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TV Critics Association tour can pick up signals of upheaval

As you read this, I'll be in Los Angeles preparing to ask the head of NBC's entertainment division why he thought it was a good idea to rip off Mad Men and Little Red Riding Hood among the network's slate of new shows for this fall's TV season.

That's right. It's time for another installment of the Television Critics Association's summer press tour, when about 200 journalists will converge on the Beverly Hilton for two weeks of news conferences, cocktail parties and on-set visits arranged by cable and broadcast TV outlets to show off their big series for the 2011-12 season.

There are a few things I've learned over 10 different press tours that can help you, the TV fan, get a little more out of my dispatches that will begin Tuesday with news on NBC.

Watch what TV executives say … very carefully. During the 2007 tour, newly hired NBC entertainment co-chairmen Ben Silverman and Marc Graboff suddenly began talking about how much they loved and respected Jay Leno, at a time when critics weren't really asking about Leno. Then I realized: NBC had promised Leno's Tonight Show to Conan O'Brien, and Jimmy Fallon was taking O'Brien's old 12:30 p.m. slot. But no one knew what the network was going to do with Leno. The executives' words sounded like an odd back-channel way of assuring Leno they wanted to work something out, while also hinting they were having trouble closing the deal. A couple of years later, when they undercut O'Brien by giving Leno a 10 p.m. talk show, that bit of foreshadowing proved eerily on target.

Watch what the stars say even closer. After a news conference on his Showtime series Californication in 2008, star David Duchovny was chatting with a clump of reporters when a journalist working on a magazine story featuring romance tips from the stars wondered: Did he romance wife Tea Leoni when the two were at home together? Duchovny's response was halting, disjointed and odd. He clearly didn't want to answer the question. Not long after that, Duchovny split with Leoni and checked himself into rehab for sex addiction. Sometimes it pays to watch people answer the little questions; they can bring big answers.

Enjoy the hang whenever possible. The coolest thing about the awards ceremony TV critics present halfway through the tour is that the winners show up. So I got to tell Tom Hanks, co-producer of HBO's World War II drama The Pacific, about my time last year interviewing St. Pete Beach resident Sterling Mace, an 80-something veteran who lived the events dramatized in his miniseries. Hanks' reaction: "Make sure you thank the man for his service."

And then there was the time I was talking with Keith Olbermann about issues in cable TV news coverage at a reception held by his then-employer NBC at the Beverly Hilton — blissfully unaware that reporters from the National Enquirer were chasing John Edwards around the very same building while he tried to visit Rielle Hunter and their secret child together.

I'm not saying I'll stumble into another presidential candidate feeding a worldwide scandal. But if you keep your eyes open and wits sharp, you can learn a lot about the next six months of television coming at us, spiced by the possibility of seeing a little history made at any moment.

Eric Deggans can be reached at Blog: Twitter: @Deggans.

TV Critics Association tour can pick up signals of upheaval 07/31/11 [Last modified: Sunday, July 31, 2011 9:43pm]
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