Could “C” stand for Community?: Musings on the Role of the TCA

In the final piece of his fantastic series of articles on his Comic-Con 2010 experience, Todd VanDerWerff asks an all-important question: why, precisely, do news organizations cover Comic-Con from the show floor? He writes that “the vast majority of the news that comes out of the Con can be covered as well by Sean O’Neal sitting in Austin and posting links to press releases and other reports as it can be by someone sitting in Hall H.” Now, Todd’s fantastic coverage proves that there is value to having someone on the show floor to report on the experience of Comic-Con – more interesting than the news itself is the kind of people the convention attracts and the environment they create. However, in terms of actually covering the news emerging from the panels, the value is comparatively limited, especially when I consider the headaches it seems to have caused the various people in my Twitter feed who attended the event.

It’s a question which will continue to be asked over the next two weeks, as my Twitter feed shifts from the madness of Comic-Con to the madness of the Television Critics Association Summer Press Tour (which Alan Sepinwall captures here), and I want to use this as an opportunity to reflect on some of my observations about the TCA over the past number of months. I want to make clear that these are not envious or spiteful thoughts about my lack of membership with this organization: while I may self-identity as a critic, a title which I feel I have earned insofar as one can earn such a title, I am not in any way, shape or form a journalist, and thus do not fall under the purview of the TCA, which “represents more than 220 journalists writing about television for print and online outlets in the United States and Canada.”

This piece is less about my exclusion from the TCA and more about my inclusion within the critical community it broadly represents: through Twitter and other forms of engagement, I’ve come to consider many established critics to be mentors and, at times, colleagues. On a daily basis, television’s critical community includes critics, bloggers, scholars, reporters, unaffiliated intellectuals, and fans who have something to say, collectively forming a living, breathing entity which I’ve come to value a great deal. If I’m at all disappointed about not being at Press Tour, it’s not because I won’t be touring the set of NBC’s Undercovers; instead, I’m disappointed that I won’t be there to witness my Twitter feed come to life before my eyes, to be part of that environment. As various media folk left Comic-Con, their tweets reflected less the panels they really enjoyed and more the people who they got to meet, putting a face to a name or in some cases a name to a Twitter handle. And it makes me realize that the reason I wanted to be at Comic-Con wasn’t because I felt it would result in better coverage, but because I wanted to be in the trenches with my fellow community members.

There was a sense of camaraderie there which feels, to me, like the kind of connection which an organization like the TCA would be interested in fostering, something they could use to demonstrate the value of criticism in the twenty-first century and something which could spurn further interaction and discussion. However, this is where my image of the TCA’s function conflicts with reality: it is, after all, the Television Critics Association as opposed to the Television Criticism Association, or the Television Community Association. It creates a connection between the industry and the people who cover it, a role which helps critics gain access to the material necessary to serve their readers, but for the most part I sense that the TCA is uninterested in the art of criticism, or in the interaction between critics rather than their interaction with the industry.

And, if you’ll allow me to indulge a curiosity, I want to discuss whether or not that should (or could) ever change.

As criticism has been evolving online, the TCA has largely remained unchanged: yes, the way Press Tour is covered has changed tremendously, with more focus on the immediacy of the experience, but it still largely services the journalist side of a critic’s duties. While this is important, the fact is that more critics are engaging in critical thought which disengages from journalism (or “news”) in favour of objective analysis. While I’m not surprised, it is a bit disappointing that the TCA has made no adjustments to its mandate in light of recent trends towards post-air analysis rather than pre-air reviews: what change I’ve been able to find in the TCA has been a greater influx of bloggers, who I would argue fit comfortably within the TCA’s basic mandate considering that they serve a largely journalistic, rather than critical, function (we can argue this point). It’s true that these bloggers change the demographics of the people who actually sit in the audience and cover the various panels, shifting the TCA away from “Middle Age Newspaper Folk,” but they’re a concession that different kinds of people are covering television, not that the kinds of people who cover television are covering television differently.

I don’t blame the TCA for being largely hands off with the art of criticism, but I think it’s a subject which fits into the logical extension of their mandate. If the TCA exists to facilitate a connection between critics and the industry, one of the side effects of the recent trend towards post-air analysis is a more extensive connection between critics and their readership, and I have to wonder whether it’s possible that the TCA could play a role in this sort of endeavor. Criticism is changing in the era of the blog: posts are written which are designed to facilitate discussion, and that discussion will actually exist alongside the criticism rather than remaining an unseen spinoff. The internet has created entirely new expectations for how critics relates with their audience, and many have embraced this potential through their blogs and Twitter accounts; the TCA, meanwhile, remains more theoretical than practical within this environment, their website offering a collection of mostly dead links to critics’ websites and their Twitter account standing as a non-starter (with only a few early tests of its function and some Retweets of other critics to its name, although it’s possible they have big plans for this year’s Tour). In bringing together a fairly diverse (if still somewhat exclusive) segment of the critical community, the TCA offers a unique opportunity for that group to encourage, foster and confront these changes.

