MEDIA ROUNDUP: TV finds new channels for gaining media coverage

Though treatment in traditional outlets has changed little, David Ward finds that TV's evolution has prompted a shift in who covers the medium, the focus of that coverage, and how PR pros pitch stories.

Though treatment in traditional outlets has changed little, David Ward finds that TV's evolution has prompted a shift in who covers the medium, the focus of that coverage, and how PR pros pitch stories.

A continuing public fascination with everything from the home life of their favorite sitcom star to how competing shows will fare head-to-head in the ratings has long made coverage of TV broadcasting one of the more popular media topics with the general public. Whether it's who will be eliminated this week on American Idol, the ethics of the deception currently going in with Joe Millionaire, or the reasons behind the drop in The West Wing's ratings, media outlets always seem to find the space to cover television not only as entertainment, but also as a leading indicator of popular culture. Given the recent explosion of cable and satellite channels, as well as the growing "nesting" trend, you might think the press, especially newspapers, would give the topic more space. But the traditional TV section in newspapers and other outlets hasn't really changed for decades, still consisting of a half-page full of listings, a handful of briefs on what shows might be of interest, and maybe one or two small reviews or features. "I don't see a great increase in the amount of space for the TV section," says Jane Bartnett, president of Bartnett Communications, which has represented Kaufman Astoria Studios - home to Sesame Street - as well as shoots for HBO, ABC, and others. "They still give pretty minimal space." The other staple of TV-related journalism, the standalone TV section offered by many Sunday papers, is, in fact, being made less relevant by the arrival of on-screen programming guides that provide much of the same scheduling information. Non-TV beats now tuning in But what is changing is TV-themed stories are now being covered by other beats. Dan Martinsen, SVP of corporate communications for Nickelodeon, TV Land, and TNN, says an announcement of change in programming at TNN "was covered both on the TV pages and the business pages." Part of this is simply a reflection of the changes in television's importance as an entertainment medium, as well as the changes the industry has undergone in recent years. "TV has gotten a lot more sophisticated in the last decade," says Rebecca Marks, SVP of NBC Entertainment Publicity, citing issues such as syndication, the continued growth of cable and satellite, and TiVo, that have changed not only viewing habits, but also how the networks make money. This jump out of the dedicated TV section has been a blessing for the PR people representing networks and programs both large and small. "It's hard to compete with Sex and the City and Friends because the TV columns are really so small," says Alyssa Donelan, TechTV's senior director of corporate communications. "Our goal in PR is to get off the television page," adds Michael Feeney, director of public affairs for The History Channel. "We're not really doing the usual TV topics. As such, our programming resonates with different audiences, and we get coverage from political writers, religion writers, science writers, and educational writers, for example." More complex media coverage To their credit, even the traditional television page content has changed. Reporters who previously wrote primarily reviews and celebrity profiles now tackle more complex issues such as whether children's programming is really beneficial to kids. At the same time, they're also looking beyond the usual suspects - the big four networks and maybe HBO - for their stories. "They really can't [focus solely on the big networks] now with 50% of the viewership being taken up by cable," points out Patricia Frith, whose self-named agency represents TechTV and Encore International. Among the leading reporters covering TV are: Brian Lowry and Howard Rosenberg of the LA Times; Allesandra Stanley, Richard Sandomir, and Bill Carter of The New York Times; The Washington Post's Tom Shales and Lisa de Moraes; Reuters' Steve Gorman; AP TV writer David Bauder; and Entertainment Weekly's Bruce Fretts. One of the more interesting aspects about the journalists who cover TV is how they get their news. The leading organization of TV-related reporting, the Television Critics Association (TCA), holes up twice a year at a posh LA-area hotel, while all the networks present their fall or spring lineups. These tours, which recently moved to Hollywood's Renaissance Hotel, have always had a bit of a "trapped in paradise" feel about them, with more than 100 members of the media from across the US being pampered with meals, parties, and unprecedented access to both executives and stars. This has led to some criticism that reporters are being spoon-fed only what the TV industry wants them to hear. But the TCA winter and summer press tours do serve a purpose, enabling reporters to literally stockpile months worth of stories in a short period of time. "What TCA does best is put shows on the press' radar because you're right in front of them," says Feeley. "So it's a great way to get into reporters' faces." "There are so many networks out there, and it's so hard to get the media's attention," adds Donelan. "So the TCA is an extremely useful outlet to not only get some face-to-face time with reporters, but also to give them some one-on-one time with our executives." The danger, of course, with getting that many reporters together for that long a time is it can lead to a bit of a pack mentality. "I do feel that anytime there is a group in a room, there's a different dynamic at work, and that applies to the journalists as well," says Marks. "TCA is something we certainly look at as a platform, but it's not the only one," adds Martinsen. But in many ways, reporting on TV works best that way. Back at the office, most of these reporters are inundated with press releases and review tapes of shows from the hundreds of television networks vying for their attention. Indeed, outside of events like TCA and maybe NAPTE (National Association of Program Executives), it can be difficult to get reporters to meet in person with the stars or principals of a show. "Everybody's tight for time, so you have to offer something special to get them to leave their office and come to your set," says Bartnett. "They won't come out if their competitors are there too, but if you can offer them an exclusive and five minutes with the star or a hot director, they'll come to you." PR pros change their presentation PR people representing TV shows are also taking advantage of new technology to reach journalists. "Since video tape isn't the greatest, we've been using DVDs more. Everybody has a DVD player in their computer now, so they can play it at work," says Frith. Bartnett recommends keeping a close eye on the infrastructure of the TV industry as well. "In New York City, a lot of reporters call the Mayor's Office of Film & Television looking for trends, or even just wanting a third-party perspective to help fill out their story," she says. "So it helps to have a good relationship with them." ----- Where to go Newspapers USA Today; The New York Times; The Washington Post; The Wall Street Journal; Los Angeles Times; New York Daily News; New York Post Magazines TV Guide; Time; Newsweek; People; Star!; The National Enquirer; BusinessWeek; US Weekly; In Touch; Entertainment Weekly; Biography; Electronic Media; Satellite Direct Trade Titles Television Digest; Communications Daily; Satellite Week; Broadcasting & Cable; Multichannel News; Hollywood Reporter; Variety; Billboard; Shoot TV & Radio CNBC; CNN; Fox News Channel; Westwood One and other syndicated radio outlets; TechTV; NPR Web;;;;;; CNET

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