So the cable-only portion of TCA doesn’t begin until Fri, but many larger media companies now mix and match their broadcast and cable properties earlier in the tour. So we flew out a few days early, braving those breezy, humidity-free, 70-degree L.A. days to bring you the latest dish. It’s grueling, but we’re willing to make these sacrifices for our dedicated readers.
Even in this early stage, a few interesting insights with cable implications:
Paul Lee’s Next Act…
Yes, we all know that former ABC Family chief Paul Lee has moved on to broader pastures with his ascension to pres of ABC Entertainment Group. But he said he won’t necessarily ABC Family-ize the broadcast net, noting that “realistically, they are very, very different networks.” He made those comments Sun during a one-on-one TCA session put together at the last minute, as he had just taken over ABC some 36 hours before he hit the stage. In fact, he noted that his wife was bit peeved he had to ditch his vacation to be with the critics, who mostly peppered him with questions about whether he’ll significantly change the direction of ABC. But his success at ABC Family formed an undercurent of the friendly grilling.
Lee took a fond view of his cable experience, noting that while at ABC Family he had to “channel his inner female teen” and now must consider a much wider demo at ABC. “In cable, you probably want to one thing and do it very, very well,” he said. “Broadcast is a much, much bigger canvas.” That said, he left the door open for bring more an ABC Family feel to the big ABC net, noting that 51% of ABC’s 18-49 demo is made up of Millennials (ABC Family’s core audience). And he also said his cable experience at both ABC Family and BBC America taught him to use a combination of research and his gut to pick shows—a strategy he’ll continue at ABC. “A deep gut is critical in this job,” he said. “Stories are all about emotions.” Lee noted that research can always be unpredictable. For example, he said BBC’s runaway hit “The Office” tested horribly while he never even tested “Secret Life of the American Teenager” for ABC Family—and that became a huge hit anyway. But he said a major difference between cable and broadcast remains that shows on broadcast must connect with viewers more quickly to survive. “There’s no question that this is a more difficult job than ABC Family,” he concluded.
While the cable content universe certainly mourns the loss of Lee (and speculation remains rampant about who will take over ABC Family at the top of its game), it’s certainly worth noting that the broadcast nets—which continue to lose viewers to more tightly focused and scrappy cable nets—seem more than enamored with execs from the cable side of the aisle. Before Lee, there was NBCU’s elevation of Jeff Gaspin—and we all have watched other cable transplants getting “stolen back” to broadcast. Could the brain drain that for so many years has benefited cable be starting to flow the other way? Time will tell. Lee certainly has his work cut out for him, as his reign will follow the controversial exit of ABC’s ex-pres Steve McPherson. Cable’s proud, Paul. Knock ‘em dead.
TCA Awards Recap…
Everyone has by now learned the winners of the TCA Awards, which included big nods to HBO’s “The Pacific,” Discovery Channel’s “Life,” Nick Jr.’s “Yo Gabba Gabba” and AMC’s “Breaking Bad.” (On the broadcast side, Fox’s “Glee” swept many categories). But here’s some color from the event itself, which took place Sat night at the Beverly Hilton:
The biggest celeb in the room was Tom Hanks, who along with Steven Spielberg exec produced “The Pacific” and spent most of his acceptance speech for winning “Outstanding Achievement in Movies, Miniseries and Specials” by poking fun of the critics and even derided the award as a cheap piece of plastic (it was, but it’s the thought that counts, Tom). He also was the first of several to drop the F Bomb, looking around the room from the podium and declaring, “This is the last time I’m f—ing dressing up for you.” Then he got serious, drawing parallels between WWII veterans coping with mental wounds and the similar situation now faced by troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. Hanks also lauded HBO’s willingness to “pony up a lot of dough… so God bless them,” and he personally thanked Chris Albrecht, during whose HBO tenure originally greenlit Hanks’ and Spielberg’s “Band of Brothers” WWII mini-series that led to The Pacific.
Meanwhile, AMC’s “Breaking Bad” showrunner Vince Gilligan said he often thinks about the basic premise of his show—a man dying of cancer cooks crystal meth to make money for his family—and wonders how it has been so successful. “I can’t even believe this thing is on the air,” he said. A couple of light moments: Nick Jr. brought out actors dressed as “Yo Gabba Gabba” characters to help give an acceptance speech for winning “Outstanding Achievement in Youth Programming.” And the entire room of critics sang “Happy Birthday” to Rico Rodriguez, one of the stars of ABC hit “Modern Family,” which won “Outstanding Achievement in Youth Programming.” He turned 12 on Sat.
Interestingly, Hanks and other big-name talent like lead actor Bryan Cranston of “Breaking Bad” stuck around to chat up critics for a good hour after the awards event ended. Cranston told one gaggle that he’s glad the TCA event is low-key and doesn’t include a red carpet extravaganza. “That’s like working,” he said. And talking to a bunch of reporters for an hour isn’t?
Retrans… What Else is New?
Just as Fox Bcstg execs were fielding their 4,311th press question about the “American Idol” judge controversy on Mon, we decided to change the subject by asking about retrans. What a fun way to bring down the room. In any event, no big surprises from the Fox brass. Peter Rice, chmn entertainment at Fox Networks Group, said Fox will continue its aggressive retrans stance as execs view such retrans fees as part of the “ecosystem” necessary to fund programming and operations. “It is a big part of our strategy,” he said, noting that TV shows for a broad audience are “incredibly expensive, and the consumer is, we feel, paying for that through their cable subscription. A lot of the time, they’re not really aware that they’re not paying for the broadcast part of that, and we feel that a fair way for us to be compensated is for us to be paid by the cable operators.” He then mentioned the CBS-Comcast deal that had just been signed that morning and declared, “I think it’s just going to be part of the ecosystem of television.” Yep. In case you had any doubts.
Big Brother is Watching You
The CBS hit “Big Brother,” now in its 12th year, shares with MTV’s “The Real World” franchise the distinction of putting the whole “let’s trap a bunch of people somewhere and see what happens” concept on the map. Yes, that’s a concept. And while not a cable show, Big Brother has influenced an entire generation of cable reality conceits (At least that was our justification for tagging along for a set visit to the CBS lot). The basic takeaway: These shows require a massive infrastructure. In the case of Big Brother, hundreds of people work literally 24-7 monitoring the show’s contestants as they survive in a fake house constructed within a CBS studio. Ubiquitous 2-way mirrors monitor the contestants’ every move (including “security” cameras in the bathrooms; producers claim they never look at them unless someone goes missing or is getting into mischief… use your imagination). Perhaps most interesting was the elaborate camera dolly track behind the mirrors. It allows cameras to float along rails that enable steady, gliding shots from many angles—all unseen by the contestants. Big Brother, Real World and Survivor really launched the reality craze. So it was interesting to get a view of how it all began. And yes, again… that’s our excuse!
(Michael Grebb is executive editor of CableFAX and obviously enjoying L.A.)