|The pool at the Ritz.|
By Ron Thornburg
After attending the Summer Press Tour of the Television Critics Association in Pasadena, Calif., Don Porter returned to the office last week to some not so subtle kidding:
"How was your vacation, Don?" "Bet you spent it by the pool, didn't you?"
For two weeks, Don started his days around 6 a.m. by viewing pilots of the programs that the major networks plan to air as part of the fall television season. Then he and the approximately 160 members of the critics association attended four, 45-minute press conferences.
After lunch the group interviewed four more producers, stars or network executives. Evenings -- sometimes lasting until 2 a.m. – were spent mingling with other critics and interviewing TV personalities at parties sponsored by ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox. Talk, when not about specific programs, often centered on who is responsible for controlling violence on television.
After a while, Don said he wasn't even sure what day it was. Of course it helped that this was Don's second trip to Pasadena for a TV tour. Last January, Don was on hand when the networks rolled out their mid-season replacement shows at the critics' winter meeting.
That experience has informed Don's reporting for the past six months, making his TV columns and reviews must-reads for viewers throughout Northern Utah. To stay current it was important for him to return to Pasadena for the summer tour, where the all-important new fall season is previewed.
The July meeting attracts what reviewers from smaller newspapers call the "Mensa crowd" – critics from giant newspapers like The New York Times, Los Angeles Times and The Philadelphia Inquirer. Such critics "really get coddled by the networks," Don explained. "They get led off to hotel rooms for exclusive sit-downs while 85 percent of us are in the trenches just battling for anything we can get."
Still, Don said stars like Mary Tyler Moore, Cybill Shepherd, James Garner, David Letterman, Mariel Hemingway and many others seem as eager to answer the questions of a Utah reporter as they are to talk with someone from a major metropolitan paper.
The stars understand that talking with the press is part of their jobs, Don said, and some are surprisingly forthcoming with reporters. Mandy Patinkin, for example, was highly sought after at a party the night after it was announced that he would not return to the popular "Chicago Hope" series on CBS.
Don spent the evening interviewing the other cast members of "Chicago Hope," only getting a chance to talk to Patinkin late at night about his decision to leave the show so he could spend more time with his family.
"He must have been asked the same questions 40 times by the time I talked with him, but he was just as gracious as he could be," Don said.
Between the press conferences, lunches and parties, Don estimates that he conducted interviews with close to 60 stars that will form the basis for columns between now and the end of the year. In addition, he sent back to the office five boxes full of transcripts and notes.
Whether violence on television should be controlled with the so-called V-chip was a major topic of discussion at the Pasadena meetings. Politicians from President Clinton on down are backing legislation that would require manufacturers to install a computer chip in sets so parents could block their children from viewing potentially objectionable programs.
Despite the growing support for V-chips, Don and his fellow critics previewed several new shows that he said appear to reverse a recent trend away from violent programming. Perhaps even more disturbing, Don said the networks plan to begin airing such adult-oriented programming at times that will have them starting at 7 p.m. in Utah. In the light of such decisions, will the nation's television critics play a role in convincing network executives to tone down the violence once again?
Don isn't optimistic.
"TV critics have a limited influence," he said. "If a show is in trouble and it is a really good show, occasionally critics can inspire enough people to watch the show or write to the networks to save it. But if the ratings (of a bad show) do well, no network executive is going to listen to a TV critic" who might want it canceled.
So after watching hundreds of hours of tapes and interviewing nearly five dozen television stars, Don brings back to Utah one simple message that bears repeating: If you don't like what you see in prime time, turn it off. That's the best way to get the attention of the networks.
And, just in case you wondered, Don says he only made it to the pool twice while he was in California both times after 10 p.m.
Ron Thornburg is managing editor of the Standard-Examiner.