How ATX Television Festival brought the stars to your couch
Editor's note: This story was originally published on June 3, 2020.
It kinda seems like a television festival should always involve sweatpants and cushions, no?
Instead of throwing its annual celebration out in the real world amid the coronavirus pandemic, ATX Television Festival shifted gears for 2020. A virtual fest called ATX TV … from the Couch! will run June 5-7 and feature programming familiar to fans, like panel conversations with TV talent and sneak peek screenings. The entire thing will be free to view on the ATX Television Festival YouTube channel.
The festival’s founders, Caitlin McFarland and Emily Gipson, knew this year might look a little different once South by Southwest was canceled on March 6 over concerns about the pandemic.
Their first thoughts "were sadness and shock for South By and for the city,” McFarland says. “I remember a couple of years ago when Food and Wine Festival had to cancel because of rain. You just feel this pain for event organizers.”
McFarland and Gipson say they watched how other spring festivals in Austin and beyond responded before deciding what to do with their own event. One Friday in late March, McFarland brought up the idea of a virtual version of ATX Television Festival.
“Emily, now infamously, was like, ‘I have no interest in that,’” McFarland says.
But the next Monday, the pair came into work, looked at each other, and said, “We can’t happen, and we have to go virtual.”
“For us, it was do nothing or do something,” McFarland says. “And we're not really ‘do nothing’ people.”
It was a difficult decision to make. As Austin first started to lock down to prevent the spread of the virus, “you could maybe convince yourself that you might be allowed to gather in June, like it was legally allowed,” McFarland says. “But we couldn't get over the hurdle of emotionally asking people to get on planes or trying to plan it.”
The inspiration for a virtual event was homegrown: Luck Reunion. The annual music bash out at Willie Nelson’s Luck, Texas, ranch usually happens during SXSW, but after big events started falling like dominoes, Nelson and friends livestreamed a series of performances on March 19.
McFarland says a Luck performance by Lucinda Williams in particular gave her hope that a virtual fest could work: “So I'm in my living room, and Lucinda is in her living room. It's just her and a guitar player, the two of them. She's playing these songs, and it was the first time ever in my life I've watched something on my computer and felt connected and engaged — like Lucinda was in my living room. I described that to Emily, and I was like, ‘What makes more sense than talking about television in your living room?’”
Idea in place, the pair say their big-name TV partners agreed to participate immediately. Delayed production schedules, thanks to the pandemic, put a kink in some of their "first look“ programming, but new content opportunities arose, too.
One of ATX Television Fest’s biggest coups this year is a reunion of the cast of “Scrubs,” originally announced for the physical fest. The 2001-2010 hospital sitcom is a fan favorite, so it was big news when McFarland and Gipson landed stars Zach Braff, Donald Faison, Sarah Chalke, Judy Reyes, John C. McGinley and Christa Miller — as well as Bill Lawrence, the series’ creator. (Lawrence’s “Cougar Town” also will have its own fest event featuring cast members Miller and Busy Philipps. Sorry, no Courteney Cox on the lineup.)
“Bill Lawrence came to the very first physical festival in 2012,” McFarland says. “We've been in touch with him over all the years. He was on our advisory board for a while. We've always tried to get him back, and it just hasn't worked out. And so, this was going to be the year, doing a ‘Scrubs’ reunion.”
Lawrence had helped to arrange the original, physical reunion. The organizers say he was their first call when they started to assemble programming for the virtual festival. McFarland and Gipson still plan to hold an in-person festival in 2021, but they wanted to make sure that fans had a reason to tune into 2020’s online edition. All of the “Scrubs” participants said yes to the virtual hangout, and the festival founders say Lawrence gets the credit for pulling everyone together.
“We think it's pretty appropriate that if he was at our very first physical festival, that the next time he returns is our very first virtual festival,” McFarland says. “It just feels kind of poetic.”
