Longer TCA Doesn't Please All

So much to talk about, so little time. That's a common refrain for cable networks who haven't been able to regularly present or make any pitch in front of the assembled pundits at the semiannual The Critics Association, or TCA, tour.

In conjunction with TCA, the National Cable Television Association will take a step to alleviate that situation by adding a fifth day to cable's typically jam-packed four-day slate. During the most recent winter tour, 29 networks made more than 50 presentations.

For the upcoming session — which both TCA and the NCTA insist will happen regardless of whether the Writers Guild Of America or Screen Actors Guild go on strike — cable will lead the tour from July 10 to July 14, followed by the broadcast networks.

Even with the extra day, some executives at smaller networks were grumbling last week. The most prevalent complaint involves the trio of 30-minute flex-time slots up for grabs on July 14.

Officials with independent networks said they would have hoped for more than just three relatively brief slots on the extra day.

According to the proposal document, which was sent to a number of programmers and obtained by Multichannel News, eligibility centers on channels that aren't scheduled to present on both the January and July 2001 tours and have at least 10 million subscribers.

Some network executives are miffed about the "flex-time" presentation process, which they believe works at cross-purposes with the proposal.

"NCTA wants you to make the best presentation possible, tout your original production and bring in talent," said one network executive. "The cost of bringing in the talent for a half hour, or if you have a two-hour slot, is the same.

"Not only is it tough to justify doing this during these economic times, but it's hard to convince talent to come in for a five- or 10-minute window. But that's what we'll have to do if we want to get in."

Other complaints concern the half-hour window in general, and the possibility of sessions running concurrently on cable's fifth day, thereby forcing two networks to vie against one another for critical attention.

"A half hour is not nearly enough time," added another TCA veteran. "You have to say hello, introduce your executives, give some basic network information [and] make a few news announcements for the trades.

"By the time you're finished describing the show you're going to present and roll a few clips, you only have five minutes left for the producer and the talent to field questions from the critics."

TCA officials could not be reached for comment last week.

NCTA spokeswoman Sharon Radziewski said she is still waiting for flex-time proposals to be returned. The entire schedule hasn't been firmed up yet; that's something she hopes to do by May 7.

At this point, Odyssey Network, E! Entertainment Television and BBC America will make scheduled (non-flex time) 30-minute presentations on cable's fifth day.

"Some networks may be interspersed on the first four days," she said. "We have to see what kind of response we get to the flex-time proposals.

"I'll also be canvassing the networks. Some may prefer to have an hour slot with another network running at the same. Right now, we're trying to keep things flexible," she said.

Among the networks invited to make the three flex-time proposals: Oxygen, The Golf Channel, Univision, C-SPAN, The Weather Channel, Ovation, MSNBC, Sundance Channel, Food Network, The Inspirational Network, Black Entertainment Television and Eternal Word Television Network. Radziewski said Telemundo and GEMS Television would also be afforded the opportunity to make a flex-time proposal.

On the plus side, all parties agree the addition of an extra day — in a bridge position before the broadcast sessions are slated to begin — could attract recalcitrant critics who might otherwise delay their arrival until the broadcasters make their pitches.