With a few exceptions mostly on the cable side (FX, Nickelodeon, Showtime), the networks kept the summer Television Critic’s Assn (TCA) press tour that wrapped Friday light on announcements. The event isn’t making much news anymore to focus on its main purpose – showcasing new shows. Mostly those that didn’t make it to Comic-Con, which has been stealing much of the TCA summer’s buzz for the past couple of years as the first choice for TV networks and studios to unveil some of their most-talked-about new series. After TCA trimmed its length from three weeks to two over the last decade, the days are often packed with panels. And those panels are followed by reporters sprinting to the stage for the “scrum” – the unofficial name for the crush of TV journalists that always gathers around the panelists afterward to get the real story. (Which kinda makes you wonder why we don’t just skip the panel and go straight to the scrum?) A long TCA tradition, these huddles no longer produce explosive stories like former ABC exec Steve McPherson’s “Be a man” challenge to NBC’s Ben Silverman at the 2007 summer tour. Then again, CBS’ Nina Tassler prompted laughs when she used the scrum to assess her former sitcom star Charlie Sheen’s new FX series Anger Management: “Not my cup of tea.” Scrum or not, a few news stories managed to infiltrate this summer’s TCA. Here’s a breakdown by network and in order of appearance at TCA:
PBS – PBS stations in underserved areas “could go dark” if federal funding is slashed, warned president and CEO Paula Kerger. The very idea of de-funding educational programming pushes more people’s buttons than Downton Abbey spoilers. This always-heated issue got a little hotter just before TCA when Republicans in Congress proposed zeroing out PBS funding by 2015. Still even with such dire financial predictions, it’s never completely serious business at TCA. Hugh Bonneville ripped open his shirt to reveal a “Free Bates” T-shirt at a freewheeling panel with Downton stars. Martha Stewart confessed to eating an In-N-Out burger while making the perfect omelet to promote her new show Martha Stewart’s Cooking School. (Most surprising visitor to her event? Documentarian Ken Burns. Will his next project be The Salad Bowl?) And, at the panel promoting the special Pioneers of Television, Rachel Ward said she virtually quit acting after bad reviews for her 1983 miniseries The Thorn Birds. One veteran journalist reminded Ward that, some 30 years ago, producer Stan Margulies had criticized Ward as a “4” on the acting scale.
FOX – American Idol was the newsmaker of the Fox TCAs. Is Mariah Carey joining? (Yes, though, in diva fashion, she kept Fox entertainment president Kevin Reilly squirming onstage with a cell phone in hand for almost a minute before she finally answered his call.) Is Jennifer Lopez leaving? (Yes). The latter created some confusion Monday morning, with Idol executive producer Nigel Lythgoe sounding hopeful that Lopez could return, saying in a panel for So You Think You Can Dance that she was only “99% sure” she was leaving the show. Minutes later, Fox’s entertainment president Kevin Reilly shut the door on a potential Lopez return, saying he was “100% sure” Lopez was out.
Idol news almost overshadowed Reilly’s ratings comments during his executive session. Fox won the 2011-12 season in adults 18-49 for an eighth consecutive time despite declining Idol ratings, but Reilly decided to manage expectations for next season by saying that “we may not win the season this year,” pointing out that CBS will have both the NFL’s Super Bowl and AFC Championship Game. “But I can tell you at the very least it will be close, “ Reilly added.
NBC – Top Story: Broad Comedy Returns
His predecessor Jeff Zucker was infamously “managing for margins.” But NBC chief Bob Greenblatt made it clear that strong ratings do matter to the network on his watch. NBC plans to introduce more comedies with broader appeal than that of critical darlings Parks & Recreation, Community and 30 Rock. “It’s kind of an evolving comedy brand,” NBC’s entertainment president Jennifer Salke said at the network’s executive session. As part of the evolution, Community is being banished on Friday. Sans creator Dan Harmon, who was fired in May (he has since made two rich script deals), fans “will get the same show they’ve loved from the beginning,” Greenblatt promised.
The new “broader” comedy additions: The New Normal, Guys With Kids, Go On and Animal Practice. The New Normal is about a gay couple expanding their family via a surrogate mother. For anyone who follows the family struggles of ABC Modern Family couple Mitch and Cam, this idea is normal, but not exactly new. Animal Practice stars a monkey, whose preferences should come in handy since NBC has decided to trade quirky humor for the banana peel.