However, arguing with myself for a moment here, don’t critics already do this? While I think that the TCA as a whole should be concerned with the future of criticism, and should be willing to work to stress the importance and value of criticism in an era where journalism faces considerable challenges, the fact is that many critics are already doing so. In engaging with readers through a variety of platforms, and by writing criticism which is intended to stimulate reader discussions, critics have formed their own informal organization which works towards establishing the role of criticism in today’s culture. I think that’s why Press Tour makes me think of these lofty goals: in one room you have some incredibly intelligent people who, when talking to one another, do far more for television criticism than they do when listening to producers and actors pitching their fall series, and yet their discussions remain in the backchannel. The future of television criticism is not a battle over access to the industry, but rather the cultivation of the reader’s relationship with the critic, and the reality is that the TCA is doing nothing to engage with this future.

I don’t think this is without reason: I’m guessing that the TCA, considering that they largely only operate during their twice yearly events, does not have a substantial employee base which could work year round to Retweet Critics’ articles, maintain Twitter lists, update blogrolls, or run a blog on the TCA website which could highlight the kind of coverage being done by critics. As someone who is completely engrossed within these circles, and who has been doing it for quite some time, it’s easy for me to say that this is the path they should take, but organizations and individuals without that experience would find it quite rightfully daunting. The TCA also still has many members, the members who most represent its basic mandate, who have no interest in blogs, or Twitter, or any such nonsense, and organizations are always slow to change when parts of their base (albeit a base which is eroding within the current climate) are resisting the ongoing changes.

And so it makes me wonder if there’s perhaps a place for another organization, something which reflects criticism more than journalism and which captures the spirit of the critical community which exists on a day-to-day basis rather than that which meets twice a year. Rather than focusing on access, it could focus on collaboration, on communication between critics as well as communication between critics and their audience. It’s true that this organization might not be seen as necessary, considering that a healthy community has already formed which is already working towards the goal of increasing the standing of television criticism, but there remains that part of me who wonders whether more could be done if this community was given a more tangible form. It’s a curiosity which will be satisfied to some degree this fall, as I’ll be part of a Roundtable discussion (organized by television scholar Jason Mittell) on the current state of television criticism at the Flow Conference at the University of Texas at Austin where these sorts of issues will come to light (this post is a head start of sorts). I’m incredibly excited about that discussion, but there’s some part of me which wishes that it could be a conversation had with the entirety of the TCA’s membership in attendance – I’m hopeful some critics may follow the conversation in the Twitter backchannel, but I’m guessing that most people in a position to do so are those who have already carefully considered the questions being raised.

Most of you are likely imagining what would happen if you went into a room filled with opinionated people and asked them to discuss their view of their industry, and since most of you likely didn’t debate for five years in University you’re probably taking some imaginary aspirin for your imaginary headache. I was tempted to leave this entire discussion until the Flow panel, in fact, but I realized that any discussion of the TCA would seem less timely, and it’s not as if the panel will lack viable topics of conversation. I don’t raise these points to question the current function of the TCA, as I think there are legitimate concerns about critical access to the industry in the current climate which should be protected (that’s a post for another day), and I think that the various TCA panels can offer some important insight into how new series is coming together beyond its pilot in terms of the chemistry of its cast or the vision of its producers. Instead, I simply wonder whether it’s possible for the collective organization the TCA ostensibly creates to be brought together to discuss the other side of television criticism.

The answer might be no, but that doesn’t make the question any less interesting, so I’m very curious to hear what others within the critical community (in its broadest sense) have to say about it.

Cultural Observations

  • Rick Ellis, of All Your TV, has written extensively about his issues with the TCA in the past, and his commentary offers some insight into some of the logistical challenges that Press Tour represents from a journalistic perspective (even if I would tend to argue that Press Tour has evolved in such a way as to fit more comfortably within the current journalistic climate).
  • As a point of inspiration to the TCA: Chris Becker, a media professor at Notre Dame, has been maintaining a “News for TV Majors” site this year which collects news stories, commentary, and other elements of TV media coverage in one place for students who want to remain connected. It’s a tremendous resource, and is a model I’d consider to be valuable for an organization like the TCA.
  • For more on the particulars of the Comic-Con experience, Ryan McGee has a strong piece on the differences between proximity and access, and just what Comic-Con offers for its attendees.
  • I’m aware that this is likely inside baseball for most of my regular readership, so forgive me the indulgence.
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2 Comments

Filed under TV Criticism

2 responses to “Could “C” stand for Community?: Musings on the Role of the TCA

  1. Still working on my article on my own experiences at this year Comic-Con, but I just had to share my two cents here and state how well-spoken, thought-out, and illuminating this post has been. I don’t want to clutter this section too much with musings on how I felt about this piece, so I’ll just say that this quote — “The reason I wanted to be at Comic-Con wasn’t because I felt it would result in better coverage, but because I wanted to be in the trenches with my fellow community members.” — fully articulates what I aspire to be as I continue to review on my site.

    Thanks for this, and I look forward to meeting you during the next convention.

  2. trippdup

    Very interesting musings. Ultimately, I’m in favor of anything that helps foster the online critical environment.

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