Cast away in TV press tour

Memo to my children:

I know you've been wondering where your mother goes for nearly three weeks every six months or so, appearing briefly near your bedtime mumbling strange phrases such as "Oblongs," "Greg the Bunny," "Temptation Island," and "Smackdown." I thought I'd try to describe what we who stumble through this weekend-less gauntlet call "Press Tour."

In what can sometimes feel like a never-ending succession of 55-minute press conferences twice a year, folks from the seven broadcast networks, production studios, cable channels, and PBS introduce their coming projects. They get to reach a whole country worth of TV critics (some 200 or so from papers all around the US) in one shot, and writers get to poke and prod the people behind the curtain, and squirrel away ideas and stories.

Actors talk about their motivations in playing everything from Thomas Jefferson to a distant galaxy doctor and wax eloquent about the increasing creative and career opportunities offered by TV over feature films. Writers opine about the challenge of being creative within the constraints of commercial television.

Public broadcasters pride themselves over, well, everything they do. Producers worry about industry realities such as a possible double strike by writers and actors. Special-effects crews show off their latest creations - the jewel in the crown of "Animal Farm's" animatronic farmyard was a large, disturbingly realistic pig. However, it's the real-life big dogs and little children that regularly steal the show with an unaffected natural exuberance that reminds their adult, human colleagues why W.C. Fields knew best ("never share the stage with animals or children.")

In the Winter Press Tour that ends today, a group of Brits who actually lived on a remote Scottish Island for a year (BBC America's "Castaway"), not for money but to learn more about themselves, opined that they wouldn't have signed up if money were involved as it was in CBS's "Survivor."

In one press conference from Women's Entertainment, the new moniker for the cable channel that was previously known as Romance Classics, we learned that Debbie Allen has so many projects in the works that she couldn't name them all without being embarrassed. Cindy Crawford was apologetic about the dearth of projects on her plate, demurring with a comment that "all the stuff in my life keeps me busy, you know, STUFF!"

Tempests in a Ritz-Carlton teacup (the event is held at this exclusive Pasadena enclave) encourage the sense of being the industry equivalent of the White House Press Corps. When CNN cancelled at the last minute on Monday, the elegant hotel was steaming with writers in a righteous snit. On the other hand, Ted Turner did choose Press Tour as the spot to fall on his sword over the Tail Hook scandal (ask me later what that was all about).

The vast rear lawn, overlooking greater Pasadena and the primeval Huntington Botanical Gardens, often plays host to exotic menageries of animals that will star in shows as diverse as PBS's "Zoboomafoo," which brought lemurs, and CBS's "Survivor," which showcased really big pythons, cockroaches, and a diaper-toting chimp.

It also provides the high-heel snapping setting for parties which, truth be told, is where much of the serious work actually gets done. (I can hear you laughing, but it's true, really it is.)

At these events, which bring all the creators and critters down from the dais into an informal setting with big spreads of (usually) pretty good food, reporters get to ask one-on-one questions that are too silly to ask in a more formal press conference or too exclusive to share with their colleagues, or have nothing to do with the folks who are footing the bill for that individual's presence at the press conference - actor Martin Sheen was happy to answer a question about his planned sit-in at a nuclear power plant the following week as long as it was while we were in line for pasta and not during "West Wing's" moment onstage.

Finally, though it may not seem like it when I disappear for days, these events actually make a valuable contribution to my parenting responsibilities.

When the WB held a studio party, which included the press and their families, it was hard to ignore the wholesome young actress Melissa Joan Hart smoking with her mother at a corner table. If that image got you thinking about the difference between TV reality and real life, then Press Tour and parenting aren't so separate after all.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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