The Winter Television Critics Association Tour staged a comeback this month after last year's version was cancelled due to the crippling Writer's Guild of America strike in early 2008.
The two-week tour involves 200 or so somewhat curmudgeonly television writers who get to question, criticize and at times hobnob with celebrities and network executives from nearly two dozen broadcast and cable networks touting their latest “must-see” scripted or reality series.
But much of the buzz during the cable portion of the recent Winter TCA press tour surrounded marquee networks and their celebrity clientele who weren't there.
Yes, HBO was present and treated the critics to a chatty Drew Barrymore, a very pregnant Jill Scott, a poignant Kevin Bacon and a satellite feed of comedian Will Ferrell. MTV trotted out bad boy rapper T.I. and South Park co-creator Matt Stone to discuss their respective new projects, while a drag-less RuPaul promoted his new reality series on Logo.
But when Girls Next Door actress Bridget Marquardt is considered a celebrity highlight (she actually hosts an interesting new beach destinations show on Travel Channel), there's no question the tour was lacking star power.
The tour's celebrity shine was diminished even further when cancer-stricken Patrick Swayze was admitted to the hospital with pneumonia an hour before A&E's July 9 session promoting his new show The Beast. Various illnesses also nixed celeb appearances by Gabriel Byrne (HBO's In Treatment) and Khloe Kardashian (E!'s Keeping Up With The Kardashians).
That doesn't mean there weren't any standout shows showcased during cable's three-day window: BET's Harlem Heights, A&E's The Beast and HBO's The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency were among several shows that look promising.
But without talent-driven networks like USA and Sci Fi Channel presenting during the three-day cable portion — and with high-profile networks like FX, Showtime, TNT and Disney Channel partnering with their respective broadcast brethren during the broadcast portion of the tour — cable's presentation certainly lacked the glitzy, celebrity punch that previous winter sessions have had.
The absence of major cable and broadcast networks from the TCA may be more a sign of the times than an anomaly. Both the winter and summer TCA tours provide networks with the opportunity to gain exposure for their shows, particularly as cable and broadcast networks launch new shows virtually year-round.
While nothing is set in stone, we may at least see the Turner Networks (Cartoon Network, CNN, TNT) back in the fold for the cable portion of the summer tour, which is scheduled for late July in sunny Pasadena.
But as networks pinch pennies in a brutally bad economic environment — and major newspapers do the same by cutting staff writers — it may not be long before the biannual tour loses its appeal to TV's entertainment power brokers.
At that point, any discussion of celebrity star power will be mute … because there won't be any celebrities to harangue over.