ABC is a network in a very weird place. On the one hand, they have Dancing With The Stars, which was the number one show on television last fall, and Modern Family, which has Two And A Half Men in its sights on its way toward becoming the number one comedy on television. On the other hand, they have a whole batch of shows, from Grey’s Anatomy and Desperate Housewives to Detroit 1-8-7 and No Ordinary Family, that are either old and only getting older or quite clearly placeholders until the network can think of something better to toss on the air. This leads to the weird schizophrenia of the fact that the network announced it had picked up six series for another season yesterday, including Modern Family, Cougar Town, The Middle, Castle, Grey’s Anatomy, and Private Practice, but it still hasn’t picked up what remains one of its signature hits, no matter how old, in Desperate Housewives.
Also unstated is the fact that the network’s fortunes rise and fall based on whether Dancing With The Stars is on the air or not (though the move of Wipeout from summer to air before Grey’s Anatomy ended up boosting both show’s ratings fortunes last week). The Wednesday night bloc is turning out to be quite solid, with the undernoticed The Middle pulling in good numbers every week without anyone, well, noticing, and with the already established strength of Modern Family. But the lineup also features Better With You, a show that has gelled creatively somewhat but not nearly enough to be part of this lineup, and Cougar Town, a show that’s the definition of a cult show with an inflated viewership, thanks to a strong lead-in. (Indeed, one of the critics who isn’t a huge fan of the show here on tour asked ABC executive Paul Lee yesterday just why he was keeping with it after Modern Family when it routinely loses so much of that show’s lead-in.)
So if you’re someone who writes about TV, there’s a lot to approach with ABC. But the number one way to build your story might begin with Lee, who’s still new in the job, to the point where the current schedule he’s slowly making changes to at midseason isn’t even his schedule but was programmed by his predecessor. (Given what Lee said in his executive session yesterday, he may be willing to finally make the big, sweeping changes to the schedule ABC has needed for some time when he programs next fall’s lineup.) Lee is our favorite kind of executive: one who hasn’t done anything too egregious yet, so we can pretend that when he says he’s interested in building a “showrunner culture” or that he wants to take chances on shows other than cop, lawyer, or doctor shows because that’s the way you change television history, he means it. More likely than not, he’ll disappoint us, but we have little to no evidence he will yet, and hope springs eternal.
Lee’s executive session was the centerpiece of the ABC day almost by default. The network was done with presentations by early afternoon, and at least two of those presentations consisted entirely of us hanging out in the foyer with a guy dressed up as the giant red ball from Wipeout. For writers who live far, far away from this event and must pitch their editors on its usefulness as a news-gathering resource, it must have felt like a bust. Hell, it felt like a bust to me, and I’ve never been here before and live only about 30 miles away.
But, as mentioned, Lee said all of the right things, so we get the chance to swoon briefly over him. He thinks Cougar Town has developed a strong creative voice, and he likes supporting that. He wants to bring enough shows based on Marvel properties to the network to build a sort of televised Marvel franchise, starting with this fall’s prospective Hulk and Jessica Jones pilots. He’s intent on building a place where creative television writers can feel like they have the space to do their stuff. He liked the Dana Delany procedural Body Of Proof so much that he held it from an October debut and a Friday night death slot to launch at midseason and lead in to Grey’s Anatomy. (I have yet to see Body Of Proof, but some of my colleagues here loved it.) He’d like to open up a second night of comedies next fall, particularly if his new, three-hour comedy experiment, starting in February, fails miserably. And he brought us a clip from the episode of Modern Family airing Jan. 19, one that was screamingly funny, despite being based on some very, very old jokes. (Is there another kind of Modern Family clip?)
Lee was the exact opposite of the man who preceded him, ABC News head Ben Sherwood (the only news head, someone on my Twitter joked, who’s written a book that was the basis for a Zac Efron movie). Sherwood took long, long pauses between hearing the question and answering, pauses when it sort of seemed like he was going to bolt from the room. While both he and Lee spoke almost entirely in corporate buzzwords, Lee made those buzzwords seem sophisticated and kind of welcoming (perhaps because he has an awesome British accent). Sherwood, on the other hand, made them seem impenetrable, to the point where it was impossible often to figure out if he was actually engaging with our questions or avoiding them altogether.
