PASADENA — In a sense, when you’re at TCA, you’ve reached hog heaven — at least the TV lover’s version of it.

Heck, you could be holed up in worse places than The Ritz-Carlton Pasadena, which looks more like Hearst Castle than a luxury hotel, and is located among palm trees in a quiet residential neighborhood whose income level makes the term ‘starter home’ a theoretical concept only. The weather? A humidity-free 80 degrees, with cloudless, mountain-filled horizons. Perfect for a dip in the fabulous Ritz pool (well, we can dream as we sit inside our room filing sundry assignments for CableFAX Daily and CableWorld).

It’s Monday night and TCA hasn’t started yet, but the calorie parade is in full swing. Critics beware: pace yourselves! Neophytes think TCA is about the best programming; perhaps, but critics do not live by screeners alone; frequently there must be pauses for nourishment, or something that passes for it. Already critics’ heavenly Ritz-Carlton beds, which are as soft as some of Larry King’s questions, are festooned with fine examples of network attempts at nutrition.

The History Channel has deposited a medieval-looking box filled with cookies, peanuts and dried fruit. Atop this small buffet is a small but menacing looking warrior, no doubt in accordance with Tuesday’s TCA session for “The Dark Ages,” which a handy postcard reminds critics. And the food is high quality stuff; the salted peanuts are “extra large gourmet Virginia peanuts” (we wouldn’t touch anything less). Grade: B+
 
By contrast, Turner’s tiny bag of Nam’s Bits chocolate chip cookies, left in a large white plastic sack, was disappointing. Sure, the bag of cookies sports a version of its clever TCM marketing campaign, featuring a shot of Elvis in “Jailhouse Rock” and reading: “When you have a prison record, that’s shady. When it goes platinum, that’s classic,” but still, we must deduct style points for inserting a miniscule amount of admittedly good cookies in a large plastic bag. Grade: C+

Late-night deliveries showed promise. Discovery is a perennial favorite on the critics’ culinary scene (critics still talk about the coolers they received stuffed with drinks, chips and cookies in summer 2003). Glad to report the initial replenishment of the David Zaslav era was not a disappointment. Although smaller than a cooler, Discovery obviously took a page from the book of Emmitt Smith, known to many as the winner of Dancing with the Stars, but whose first brush with fame was as a small, but densely muscled football star. Indeed Discovery’s basket was packed as tightly as one of Smith’s muscled calves, filled with 4 different chocolate bars from Ghirardelli, chewy gold bears, lime tea cookies, dried fruit, gourmet almonds from California (nice touch) and two Nature Valley granola bars, seemingly misplaced among their more sugary friends. A few phone calls and we had this one figured out—a few prickly fitness freaks at Discovery Health Channel insisted on the granola bars. Grade: A- 

Hallmark Channel is usually a wildcard (no pun intended) at TCA. Sometimes it presents panels, other times it merely hosts parties and sends critics food. But with Henry Schleiff at the helm, you can be sure it will all be done with New York style. The opening room drop of the Schleiff tenure included an attractive red boxed set of Hallmark’s upcoming films (nice for journalism, but where’s the food?), a warm note explaining and previewing Hallmark’s TCA panels (great, but when do we eat?) and then the kicker, very much in NY style: a bow-topped bag containing a copy of the musical version of Phantom of the Opera, which will be shown on Hallmark later this year, a Phantom tee-shirt and a small box containing a thick piece of chocolate (yes!) in the shape of a heart. Oh, Henry! You phantom, you’re all heart. Grade: B+     CableWorld Editor Seth Arenstein is covering the Television Critics Association January press tour (or TCA, as the association and its semi-annual preview of upcoming broadcast and cable network TV shows is called) that kicked off Jan. 9th in Pasadena for CableFAX Daily, CableWorld Magazine and Cable360.net.

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