PASADENA, Calif. — When members of the Television Critics Association gather each January to preview upcoming programs and hear from those who make them, the result can be a kind of exotic celebrity zoo. This year's mixed crowd included reality stars (Paris Hilton, Kim Kardashian West), Oscar winners (Pacino, Witherspoon, Kidman, Blanchett) and a politician (Hillary Rodham Clinton).
There were odd role reversals. Clinton discussed a documentary about her life and career, Hulu's "Hillary," and was asked only a few questions about current events. In a panel for Oxygen's "Kim Kardashian West: The Justice Project," the aspiring lawyer spoke less about herself and more about her efforts for prison inmates.
For those who cover TV, the meeting can yield access, news and insights; for those in the industry, the goal is publicity. Panels are held from morning to night over two weeks, weekends included, with members breaking only for food, coffee and a chance to breathe fresh air outside a hotel ballroom playing host to some of the industry's biggest names.
As brisk and carefully planned as it is, and as practiced as celebrities are, discernibly genuine moments can happen at the meeting that's nicknamed "press tour" or referred to the "TCAs."
Hilton was charmingly nervous as magician David Blaine, set for a YouTube appearance this fall, asked her to serve as his assistant. During a subsequent panel for YouTube's "This Is Paris," a somber-looking Hilton said she'd been reluctant to do a candid biographical film "because I wasn't ready to really show myself. ... I've been playing this character for so long."
National Geographic network executive Courteney Monroe choked up as she introduced panelists for "The Cave," the Oscar-nominated documentary about the brave efforts of a group led by Dr. Amani Ballour to care for residents of a besieged Syrian town. "I may actually start crying," Monroe said, a reaction made understandable by clips showing the dangers that Ballour, her colleagues and patients endured.
Other highlights and takeaways from the recently ended meeting:
HAVEN'T WE MET?
It was deja vu all over again, and again, as a notable number of actors appeared on different panels for different shows — an outcome of the voracious Peak TV appetite.
Networks, cable channels and steaming services end up sharing in-demand talent from a Hollywood pool that may be shallower than suspected, at least when it comes to those with a track record and name recognition.
Here was Josh Gad on a panel for HBO's space satire "Avenue 5, and back again for "Central Park," an Apple TV Plus animated comedy. Martin Freeman discussed his role as a police detective in Britbox's drama "A Confession," and switched gears to tout FX's comedy "Breeders," about struggling parents.
Gad was in good form for his appearances, which came several days apart.
"We like to think of ourselves as the 'Game of Thrones' of comedies," he said of "Avenue 5" in response to a question about the number of characters who die in its early episodes. "There's quite a big body count, just you wait."
On the "Central Park" panel, co-star Kristen Bell recounted her childhood love for musical theater and an obsession with "Cats." Gad seized the opening.
"Are you sad you weren't in the 'Cats' movie?" he said, slyly, of the new and widely panned film adaptation.
Among others pulling double duty in new series pitched to critics: Cynthia Erivo in HBO's "The Outsider" and National Geographic's "Genius: Aretha"; Rob Lowe in Fox's "9-1-1" spinoff "9-1-1: Lone Star" and Britbox's crime drama "Wild Bill"; John Slattery in FX's "Mrs. America" and Fox's "neXt" and Daveed Diggs in TNT's "Snowpiercer" and "Central Park."
Three members of the Oscar club were one and done, including Al Pacino for Amazon's "Hunters," Nicole Kidman for HBO's "The Undoing" and Cate Blanchett for "Mrs. America." Reese Witherspoon was on hand for a returning series, Apple TV's "The Morning Show," and for Hulu's "Little Fires Everywhere.'
CRITICS AT WORK
The hundreds of series released each year, described by FX Networks Chairman John Landgraf as a "massive conveyor belt of content," keeps more than Hollywood humming. The critics tasked with sorting through TV fare for their readers have to keep pace, and writers acknowledge how overwhelming it can seem.
"I remember when it legitimately was possible to watch everything, and if someone said that they hadn't watched 'The Wire' or they hadn't watched 'Deadwood' you could say, 'You're simply not doing your job," said Daniel Fienberg, chief TV critic for The Hollywood Reporter. "But now the reality is that there are shows that are on people's top 10 list that I have not watched more than 30 seconds of, and I just don't have time."
USA Today TV critic Kelly Lawler described how programs get on her to-do list.
"It's a combination of things that interest me on a base level because of talent — in front and behind the camera — network, or concept," she said. "And what is notable to our readers and ... what is easiest to access on any given day, like regular people. I tend to try to watch a little of a lot," but streaming services who deliver a full season in advance get her full attention.
Fienberg adds another consideration: word of mouth (or tweet).
IT'S NOT ALL ABOUT YOU, AMERICA
If the Amazon session included a drinking game with "global" as the prompt, TCA members would have needed to explain a serious number of typos.
Amazon Studios head Jennifer Salke and two other studio executives uttered the word 17 times, and it was heard several more times in questions about the Prime Video streaming service available to 100 million-plus Amazon Prime subscribers.
"Our international focus on entertaining and delighting customers all over the world has helped increase that membership. It's about global content expansion with a carefully curated focus," Salke said.
One example: "Citadel," an upcoming spy thriller starring Priyanka Chopra Jonas, will be aligned with local productions in Italy, India and Mexico, among other countries, to "enhance the experience of engaging with the show," she said.
The far-flung audiences and varied business models of Amazon, Netflix and other streamers have made the ability of a show or concept to travel part of the decision-making process.
Hollywood studios used to create shows for broadcast networks, the only game in town, with the expectation that series could be sold to other countries or, in some cases, remade to reflect their languages and tastes. For instance, versions of the "Law & Order" series franchise popped up in Britain ("Law & Order: U.K.") and France ("Paris Enquetes Criminelles").
But it was success at home that determined whether a series would be renewed or face the ax. Then came premium cable channels such as HBO, now available in more than 50 counties, and the game-changing streaming services that include soon-to-arrive HBO Max and Peacock.
HBO's "Game of Thrones," a hugely costly enterprise, paid off as a global hit, and Amazon expects to be in on the action. And maybe other streamers as well. Craig Erwich, Hulu's senior vice president for original programing, was asked about controlling owner Disney mulling international expansion for the service.
"It's something that's under consideration," Erwich said.