For the next couple of weeks, I'm out in California covering the Television Critics Association press tour. Not familiar? Here's an introduction.
Day 1 of summer press tour began with hammering and ended with a giant Christmas tree.
Let's back up.
We started Tuesday with a presentation from the Nielsen ratings people about their upcoming efforts to incorporate "cross-platform" viewing into ratings. That means they're trying hard to get to the point where they're capturing "every view of every video," as they put it. Presumably, that doesn't mean they're counting the number of times you've watched your child's dance recital, but they do hope that eventually, when you time-shift by watching online, they'll be able to do something useful with it, as they now can with DVR viewing.
The statistic they made sure to drop was that the idea that live viewing is something that doesn't happen anymore is one that has flourished in spite of its falseness: live viewing is pretty much flat over the last three years, meaning that thus far, the time-shifting and mobile viewing and so forth is all adding to viewing, not replacing it. So it's a bad day for people who enjoy arguing that television is dead, but a good day for people who enjoy arguing that we move ever closer to life on the spaceship in Wall-E.
Unfortunately, during that particular presentation, they began constructing (I assume) a chainsaw factory outside the ballroom where the discussion was taking place. From the sound, it appears that first, they had to weld all the pieces of the new chainsaw factory together, and then they had to test all the chainsaws as they were coming off the production line. Person after person skittered over to the doors to run outside and BY GOSH TELL THEM TO STOP, but apparently the chainsaw factory waits for no egg-headed presentation on television ratings.
The Ovation Network was the first actual content provider on the tour, and they started with a new show called Young Marvels, which follows eight extremely talented kids (they do everything from ballet to cello to speaking eight languages) as they practice and go to school and talk a lot about their dreams for the future. The panel began with a performance from young Mae-Ya, who sang "Get Here" in the voice of an adult woman who has seen everything, despite the fact that she's 12. (Don't believe me? Check her out yourself.) Then Charlie, who's also 12, played the cello concerto that he pointed out was the same one he played at Lincoln Center recently. (P.S. We've all wasted our lives.) The show is fun, and the kids are refreshingly normal and undeniably very talented, and there are opportunities for educators and experts to express concern about what life might be like when you're this focused on one thing at such an early age. It premieres July 16.
Ovation then brought Daniel Radcliffe in (well, via satellite) to talk about A Young Doctor's Notebook, the very, very dark comedy in which he stars with Jon Hamm. I have a feeling there are a lot of people who don't know that Radcliffe and Hamm have done this British show together, or that it's on Netflix, or that the second series is coming to Ovation on August 19. But yes, we did ask Daniel Radcliffe whether he'd read the new Harry Potter story. (He said no.) He and Hamm play the same guy on the show decades apart, which led to a seemingly unanswerable question about why his character got six inches taller over time, but which Radcliffe volleyed back into an interesting reflection on the visual techniques used to link the versions of the character to each other. Not that it would have been entertaining to see him fly into a tantrum and say, "ARE YOU CALLING ME SHORT?"
We then heard a presentation from Al-Jazeera America about their ongoing efforts in news. The most sobering moment of the day, certainly, was their discussion of their colleagues from Al-Jazeera English who were recently sentenced to at least seven years in prison in Egypt. Their anchor, Tony Harris, described himself as "optimistic" about a resolution, but also said he was open to any suggestions anyone had about keeping the story in the news. More generally, the panel talked about the challenges of starting up a new channel and expressed confidence that as more folks get to see their work, the ratings will be there.
And then we had lunch, sponsored by the TV Guide Network, which also functioned as a celebration of a new show they're doing with Mike "The Situation" Sorrentino from Jersey Shore and his family. So lunch was pasta, because: they're Italian! It was a little bit of a change of pace from the news panel.
The afternoon was all about the National Geographic Channel and their sister network Nat Geo Wild. Nat Geo remains kind of a weird TV brand, because they really do still make shows about the world and wildlife, but they also do a lot of stuff about the military and, it seems, something new at least once a year about September 11. That pattern repeated this year when they announced the upcoming special 9/10: The Final Hours. They also announced, however, a new show hosted by Kal Penn called Mapology, which seems to be the first attempt to make a show entirely about infographics. Which isn't necessarily a bad thing! But which certainly isn't the conventional definition of "maps."
