The ATX Television Festival was held from June 6th to 9th in Austin, Texas. This annual weekend celebrates the medium with panels, screenings and events involving executives, writers, actors, critics and reporters. But the most memorable aspect of the festival is its primary focus on the fans.
Founded eight years ago by Emily Gipson and Caitlin McFarland, ATX (shorthand for “a television experience”) is a meeting place for fans and industry members. “That first year, we said a thesis that turned out to actually be true: Friday Night Lights fans were just as rabid as Firefly fans, they just didn’t have a place to go,” McFarland said. Following the formation of an advisory board and Kickstarter campaign, they worked hard to provide that place.
Gipson explained the weekend’s programming as “a third past, a third present, a third future, and then half fan, half industry. We try and balance genres, we try and balance entertainment and education.”
Notable “educational” topics in this year’s lineup included TV’s portrayal of grief and mental health, along with onscreen representation of women, Muslims and the middle class.
“At our core we want every conversation to be positive and hopeful, but we want to tackle the hard issues as well,” Gipson said. “So there is definitely a balance of that, but we’re all TV fans. Let’s geek out over a show together.”
There was plenty to geek out over at this year’s fest. Screenings included current series like The Good Place, Bless This Mess, Yellowstone, and the upcoming HBO drama Euphoria. Panels were held on Netflix series Atypical and One Day at A Time. Cast reunions included Greek, The League and Veronica Mars (with eight new episodes dropping on Hulu this July).
Though I’m a massive television fan and have attended the festival in the past, I’m a reporter by nature. I work in the third person and try to remove myself from the events I’m covering or promoting (even using the pronouns “I” and “me” right now feels completely foreign, like the keys on my keyboard are judging me for even typing from my own perspective). I attended this year’s festival as a press member to report on women in television for my day job. But ATX is such a welcoming environment, built around fans and their passion for TV, it’s difficult to remain objective. The enthusiasm of the weekend is contagious, and I found myself having trouble turning off the fangirl voice in my head.
The Terror executive producer Alexander Woo spoke about the intimacy of the medium during a panel about playwrights in writers’ rooms. “Television doesn’t let you off the hook. At the end of a stage play, they can go home and never think about it ever again. A TV show, at least one that’s done well…you think about it for the next seven days. You worry about those characters. You’re happy for them and you talk about them with your actual friends. And it becomes like they’re real, living, breathing people in your life and that’s an incredible power.”
Though I was listening to The Vampire Diaries creator Julie Plec speak about writing grief-stricken characters, instead of scribbling in my notebook like I usually do, I thought about Thursday nights in college, watching her show and taking comfort in its enriching metaphors about life, death and humanity. Listening to Retta talk about the power of female partnerships on her NBC show Good Girls, I thought of all the times my friends and I say “treat yo’self” in daily life.
Instead of pondering which Rob Thomas quote to use in my article about Veronica Mars, I was thinking about the time in my life when I discovered the show and learned valuable lessons from it. I got caught up in the idea that years ago, this man sitting on stage right in front of me had an idea in his head that reached me and helped me and made me laugh – and still does. That’s magic. It’s hard to be objective about magic.
“When a fan of this show comes up to me, I know something about them. I recognize their love and their passion for the show,” Veronica Mars star Enrico Colantoni said. “Other shows people say ‘hey, great show.’ When a marshmallow comes up to me, there is something about you that I know and I recognize. And it’s just a joy to know that somehow we’ve touched you beyond entertaining you.” ATX Festival provides a platform for fans and industry members to express that mutual joy about the medium we love. Television is personal, and so is the festival.
“We have this tagline: TV camp for grownups. And we realize you only understand that if you’ve been to the festival,” Gipson said. “It doesn’t really work as a marketing tool, because you don’t understand unless you’ve been here. So it’s really having people come experience it, because then they get what it is and what we’re trying to do and you can’t really always put that into words.”