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Editorial: We Are On to You

We’ve had some time to digest what was said by executives at the recent Television Critics Association press tour in Pasadena, Calif., and as we’re now heading into NATPE and several other upcoming industry events, we thought it a good time to pull up and let television execs in on a little secret.

We’re on to you. When you go up on stage, we can tell when you are lying. OK…actually, no, we can’t. But we can at least tell when you are skirting an issue or ducking a question. In this day and age of stars, athletes and even Rupert Murdoch talking directly to the masses via social media, transparency has become the new black. And you’d better get used to that.

Granted, some of you already seem to get it. Take, for example, the broadcast network presidents that spoke to TV critics earlier this month. They all seemed very comfortable in their skin, confi dent, poised and honest. NBC’s Bob Greenblatt started the week off by saying worse things about his network’s performance than most anybody had written. That level of honesty works. It means everything else that comes out of his mouth has loads more credibility. It won’t make a single additional viewer tune into his beloved Smash, but it absolutely helps the network in the long run because that tact is disarming and endearing to the media. And if you don’t think that matters, you’re nuts. Whether consciously or subconsciously, journalists who cover TV (while we won’t admit it) probably go a touch easier on someone they like or respect. That’s why you should hug your PR person today if they are any good.

The rest of the network chiefs followed suit, with Paul Lee (ABC), Kevin Reilly (Fox) and Nina Tassler (CBS) all pretty up-front about what their nets were doing. And cable held its own as well, led by FX chief John Landgraf, who usually gives the best executive session every TCA. As one of us wrote on Twitter, Landgraf gives a “master class” in TV as he tells you exactly why he did everything he did—in success or failure—and what he is thinking next.

So given all of this, when you don’t simply talk like a human being, you stick out like a sore thumb. That pattern was also in evidence at TCA, like when the head of MSNBC didn’t want to answer Keith Olbermann-related questions. Instead of just saying, “Guys, he doesn’t work for us anymore, and I really don’t gain anything talking about it,” he went with the coy pretending he didn’t know what the questioner was talking about play. The former tack is real and understandable; the latter wins no points.

And then there was Current, which spent a (loud) session doing such unadvisable things as trashing the mainstream media and calling CNN anchors “robots.” Punching up to try and attract attention is a very transparent strategy, and one the media sees right through every time.

So, when you take the stage at NATPE this week or (shameless plug alert) one of our own events, or any time you engage the media or the public, please do know that you are talking to a constituency that is quickly getting used to a new level of less-filtered back-and-forth—or at least the appearance thereof. In a world where Rupert (apparently) tweets his direct thoughts about Google, it’s best to acknowledge that things have simply changed.

If you can’t talk about a specific issue or answer a question, say you can’t talk about it, and say why. The media is going to find out eventually anyway, so why hurt your credibility? Instead, take the opportunity to do the opposite. It helps both you and your company to come across as honest.

We are not out to get you. Well, most of us aren’t. You can talk to us like grown-ups. When you don’t, I promise you not only will we know, but it won’t help your cause in the long run. So consider yourself warned. We’re on to you.