As a rule it takes days for some network suit, producer or, more likely, bit of on-air talent to start throwing their weight around on stage at this semi annual confab of TV critics and networks.
But this year a record in the decades-old Press Tour was broken when, on the very first day, in the third Q&A session of this tour, a hissy fit happened — and unexpectedly what with it being a panel discussion about PBS election coverage rather than “Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.”
The Q&A had been unusually fun and lively, given that it was about election coverage. Many members of the TV Critics Association are not at their best during Q&A sessions about election coverage, feeling that if they wish to be happy and prosperous, it’s important they miss as many political debates as possible and focus instead on the comings and goings of Kim Kardashian and Ashton Kutcher.
But this, like we said, had shaped up as a particularly fun and lively chat, thanks in large part to the presence of the witty and charming Jeff Greenfield, who has had a long and illustrious career working for various television networks and, these days, is an anchor of PBS’s “Need to Know” program.
Witty and charming is not what critics have come to expect of PBS news anchors. Ernest is what they’ve come to expect from PBS News anchors. Humor-challenged too, maybe.
“I can remember 20 years ago in New Hampshire going to a coffee shop with one candidate, one voter, and 40 cameras. You know, it went up looking like a hostage tape. The poor guy was frightened,” Greenfield reminisced early on in the session.
Critics perked up like sun-parched wildflowers in a gentle rain.
“Pardon me for shielding my eyes, but if the lights were any brighter, I’d confess to the Lindbergh kidnapping,” Greenfield quipped a few minutes later, in re the bright lights scorching the stage.
Critics perked up some more.
“I hate the caucuses. I hate them. They’re fraudulent. They’re undemocratic. You can’t even vote at night if…you work the night shift. They extort money everywhere, from the Ames, Iowa, Straw Poll to the ethanol subsidy, and as the person who used to cover them in the winter, I want the process to begin in Hawaii,” Greenfield continued.
Critics beamed. Politics could be fun!
They chatted about the effect of super PACs on the Iowa results, the proliferation of debates, what’s up with GOP presidential hopeful Rick Perry, etc.
But, unnoticed by many, over at one end of the panel, “PBS NewsHour” anchor Ray Suarez mooned broodingly, looking like Hamlet.
And, as programming chief John Wilson was calling it a wrap, “Suarez gave voice to his unhappiness:
“John, do you think there’s anybody who might want to ask about what our programs are going to do for the rest of the year? I mean, this was interesting — I loved listening to Jeff Greenfield — but might anybody want to talk about news and public affairs and covering the election, which we all flew 3,000 miles here to do?”
That’s right — Suarez had dissed both the TV critics AND his colleague Greenfield, who looked surprised.
Then, over at the other end of the panel, “PBS NewsHour’s” Hari Sreenivasan, who’d been sitting like a bump on a log through the whole Q&A, apparently also brooding, began to snark:
“We could crowd source it on Twitter if you can’t come up with questions,” he sniffed at the crowd.
TV critics congealed in their chairs. Nothing makes TV critics feel so sheepish as being told their questions have not been up to the level of excellence that they, the talent on stage, have come to expect at junkets.
“Seriously, we meant to ask that — we just forgot,” one critic bleated back at Suarez and Sreenivasan.
“Jeff got us too excited,” the critic added, bravely throwing Greenfield under the bus.
Then, the critic asked obsequiously, “How are you restructuring your shows different to get more to the issues thus far?”
“Shall I begin?” Suarez simpered.
“Funny you should ask,” Greenfield joked.
Then, critics commended their souls to god and resigned themselves to their fate, and Suarez took off:
Earlier in our conversation, Jeff Greenfield mentioned the difference of trying to squeeze something really serious into a minute and 40 seconds and how he now is liberated and has the gift of time. And I think it’s easy to say that, but when you ask about some of the big questions that voters are going to be asking themselves, and the public is going to be asking the news business to cover in the coming six months, blah, blah, blah.
In recent weeks, we’ve seen this election come down to not an implicit, but an explicit argument in the country over what government is blah, blah, blah.
And to think that we’re going to be able to do it in one minute bites is just plain old wrong, blah, blah, blah.
Who do you think is going to give you a deeper, longer, more careful look at some of this stuff blah, blah, blah?
But need-to-know, instead of just saying, ‘Candidate X said regulation is burdensome,’blah, blah, blah.
And, so, the long day wore on.
Finally, Suarez began to wind down:
“That’s what the questions about regulation really boil down to, not abstract questions about losing five or 50 or 500 jobs here or there or it being more expensive to create a job, but how people live, who we are going to look to when we’re in trouble, and who is going to fix it. And this is a big, big thing,” he concluded, smiling broadly.
“Like he said,” said Greenfield.