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Wednesday, July 02, 2003

Welcome to Wonderland. I'm Alice and I've just fallen down the rabbit hole.

Actually, it usually takes me a week or so to feel that way about the Television Critics Association press tour.

For those of you who didn't know such a tour exists … and there is absolutely no reason why you should … it is a semi-annual event where 200-odd (many of us very odd) television writers, critics and columnists gather somewhere in Los Angeles to see the TV networks and major cable channels show off their new series, made-for films and mini-series.

About the only thing I can compare it to is a national political convention. I covered several in a previous life so I'm fairly confident of making that comparison.

The summer tour lasts for three weeks with almost everything taking place within the confines of one hotel … this time around, the Renaissance Hollywood Hotel which is in the Hollywood-
Highlands complex.

The networks do their spin jobs, just like politicians, trying to convince the writers that their new sitcom is the next great comedy hit. The writers spin back, suggesting that the new sitcom is the next great sinkhole on the TV landscape. The networks try to stay on their message … ""we're doing great'' … and the writers try to stay on their message … ""your new fall lineup is terrible.''

There are formal interview sessions, informal interview sessions and much chit-chat over coffee in the morning and cocktails late at night. Just like a political convention, the most valuable time
is often the chit-chat with network and studio executives, series creators and "talent'' (Hollywood's term for actors). Sometimes, it even yields immediate news.

And then there are the parties where the networks and cable channels wine and dine the writers, often elaborately. Over the next few weeks, evening bashes will be held at the House of
Blues (PBS), some hot local clubs, Universal Studios and the back lot of Warner Bros. where HBO will be setting up a circus to promote one of its new series.

I can never convince my colleagues that these parties are work but they are. It's a chance to make contacts and do drive-by interviews with people it would take days to reach by phone otherwise. Often, you need very sharp elbows. If someone at the party is hot … Evan
Marriott of "Joe Millionaire,'' Kiefer Sutherland of "24'' after it took off, Aaron Sorkin of "The West Wing'' after he got busted for drugs … it's like a scrum in rugby as reporters crowd around for quotes.

(One thing I ought to make clear is that the Mercury News pays the freight for the hotel, travel, etc. So does every other publication that sends reporters to the TCA tour. In addition, the tour itself is run by the TCA, not the networks and cable. It didn't used to be that way but it is now.)

In the past, I've pretty much stayed away from writing about the internal workings of the tour and have always come back with a fistful of interesting little tidbits that never made it into print. I
don't think I've really conveyed how surreal this tour can be, a world where you are interviewing a nuclear scientist one moment on a PBS documentary and Anna Nicole Smith the next.

The solution: This log which I'll be doing for the next three weeks in addition to my reports for the actual pages of the Mercury News. It's time to drop down the rabbit hole again and you're welcome to come along.

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