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CTAM Press Tour 2020: The Winners and Losers of the Summer’s Virtual Sessions

Tyler Hersko

The 2020 installment of the Television Critics Association Summer Press Tour was unprecedented: Officially, the TCAs were cancelled, but members were still able to attend virtual events organized by PBS and CTAM (Cable and Telecommunications Association for Marketing) in order to showcase various networks’ upcoming fall slates.

Netflix even made its way to the industry event, while WarnerMedia and NBCUniversal’s new HBO Max and Peacock streaming services finally had the chance to strut their stuff to television journalists and critics. Still, the format — with panelists teleconferencing in for panels and journalists typing their questions into a queue — made for a stripped down and uncharacteristically low-key event that boasted far less announcements than official, fully attended TCAs of the past.

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Several companies made the best of the difficult situation and showcased a variety of interesting titles during their panels at the CTAM Press Tour. And as always, several corporate attendees did… not do that. Here are the winners and losers of the abbreviated press tour.

Winners

NBCUniversal and Peacock

Peacock had its work cut out for it when the streaming service launched nationally in July — it was the last of the major streaming services to launch and the second to debut during the coronavirus pandemic, which has caused several of its original series to be delayed. Thankfully for Peacock fans, the streaming service boasted a solid array of upcoming programming during NBCUniversal’s CTAM presentation, which ranged from a new series from “The Good Place” scribe Mike Schur to the return of the ex-NBC sitcom “A.P. Bio,” as well as some unexpected (but much appreciated) surprises for fans of late night talk shows.

Schur’s series, titled “Rutherford Falls,” stars fellow “The Office” alum Ed Helms as a small-town citizen whose fellow residents are preparing to take down a statue of his ancestor. The series is shaping up to explore themes of identity and how Americans relate to historical narratives, while the pedigree of Schur and Helms, as well as the fact that five Native American writers are on staff, suggests that “Rutherford Falls” could offer plenty of heartwarming laughs while navigating contentious topics. In other words, the show could be just what Peacock needs to make a name for itself in original TV.

As for existing shows, Season 3 of the Glenn Howerton-led “A.P. Bio” is finally drawing near. The show was saved by Peacock shortly after being cancelled by NBC and, as IndieWire’s Ben Travers noted, the lack of content restrictions on streamers means that Season 3 could boast a wilder set of episodes and edgier comedy. (The trailer indicated an increase in mature content.) “A.P. Bio” is an established TV comedy, and its impending premiere on Peacock could broaden the platform’s appeal by attracting existing fans to check out the new service.

Speaking of appeal, one of Peacock’s strongest traits is its leveraging of NBCUniversal’s topical news and sports programming. Streaming services haven’t given much mind to late night talk shows, but Peacock aims to make a splash in that genre with new shows from Larry Wilmore and Amber Ruffin that are set to premiere next month. Peacock already boasts more live news and sports content than most of its competitors and if these shows are a hit, they could help solidify Peacock as the standout streamer for topical, newsy content.

Netflix

Netflix has been absent from the Television Critics Association Press Tour circuit for two years, but it made the time to set up presentations at CTAM’s 2020 edition. The streamer’s presentation featured an admirable variety of upcoming shows, and their “winner” status can be attributed to the commendable diversity of shows they featured during the event: The streamer dropped the trailer for “Away,” a Hilary Swank-led astronaut drama that will premiere in early September, as well as a glimpse of the “Deaf U” documentary, which will examine a culture that is rarely given much mind in Hollywood. Netflix is one of the streaming industry’s most active promoters of documentaries that discuss oft-overlooked topics, and it’s commendable that the streamer gave “Deaf U” a platform at such a prominent industry event.

Netflix also unveiled the trailer for Ryan Murphy’s “Ratched,” a Sarah Paulson-led prequel to “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” The show’s first look was full of color and bombastic music, which contrasted nicely with its horror-hospital setting and indicates that the title could be a return to his “American Horror Story” roots, as well as a nice complement to Murphy’s comparably lighthearted Netflix projects, such as “The Politician” and “Hollywood.”

The streamer also showcased an already-popular title in “The Umbrella Academy” Season 2, which served as a nice addition to the streamer’s array of new titles. There are a handful of high-profile Netflix titles that didn’t make the TCA cut — hello, “The Witcher” Season 2 — presumably due to pandemic-related production issues that make establishing a release timetable all but impossible, but that doesn’t change the fact that Netflix did an admirable job highlight what will be available in the coming months.

Losers

PBS

In the best-case scenario, journalists and critics attending any press tour will struggle to cover all of the news due to the sheer quantity of announcements. The PBS portion of 2020’s press tour was the opposite of a best-case scenario: The public broadcaster opened the panel rollout on July 28, which was the same day that Emmy nominations were announced. Emmy nominations were a must-cover event for practically all television journalists and critics, many of whom had to spend the entire day covering awards news, leaving practically no time for PBS.

The following two days were also dedicated entirely to PBS, and with all due respect to the broadcaster — seriously, PBS featured a handful of genuinely interesting projects such as the “Feels Good Man” documentary and its “PBS American Portrait” initiative — there simply wasn’t enough content to warrant three consecutive days of TCA panels. The broadcaster’s relative lack of news coverage from TCA attendees, despite having the event to themselves for three days, is ample reason to believe that PBS would’ve benefited from a leaner schedule, as well as a more fortuitous start date. (The day after Emmy nominations are announced is often still a hectic news day.)

WarnerMedia

With the preface that finally getting the trailer for Ridley Scott’s “Raised By Wolves” sci-fi series was plenty exciting, WarnerMedia — with its considerable resources and ability to leverage AT&T’s boundless corporate synergy — announced a smattering of documentaries and the premiere date for “Coastal Elites,” with no trailer for the latter, despite the fact that it’s premiering September 12. There was also a “Lovecraft Country” panel, but WarnerMedia dropped its trailer ahead of the presentation, and the panel didn’t boast any breaking news. As for the documentaries, plenty of them have interesting synopses, but the sheer quantity of documentary announcements and their lack of previews made it difficult for any of them to stand out.

WarnerMedia’s TCA was a somewhat muted affair made worse by the fact that the company quietly laid off hundreds of staff several days after its press day. WarnerMedia’s ongoing corporate restructuring has resulted in significant shakeups at the executive level and the company still faces numerous questions, such as HBO Max’s ongoing unavailability on Roku and Amazon Fire TV, as well as the rollout of HBO Now’s rebranding. WarnerMedia could’ve shed light on those issues if the company had an executive session, which it did not. Speaking of which…

The Lack of Executive Sessions

And the true loser of the 2020 Summer Press Tour was… everyone.

While glitzy trailer debuts tend to make the noise anytime, the press tours are also an invaluable opportunity for journalists and critics to speak with the executives of various streaming services and television networks. No such luck at this installment, despite there never being a more important time for candid discussions with industry leaders.

While most show panels made time for Q&A sessions with casts and creators — it should be stressed that this was much-appreciated, compared to Comic-Con’s pre-taped panels that were essentially just lengthy advertisements — the 2020 Summer Press Tour allowed no opportunity for journalists discuss the industry with the executives at key companies such as Netflix, WarnerMedia, and NBCUniversal, who were given platforms to showcase their lineups. Given how broadly the pandemic has disrupted the entertainment industry, the 2020 Summer Press Tour could’ve been a much-needed platform for journalists, critics, and industry analysts to hear from key executives about how they’re adapting to the pandemic. Without such scrutiny, its overall reach and resonance was weakened.

Thankfully, whenever the official TCAs are able to resume, things should get back to normal.

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