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Networks' Summer Show and Tell

This week marks the beginning of an expensive, surreal 2½-week PR marathon known as the Television Critics Association summer press tour (TCA), which is designed to highlight new shows for the fall season.

While TCA is officially intended to preview new series, critics will most likely focus on the six broadcast networks' most talked-about sitcoms, including UPN's Chris Rock childhood chronicle Everybody Hates Chris and NBC's My Name Is Earl, and dramas like ABC's Commander in Chief, not to mention the Jerry Bruckheimer-inspired crime procedurals.

During TCA, which runs through July 29 at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Beverly Hills, the broadcast and cable networks dole out an estimated $350,000-$750,000 each to simultaneously entertain and hold hostage a couple hundred critics and reporters who cover television.

While the costs have raised some eyebrows, especially when advertising is flat or down, the networks still believe that the often derided event—along with a slimmed-down version in January—is worth it and cheaper than paid advertising.

“TCA has always been—and remains—an extremely effective platform to introduce new programs to the press,” says The WB spokesman Paul McGuire. “With the glut of representative print, electronic and online media, we can showcase our network in the best possible light to a concentrated audience interested in the business of television.”

The price list includes what's known to some as the “annual shrimp-and-swine fest”—lavish parties, meals, marketing reels, review episodes, and room, board and travel for a spate of logistically challenged stars.

Moreover, the networks must contend with a media gaggle that grows increasingly restless and cranky with each passing week and hors d'oeuvre. The questions directed at stars, producers and executives can turn awkward or even downright ugly. Publicists hope to collect positive quotes, which they pass on to network marketing departments for on-air promos. Sometimes positive stories, which carry the aura of objectivity, stand out more than paid advertising.

Chris Ender, senior VP of communications for CBS and UPN, sees press tour as a valuable promotional tool but acknowledges he is concerned about how much his networks' three-day event costs. “When we're putting together the press-tour schedule,” he says, “there are sessions you have to have [involving the new shows], there are sessions that are interesting [like the one this year looking at the convergence of television and the Internet and how consumers get their news in today's digital world] and network priorities.”

For CBS, that includes convincing critics that Two and a Half Men can anchor its Monday-night comedy block and hyping critically disregarded King of Queens, which will move back to Mondays to lead off the night at 8 ET.

Borrowing from the success of a certain ABC hit, CBS will bill the original ladies of Knots Landing as the “original Desperate Housewives” to promote an upcoming reunion special.

Press tour is perhaps more vital for smaller cable networks, which need their shows to stand out amid the offerings on hundreds of digital channels. Most of them are forced to campaign for a spot on the tight TCA schedule each year.

Even critics' darling BBC America, for example, got passed over its first year. Now seven years old, the network has presented at the past dozen press tours and relies on them to get the word out about high-priority shows—this year, those are the crime drama/musical Viva Blackpool and hospital drama Bodies.

Says Jo Petherbridge, the network's senior VP of communications strategy and online, “It's a great opportunity to bring our talent over to meet writers face to face and expose U.S. journalists to a whole array of British accents.”

Additional reporting by Anne Becker