IF you ever wondered how television critics churn out review after review in the first month or so of the new fall season, one answer is: press tours.
While you consider whether to watch the new Delta Burke or Susan Dey series, the critics have seen the pilot, talked with the writers, directors, producers, and actors, and have a good idea which shows will keep you from flipping channels.
What began as columnists from the top 30 markets flocking to Hollywood for a few days of parties and dinners has evolved into non-stop screenings and round-robin interview sessions. (Currently, the well-oiled publicity machines of the network and cable companies often provide critics with advance videotapes of new shows, eliminating the need for reviewers to travel at all.)
But it was not always that way.
On Oct. 9, 1952, NBC and Young and Rubicam Advertising Agency gave the first press tour. Thirty-five columnists were invited to talk with Joan Davis, the star of "I Married Joan," and to have dinner at her Beverly Hills estate. These same critics provided the first laugh track to a TV show when their reactions to Davis's show were taped.
It didn't take the other networks long to catch up. But the publicity managers still had a lot to learn.
Bob Wright, vice president of West Coast Public Relations (the company that works for ABC), has participated in 46 of the press tours.
"The biggest single change," he says, "is the use of star time. At first we brought the press to the studio to interview the players. I remember sitting with Kay Gardella of the New York Times on the set of `Batman,' hoping for an interview with Adam West, which we never got. Today, production may even be stopped so a star can get to the press meeting."
In the early days of television, when the networks paid for everything, there were extravaganzas. One season NBC took the press corps across Canada; another time CBS took reporters on the Lurline Steamship from Los Angeles to San Francisco, where they watched Danny Kaye cook a Chinese dinner (Kaye's comedy hour was debuting on the network). When "Hawaii Five-O" was set to premiere, the press was flown to Honolulu to meet Jack Lord.
The junkets inevitably raised concern at newspapers that the networks were trying to influence television reviews. So, for about the last 20 years, the participating news organizations have paid their correspondents' expenses.
The size of the press corps has increased, too, with more than 100 reporters from the local press, trade papers, and some electronic media taking part.
NBC, CBS, and ABC have three days to show their new products, PBS and Fox have two days, and the cable channels have three.
The meetings are scheduled twice a year, although television programming is constantly shifting, and new shows are not premiered exclusively in the fall and winter anymore.
Some of the glamour is gone, but the coverage, it is hoped, reflects more directly the reviewers' assessment of new shows.