Not everything felt right for a virtual festival, like gathering the cast members of “Parenthood” and “Friday Night Lights.” But McFarland and Gipson have assembled an impressive lineup for their first couch-bound fest. Some of the highlights include panels and events for:
• HBO and HBO Max shows like “Legendary,” “I May Destroy You,” “I’ll Be Gone In the Dark,” “Perry Mason,” “Room 104,” “Search Party” and “The Leftovers,” featuring stars like Megan Thee Stallion, Jameela Jamil, Michaela Coel, Matthew Rhys, Tatiana Maslany, John Lithgow, Mark Duplass, Natalie Morales, Alia Shawkat, John Early and more
• FX’s “Justified,” featuring talent like Graham Yost, Timothy Olyphant and Joelle Carter
• IFC’s “Sherman’s Showcase,” featuring John Legend, Diallo Riddle, Bashir Salahuddin and Mike Jackson
• Disney+’s “The Mandalorian,” featuring Jon Favreau, Rick Famuyiwa, Bryce Dallas Howard, Taika Waititi and more
• Pop TV’s “One Day at a Time,” featuring Justina Machado, Rita Moreno and more
• NBC/Peacock’s “New Amsterdam,” “OneChicago” franchise and “Psych 2: Lassie Come Home”; Hulu’s “Little Fires Everywhere”; Freeform’s “The Bold Type”; Starz’s “P-Valley”; National Geographic’s “Barkskins”; The CW’s “Nancy Drew”; and Showtime’s “Outcry” and “The Good Lord Bird”
They’ve also scheduled panels on issues like women in the TV world, gun safety, the state of the TV industry, Latinx stories, voter suppression and mental health and addiction storylines.
New for the virtual fest are what McFarland and Gipson are calling “interstitials,” or short-form programming slotted between the main events — surprises like one-on-one conversations, or guests making drinks, giving home tours or sharing what they’re watching on TV these days. Local production shop Arts+Labor helped out with those.
Gipson says viewers should catch the programming when it’s live. If you miss something, you may or may not see it released later as other online content like podcast episodes.
“The big thing is, really, for people to engage with it live while it's happening and be part of the community while it's going on, as opposed to just be like, ‘Oh, I'll just watch that later,’” Gipson says.
In effect, the festival dedicated to all things television has become a TV broadcast itself, which is pretty meta.
“It is funny. We keep having to remind ourselves of that,” McFarland says.
The biggest source of anxiety the first few weeks was finding someone who understood the technical side of running a broadcast, Gipson says. They ended up hiring a company called Bulldog, who will make sure the live YouTube stream runs as smooth as possible.
“I guess we're the showrunners,” McFarland says, “and they're the directors.”
While the festival founders are hoping things will be back to normal for a physical 2021 event, McFarland says it “would be tone deaf and naive to not consider it not happening.” ATX Television Festival is “small on purpose,” she says. Next year’s event might entail both physical and virtual spaces.
Gipson says she knows ATX Television Festival is relatively fortunate in the live events world. Some events have had to skip 2020 altogether during the pandemic, a crushing financial blow even for a giant like SXSW.
“Many are not going to survive this, because most live events are year to year,” Gipson says.
ATX Television Festival’s sponsors have supported them financially and with other resources, the pair say. TV networks still have shows to promote, “and this is a legit place to do it,” McFarland says.
The festival also is accepting “financial contributions of any size” through its Venmo account (@ATX-TV-Festival). ATX TV … from the Couch aims to support others affected by the pandemic, too. Viewers will see a donation option on the event’s YouTube stream, with proceeds going to nonprofit organizations like Direct Relief and the Actors Fund.
While staying inside during the pandemic, the festival founders have been catching up on TV shows, because of course they are. A little “Dead to Me” for McFarland, “Normal People” for Gipson, “Schitt’s Creek” for both. They both know the power of TV in tough times.
“One of the big things that we decided early on, as we pivoted — to use the word of the year, apparently — is that we wanted to be free and accessible,” McFarland says. “We didn't want to have to sell tickets. The opportunity here was to reach audiences that could never come to the physical festival. Right now more than ever, people are hurting, and we wanted to provide something.”