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Networks’ content at TV critics press tour random at best

Baker Red, a rescue pit bull, sits on Tia Torres, left, and Villalobos parolee Earl Moffett during the Pit Bulls & Parolees panel at the 2014 Television Critics Association Summer Press Tour on Wednesday.


What do self-proclaimed hillbillies, cuddly pit bulls, wunderkind performers, Jersey Shore's The Situation, naked survivalists and Harry Potter have in common? The biannual Television Critics Association press tour is well under way at the Beverly Hills Hilton Hotel in Los Angeles, and the content that networks have presented so far has been as random as the personalities of the U.S. and Canadian critics in attendance.

The 15-day tour kicked off with press conferences from cable networks such as National Geographic, Discovery Channel and BBC America. Each attempted to win the crowd with swag bags, cocktails and free food, with each presenter setting the mood via stage props, sizzle reels and "winning" ratings stats that resulted in more than a few glazed peepers.

There were plenty of animals on hand for friends of the furry folk; pit bull Baker Red clambered onto star Tia Torres's lap during the Pit Bulls & Parolees conference, licking the rescuer's face and slobbering into the microphone to cooing critics. Marginally cuter was the 10-week- old kitten NatGeo brought out, which the TCA mic guy adopted postsession. It was one-tenth the size of the mountain lion featured during the Dr. K and the Exotics panel. "Cosmos" stayed with its handler in the corner of the stage before someone determined the animal wasn't in the mood to mingle with critics and had to leave before the tour became a real-life version of When Animals Attack!. A baby raccoon, a rabbit and a cockatoo also added liveliness to the day, as did a four-course surprise "snack" promoting Eat: The Story of Food, which featured shrimp and sent one critic running from the room with hives.

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In terms of live talent, Daniel Radcliffe made an appearance via satellite from New York, where he's currently starring in Broadway's The Cripple of Inishmaan. Although he was there to talk about the second season of his Ovation series, A Young Doctor's Notebook and Other Stories, the conference took place mere hours after J.K. Rowling's release of the updated Harry Potter article. Zealous Potter fans quickly turned the line of questioning to the subject; Radcliffe seemed to be holding back a smirk when he explained he hadn't read the story and probably wouldn't want to reprise the role at this point in his career. The 24-year-old's co-star, Jon Hamm, was originally scheduled to attend too, but at the last minute sent his regrets and therefore escaped the embarrassment of being outshone by a fictional wizard.

Unknown talent also splashed the tour with colour. The obvious question – "Why?" – was posed to fully clothed Naked and Afraid panelists, who assured the crowd they are survivalists at heart and the show was their ultimate challenge. A 12-year-old cellist and a 12-year-old soul singer kicked off one morning with performances that left people forgetting to throw all their thoughts on Twitter, but reporters recovered by the time Hillbilly Blood – a show about people who build useful items out of junk – took the stage. The crowd homed in on star Herbert (Cowboy) Coward's role in Deliverance four decades ago, hoping the half-hearted questions wouldn't cause another awkward silence like they did during the Gunslingers panel, when a man in a cowboy hat filled it by singing about Wyatt Earp and enlisted some of the older members in a cringe-inducing sing-along.

Another cringe-worthy appearance came courtesy of Mike (The Situation) Sorrentino, who was there alongside Canadian Alan Thicke to discuss their respective reality shows on TVGN, The Sorrentinos and Unusually Thicke. The informal event took place over lunch, so critics wandered over between bites of pasta, pizza and salad. Sorrentino could have arrived straight from a Le Chateau for men ad thanks to his teal shirt and vest, which he shed hours later when he displayed ripped muscles poolside. As for Thicke, he made a day out of it when he returned later on that night for Hallmark's "Northpole Christmas Celebration" gala dinner.

The Northpole was actually a rented Beverly Hills mansion consisting of a dining room with a see-through floor to the pool below, a bowling alley in the basement and several eye-popping pieces of art, including a few Warhols (there were two classic Campbell's cans), a Lichtenstein and a Picasso. Probably in hopes of avoiding any potential insurance issues, the dinner itself was served on the back lawn under a giant Christmas tree, with a half-dozen family-style buffet tables offering turkey and roast beef, chestnut stuffing, mashed spuds and an array of roasted vegetables that actors such as Andie MacDowell, Kevin Sorbo, Jon Voight and Connie Britton helped to consume. As for Thicke, he exited before dessert, proving that even one of TV's nicest dads could only handle so many critics in one day.

Not to be outdone, BBC America threw a fancy shindig of their own and rented out the Petit Ermitage rooftop Butterfly Bar in West Hollywood, where critics gorged on lamb, lobster and other carb-free fare alongside a rented mermaid who posed for pictures by the pool, a tree gnome and a woman with a giant butterfly plastered over her eyes, who sat awkwardly in the corner all night. She might as well have been sleeping, as many of the reporters in attendance looked like they were ready to do themselves.

The TCA Summer Press Tour continues.

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