When new CBS Entertainment President Glenn Geller faced TV critics in August to talk about the network's new fall shows, the first question he got was straight to the point.
"Why is it so difficult to get more inclusion for people of color in the top level of casting at CBS?" asked Maureen Ryan, chief TV critic for the trade magazine Variety. "And what message does it send that the leads of your shows are all heterosexual white men?"
Ryan kicked off a grilling about diversity that articulated the biggest problem many critics and journalists had with CBS' fall lineup. Geller, who seemed to know the question was coming, still fumbled a bit like a guy who knew he was on the spot.
"I'm really glad this question came up first," he said, sounding like somebody who was not at all glad to be discussing this issue. "Because we're very mindful at CBS about the importance of diversity and inclusion and I'm glad we're having this conversation first."
The occasion was the TV Critics Association press tour — a time, twice a year, when dozens of writers converge in Los Angeles for weeks of press conferences offered by TV networks, streaming companies and cable channels to show off their new programs.
In January, however, three of the four biggest broadcast networks say they will not hold press conferences with their top executives for the group. And that sets a troubling precedent.
"Curl up and hide and hope it goes away"
These public press conferences can provide important and revealing moments. Critics speak on behalf of their audiences, asking tough questions about how some of the media's biggest platforms create the images and values shown on TV.
I had a similar moment with HBO's president of programming, Casey Bloys. He seemed to deflect a question about sexual violence against women in HBO shows, saying violence is perpetrated against male characters, too. After two female critics tried to pin him down on the subject, I tried a more direct tack.
"I think the point is that that kind of violence directed against women is different," I noted. "Rape against women is this particular kind of violence that's about oppressing women. And there are many critics who are concerned that these shows seem to normalize that."
Those words, when aired on NPR Monday, inspired a listener to write me with her own story of reacting to such violence while watching an episode of Game of Thrones. The writer, who I won't name, said she was a rape survivor who had a severe post-traumatic stress reaction triggered by watching a scene from the HBO drama.
"What I have a problem with is when shows use my pain — something that is real and violent and deeply disrespectful of my humanity and agency — as a way to sexually excite viewers," she wrote. "This makes me feel completely unsafe in the world I live in, like there are predators out there who have been excited and emboldened, like no one is willing to stand up against the violence perpetrated on me, like all I can do is curl up and hide and hope it goes away."
Some may not agree that such scenes in Game of Thrones are intended to sexually excite viewers, but it's important to talk about the notion. And the letter writer saw critics as an important surrogate; challenging executives in the way she would do herself, if only she had the opportunity.
Concern among critics
Such moments also encourage deeper coverage from other journalists. I've been coming to the TCA press tours since 1997 and found the opportunities at such sessions invaluable — especially for smaller newspapers and media outlets that might not have regular access to these executives.
That's why there's concern among critics over the decision by ABC, CBS and NBC to skip press conferences with their top executives at January's press tour. The decision came after disclosures that Netflix and Amazon were mostly skipping the tour entirely; the Fox network had originally planned to drop its executive session, but reversed course on Friday.
Representatives for the networks say they wanted to make the best use of their time — devoting all of their limited press conference slots to casts and producers from new midseason shows debuting over the next few months.
Some critics are concerned the networks are ducking tough questions, especially after a fall season without any big breakout hits. It doesn't help that TV entertainment presidents these days are often part of much larger conglomerates without the kind of power and autonomy they once enjoyed — with less freedom to speak their mind in freewheeling press conferences.
The executives will be available for one-on-one interviews offstage, but it still looks like the networks are trying to shield their leaders from criticism. And I think they underestimated how controversial these actions would be.
The networks could learn lots from FX President John Landgraf, a savvy programmer who always ensures his executive sessions have impact. He first made the term #PeakTV a national topic, using it to describe today's glut of TV programming at one of his TCA press conferences.
In August, Landgraf announced he had pushed FX to hire more female and nonwhite directors after seeing a story by Ryan in Variety noting it had some of the worst diversity levels in the category. Landgraf made a difference in months, thanking Ryan for "giving us and the rest of our industry a good, swift, well-deserved kick in the butt. ... It's well past time for change to happen."
That's why I hope more networks reconsider and reinstate their executive sessions in January — because better transparency may bring short term pain, but ultimately, it makes for better television.