattered specialty networks making presentations during a single day on the TV press tour.

The top-rated U.S.-network shows of the 1988-89 season were The Cosby Show, Roseanne, A Different World, Cheers and 60 Minutes, and the most talked-about new series in the fall of '89 were ABC's Chicken Soup (a sitcom starring Jackie Mason and Lynn Redgrave), CBS's Major Dad (a comedy featuring Gerald McRaney and Shanna Reed) and The Famous Teddy Z (a sitcom starring Jon Cryer and Alex Rocco), and NBC's Baywatch (which was cancelled after one season, but was resurrected as a syndicated series by star David Hasselhoff and lived on for another decade).

Back then, the TV press tour was a leisurely, laid-back affair; each network had three days to present its new shows, and because the critics and reporters in attendance were mostly newspaper types, the schedule included regular blocks of "writing time" that would allow them to tap out columns and reviews, often using old-fashioned devices called typewriters and fax machines, to send copy to their editors back home.

Press-conference rooms were a haze of acrid blue smoke, as the notion of non-smoking workplaces was still years away. And every day of the press tour, just after the morning set of interviews, a lunch session would occur, complete with an open bar that continued until the end of the business day.

It goes without saying that afternoon interviews occasionally got a bit testy. In the summer of '89, a couple of cranky (and perhaps over-served) critics made the star of ABC's new sitcom Free Spirit cry.

At night, the networks would throw elaborate parties that allowed press types to mingle, chat and do interviews with actors and producers from all the new and returning prime-time shows. Afterward, back at the hotel, hospitality suites would remain open until the last reveller decided it was time to retire for the evening (or, more likely, early morning).

There was no Internet, no blogging, no Twitter, no Facebook. The notion of a laptop computer in a press-conference room seemed silly and futuristic. The TV press tour of 1989 was strictly a notebook-and-pen affair.

These days, it's a much different story. During interview sessions, the conference room at the Beverly Hilton Hotel will be a sea of laptop computer screens, tablets and smartphones, with every question and every answer -- along with every hairstyle, clothing choice and shoe selection -- being blogged and tweeted by dozens of writers employed by websites and other online publications.

It's a Twitter frenzy; if you're into that sort of thing, keep an eye on the hashtag #TCA14 for the next couple of weeks.

The cable portion of the press tour is a massive and important part of the mix -- over a four-day span, dozens of specialty nets, ranging from HBO, Discovery and CNN to Al Jazeera America, El Rey Network and American Heroes Channel will stage sessions for nearly 50 new and returning shows.

The major networks follow, with ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox and the CW (along with cable nets that fall under their corporate umbrellas), as well as PBS, each taking a couple of days to present their new shows to the assembled press.

There are still network-sponsored events -- cocktail shmoozes and Hollywood-ish parties of a slightly less elaborate nature -- on most evenings, offering critics, reporters and bloggers mingle-and-chat access to a pared-down roster of TV stars. Martinis will be served on the set of Showtime's Masters of Sex, the Hallmark Channel is staging a North Pole Christmas Celebration in July and U.S. cable's Syfy channel will make some waves with a Sharknado 2-themed pool party.

Among the most buzzworthy new titles to be showcased at the summer 2014 version of the TV press tour are ABC's How to Get Away With Murder, a Shonda Rhimes-produced thriller that will be scheduled alongside Scandal; CBS's Madam Secretary, which stars Téa Leoni as the U.S. secretary of state; NBC's Constantine, a graphic-novel spinoff starring Matt Ryan; and Fox's Gotham, a comic-book prequel to the Batman saga.

In all, more than two dozen new shows will première on the big U.S. networks this fall. One of them might become the next Cheers, but the betting here is most will meet the fate that awaited Chicken Soup and Teddy Z back in 1989.

HBO will be promoting a new miniseries, Olive Kitteridge, which stars Frances McDormand, while AMC will be previewing its much-discussed Breaking Bad prequel, Better Call Saul.

And the Free Press, a quarter-century after its first visit to the TV press tour, will be there. Watch for my regular dispatches from L.A. in our daily-paper pages and at; you can also follow the press-tour fun on Twitter (@BradOswald).

Yes, a whole lot has changed. But 25 years later, this is still going to be a whole lot of fun.

Twitter: @BradOswald

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 5, 2014 G1

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