Their documentary American War Generals is made up largely of interviews with ... well, American war generals. Eleven of them, to be specific, including Gen. Barry McCaffrey, who was on stage to take questions and was probably the highest-energy panelist of the day. He spoke about the effect that the Vietnam War still has on strategic thinking and returned again and again to the idea of caution: "When you pick up the military tool, you're never sure how it's going to come out."
(This is where you say, "Are you telling me that the Al-Jazeera panel and the panel about the perils of military intervention bookended a lunch about The Situation?" And I say, "Well, the lunch was also promoting a project involving New Kids On The Block.")
Probably no one panel made more of an impression on the room on a personal level than the one for Sleepless In America, an upcoming Nat Geo special about the fact that (1) none of us are sleeping enough and (2) as a result, we're all going to die. The message was slightly more measured than that, but only slightly. Sleep researchers are terrifying people, to be honest, because the idea that you have to reserve more time to do nothing at all – which feels as if they're saying you should have a 22-hour day instead of a 24-hour day, forever, but you still have to do everything you have to do now – comes as an unwelcome bit of news for busy people. The special airs in November. If you live that long! Just kidding!
They've also got a show called Urban Jungle, which is about the way wild animals are making their way into residential areas. The panel was notable primarily for the single best combination of words I heard all day: "We've got kangaroos on golf courses!"
Then, the stars of the reality series Dr. K: Exotic Animal ER came on stage, bringing with them a bunny and a cockatoo, which really don't seem all that exotic, but hey, don't mess with Dr. K. I assume she can sic an army of potbellied pigs on you. We didn't see any extremely wacky animals, but she did tell us that she has treated a praying mantis and once "built a fish anesthesia machine out of parts from Home Depot."
Next up was Life Below Zero, a show that's already running about people who live in very, very, very remote parts of Alaska. One of them is a woman who rather emotionally recounted a bear attack and then explained how she likes things the way she likes them, and said she'd warned the maids here in the hotel not to touch her stuff. There is a glut of Alaska reality shows, but it does appear that this one is about a more pronounced difference between their life and yours than you find in some of the ones that might as well be titled Really Big Coats.
David Rees, an accomplished cartoonist and the author of How To Sharpen Pencils, came on stage to present his new show, Going Deep With David Rees, in which he teaches you all about the ins and outs of mundane tasks. This is another one I really like, having seen a few episodes – at an event on Monday night, he and I compared shoe knots after I told him I'd seen the "How To Tie Your Shoes" episodes, and he gave me a hard time over the fact that my knots were still really terrible, and (no lie) his are the neatest, most even, most perpendicular-to-the-shoe knots you've ever seen. He taught the critics in the room how to make a paper airplane, and while I can't claim my airplane flew amazingly well, it was beautiful and sturdy, and isn't aesthetic appeal what planes are all about?
We closed the day with Eat: The Story Of Food, a miniseries that will use food to talk about history, biology, and lots of other stuff. It looks kind of fascinating, although I haven't seen any of it yet. They kept sending out snacks that were tied to the various episodes, which is how I came to consume my first wheatgrass shooter. (Verdict: tastes like grass!)
The day wrapped up with a party thrown by Hallmark Channel at some very, very fancy house they took us to on buses. The theme (naturally) was Christmas. Giant Christmas tree, bell ringers playing "Joy To The World," cranberry sauce with dinner ... it might be the weirdest party I've ever been to in July, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. My favorite part – and I think she would forgive me for telling this story, despite the fact that I don't usually talk about overheard conversations – came when Andie MacDowell (who stars in their series Cedar Cove) came out onto the balcony of this enormous house where they were serving cocktails. She looked around at the ridiculous glamour of the place and loudly declared, "What a dump!" It was really funny. One point for you, Andie MacDowell.
Today (Wednesday): Discovery, WGN, and BBC America. Onward!