These days, it's a full-on campaign trail and all the wining and dining that comes with it. Each network has to launch its own press battles to secure maximum favorable coverage when all those TV shows drop in fall. The event attracts as many as 150 reporters in a day, and this year it was held at the Ritz Carlton hotel in Pasadena.
This year, however, cost cutting at newspapers and some magazines has taken its toll on attendance (Gail Shister from the Philadelphia Inquirer is one notable absence), but that hasn't diminished the amount of coverage the new shows receive by any means; now practically everyone is reporting in real time via personal blogs.
The tour is a major highlight of the networks' marketing departments' calendars and is unique in that it offers TV beat reporters unparalleled access to the cream of TV producers and writers and creators -- John Wells, Brian Grazer and David Crane were all in attendance at CBS on Saturday -- who talk up their various projects.
On Saturday night at Pasadena's famous football venue, the Rose Bowl, reporters wandered freely between Charlie Sheen and CBS CEO Leslie Moonves, who had just flown in from Herb Allen's media mogul retreat in Idaho.
"I used to do film junkets and this is more like a free for all," said Charlie McCollum, a well known TV writer with the San Jose Mercury News. He explains that unlike the movie business, the critics' tour is remarkably free of celebrity entourage.
Another bonus is the chance to catch up with network brass, who may not always be easy to get on the phone for regional writers. "It's hard to play hide and seek if you're an executive. You may not always get the answer, but at least you get to ask the question," added Mr. McCollum.
During press conferences, reporters sometimes quote from mail sent in by their readers, who complain about things such as poor soundtracks. While the topic of TV might seem lighthearted, the beat writers take it seriously and follow a tough line of questioning. Panels get adversarial and seem like they might be better set in the White House press room.
Veteran writers remember the year that former ABC entertainment executives Lloyd Braun and Stu Bloomberg were asked if they were going to answer any questions at all, to which they high-fived each other and responded "No."
At CBS's opening session, writers pummeled entertainment president Nina Tassler with questions about why there are so many serialized dramas across the dial this season and why networks always leave viewers hanging without winding up the storylines when shows get axed.
The topic of serialized dramas has already become the theme of the week, even before the other networks get started -- CW presents today, then ABC, followed by NBC and Fox. In previous years, the story has been about the "death" of the sitcom or the flood of news magazines or the lack of minorities.
CBS' Ms. Tassler, for her part, said she's something of a sadomasochist in that she enjoys the back and forth with the critics. What does she get out of the critics tour? "I think it gives you an opportunity to hear our message for any given season, what our objectives are." She explained that when the line of questioning takes a detour from the script, "you get unsettled for a moment, but it's important to hear from your constituents." Ms. Tassler said the tour reminds her of the strength of feeling the public has for characters on TV.
Katie Couric, too, took her fair share of lumps, and was asked why she had not opened her "town hall" tour of the U.S. to the media. She said she didn't want ordinary people to have their comments recorded, otherwise would seem like a promotional device for her upcoming debut as the network's new evening news anchor. When asked about her wardrobe, she declined to respond, saying, "You have to be kidding, right?" She ducked questions about Dan Rather's inelegant departure from CBS, leaving News and Sport President Sean McManus to explain the sticky situation.
Doug Elfman a TV critic for the Chicago Sun Times, says part of the fun of TCA is gossiping with other writers. "It's good to know what the celebrities are really like through talking with the other writers, although it doesn't really inform your criticism."
For the talent of course, the downside to all that access is the inevitable awkward personal question. On the pitch at the Rose Bowl, one writer from Canada advised, "If you want to ask Charlie Sheen about Denise, wait till the end, because otherwise he'll just get up and leave."