ABC – Modern Family Feud
There was no Modern Family panel at TCA. But the hit comedy still loomed large over the proceedings after we broke the story on Tuesday that cast members had skipped a table read as a result of unsettled salary dispute. As expected, everybody eventually came back to work with enough money to buy a new dress or tux for the Emmy Awards. But the standoff made for a very uncomfortable ABC executive session on Friday morning, with president Paul Lee spending half of the time deflecting questions about the status of renegotiations, which ended with a deal in the middle of ABC’s all-star party that night, giving attending Modern Family co-creators Steve Levitan and Christopher Lloyd an extra reason to get a drink.
Among other topics addressed by Lee at the network’s exec session, he reaffirmed ABC’s commitment to developing more multicamera comedies. Still, when ABC recently picked up Rebel Wilson’s multi-camera CBS pilot, the first thing the network did is to convert it to single-camera.
CBS – Top Story: Proceeding With Procedurals
Cheeky CBS entertainment president Nina Tassler arrived carrying a large plush monkey to make light of NBC parading primate Animal Practice star Crystal. The move brought back another TCA tour tradition – the use of props by executives, like NBC’s Jeff Zucker wearing a bulletproof vest in 2001 to face criticism over Fear Factor or ABC’s communications chief Kevin Brockman walking out with a big stuffed elephant symbolizing the “elephant in the room” subject of Steve McPherson’s ouster a few days prior.
For CBS, a plush human corpse might have made more sense for the network known for crime hits named with more letters than a Sesame Street alphabet lesson (the NCIS and CSI franchises). And they’re adding more: Elementary, an updating of Sherlock Holmes, and the period drama Vegas. CBS’ sibling the CW is adding procedurals too, Emily Owens M.D. and Beauty and The Beast.
But while procedurals are likely to remain network cash cows, they seem to be a dirty word for producers at TCA as most of them claimed their shows are anything but. Elementary writer/executive producer Rob Doherty said procedurals are “not his bag” and that the show would focus on character. Kathy Conrad, exec producer of Vegas, said she was glad CBS wasn’t putting Vegas in the “procedural bucket.” Jennie Snyder Urman, writer/executive producer of Emily Owens M.D., said the CW is trying to “expand the brand” into procedurals but this one is as much a family story as a traditional medical series whose main purpose is diagnosing a medical case. Even the undisputed king of procedurals, Law & Order boss Dick Wolf insisted that his new series Chicago Fire isn’t a “fire of the week” procedural. He described instead as a “platinum drama” in the tradition of Hill Street Blues.
FX – Top Story: The Terrible Twosome
FX president John Landgraf seemed like the man of the hour on Saturday when he came out swinging with a barrage of programming announcements, including a Louie and BrandX renewals. But he was quickly overshadowed by two of FX’s leading men — Charlie Sheen and Brand, who gave casual TCA style a new meaning — plaid Bermuda shorts and sockless black shoes (Sheen) and bare feet, torn jeans, long hair and beard and strings of shimmering beads (Brand). Another thing Brand left home besides shoes — filter, as hespoke candidly from everything, from Charlie Sheen, Sarah Palin and comedians to homophobia and the consumption of chicken.
HBO – Runner-up: Aaron Sorkin Addresses Newsroom’s Writing Staff Firings Rumors
At the panel on HBO’s Newsroom, no one asked about recent reports that creator Aaron Sorkin had canned most of his writing staff after his new series received very mixed reviews for its freshman season. Instead, Sorkin brought the issue up himself. “The writing staff was not fired, OK? It is a fantastic group of men and women to come to work with.” Sorkin failed to mention that two writers were indeed let go but other than that, appeared sincere.
TCA’s Most Exposed
Stars generally go to TCA to be seen but no one was more ubiquitous this year than the Palins and Crystal the monkey. Sarah and Todd Palin basked in attention at the NBC party after Todd sat on a panel for his new reality series Stars And Stripes. A couple of days later, their daughter Bristol took the stage as a contestant in the upcoming all-star edition of ABC’s Dancing With The Stars where she produced some bizarre sound bites, like explaining why she signed on for the show with “God provides opportunities like this” and stating that “I am not a homophobic.” Sarah Palin also inspired another of this TCA’s most memorable quotes from Russell Brand. “She’s popular because people want to fuck her, don’t they? That’s why they tolerate the other stuff.”
And then there is the Capuchin monkey Crystal from the new NBC comedy Animal Practice. She dominated NBC’s TCA day with showings at the session for the show and at the party. She then inspired Tassler’s stuffed monkey stint and even sparked a controversy during TCA when NBC aired a promo for Animal Practice with her as a gymnast right after Bob Costas’ comments about Gabby Douglas being the first African American gymnast to win an individual all-around gold medal.
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