And where Lee is new enough that we can pretend he gets it, that he’s that rare TV executive who’s on our side, like the mythical Brandon Tartikoff and Grant Tinker, we kind of know what to expect from Sherwood. When he suggested that sending Robin Roberts off to snowmobile with Sarah Palin and talk about whatever was on Sarah’s mind wasn’t letting Palin control the narrative of her particular story, it seemed laughably naïve. Couple that with the fact that ABC News’ Web site reported the death of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords this weekend, before having to retract that report (no matter how briefly it was up), and Sherwood seemed to embody all of the worst about the “get there first” TV news culture. At one point, he talked about how Giffords’ husband was on a plane, rushing to his ailing wife’s side, when he heard the reports that she had died, and he was forced to wonder how that man felt in that moment, a moment aided and abetted by his network. To be honest, it did seem like the thought had shaken Sherwood somewhat, but who can tell? He immediately went back to being impenetrable. (One nice announcement from Sherwood: He’s hoping to get more news documentaries like last summer’s very good Boston Med on the air, perhaps even in the regular season.)
Outside of PBS, TV networks are businesses. They’re not charities run to keep our favorite programs alive when they’re so lowly rated that they should probably be yanked. Their news divisions have a responsibility to report the story accurately and fairly, yes, but they also have a responsibility to their advertisers to make a program entertaining enough to draw in more eyeballs. (This would explain why ABC News relies so heavily on bland infotainment programs, like the silly and stupid What Would You Do, which probably could be handled by the entertainment division.) But there’s this growing sense in America, I think, on all sides of the aisle, that we’re tired of this, that prepackaged bullshit is as empty as it’s ever been, and it gets us no closer to the truth, whatever that may be. Where we can foist all of our hopes for what TV could be onto Lee (despite his professed love of, ugh, The Bachelor), Sherwood stands in for something that no longer seems to matter, no longer seems to have a natural place in the order of things. Perhaps unfairly, he becomes a scapegoat for a much larger problem, mostly because he bothered to show up.
Some quick hits:
—As mentioned, ABC really, really, really didn’t want to show us most of its new midseason shows. Well, it did. We’ve seen them, and they all had brief sessions at last summer’s press tour, but they didn’t want to bring them back or even bring back shows struggling in the ratings that the network seems happy with creatively, like Detroit 1-8-7, or bring back shows that have had more than their fair share of creative problems, like V. The network was trying to limit the funds it had to spend, and that meant a lengthy session trumpeting the launch of a new network, Disney Junior, that featured a performance by two guys dressed as pirates, one of whom didn’t even bother to pretend to play his guitar, instead flailing his arm wildly about like the animatronic guitar player in the Chuck E. Cheese band.
—This managed to make, again, pretty much by default, the one show presentation ABC did the most entertaining traditional panel of the day. Off The Map is not going to be a favored show of any of our readers, but for what it is—Grey’s Anatomy in the tropics—it has its moments, and it has a ridiculously winning cast, all of whom were there to charm our pants off. Zach Gilford fielded a number of questions about the differences between working in Austin for Friday Night Lights and Honolulu for Off The Map that were really just about our desire to talk about Friday Night Lights. Caroline Dhavernas (who is the greatest woman on Earth, and I will hear no objections) laughed about how, seemingly, even she doesn’t know how to pronounce her name. Creator Jenna Bans, the latest person to put out a show under Shonda Rhimes ever-growing creative empire, gave some answers that made it seem as if the show could possibly get more interesting from the pilot, even as we all kinda know it’s just going to be more sexy people having sex and performing medicine in the middle of nowhere. It wasn’t a great panel, but it had fun people on it, and sometimes, that’s enough.
—Sherwood, in talking about Jake Tapper, said the man has a “fantastic secret sauce.” Perhaps not the best word choice.
—The network also presented ABC Family’s Pretty Little Liars—a session I missed because of prior commitments but one I hear the ever-entertaining Dan Fienberg took over by asking the producers and cast numerous questions about the show’s icky predilection toward statutory rape—and Disney Channel’s Lemonade Mouth, some movie about some kids who form a wholesome band or something, in the truest Disney Channel tradition. The wholesome teens from the wholesome movie answered wholesome questions from teen magazine reporters (who attend TCA, it turns out) wholesomely. But there wasn’t much more to it than that.
—The day began with the network broadcasting the President’s called-for moment of silence for the victims of the Tucson shooting on the big TVs in the main room. If there’s ever been a moment seemingly more designed to remind everybody that what we do has very little bearing on many, many things out there, I’d like to see it.