Ah, the TCA tour. It comes twice a year no matter how many networks complain that it’s too expensive or too much trouble. Every now and then, a big media company sits it out (This time it was Turner). But like clockwork, most of the big names in the TV biz ante up and play ball. This year was no exception, as the tour that just ended on Sat gave critics a relatively comprehensive look at the shows coming up on cable and broadcast—as well as the usual opportunity to grill showrunners, directors, writers and of course stars who make it all possible. It’s a symbiotic process: TV writers get access; Networks consolidate availability of their talent and execs into a compressed time period. The nets secretly love the TCA tour—even as they grouse about its cost and heavy lifting. Or at least they learn to love it.
 
For CableFAX, the tour has become a bit more complicated than in the past, mainly because so many big media companies now feature their cable shows during the broadcast portion rather than place those sessions into the cable-only block run deftly by CTAM. That block, which this year was only two days on Fri and Sat, featured net groups like Discovery, Rainbow and MTVN as well as one-offs like HBO and Nat Geo (actually a two-off with Nat Geo Wild in the mix) while the broadcast block included many big cable names. For example, CBS now features Showtime during its larger two-day block and this year let the premium net share an entire day with The CW. NBCU integrated its cable nets into its one-day broadcast session. And Fox Bcstg incredibly devoted an entire 2nd day of its schedule to FX. Each of those sessions were outside the traditional cable block. So it’s difficult for us to brave the entire tour, which this year ran a shorter but still marathon 12 days if you count PBS’ two-day block smack dab in the middle. But as our CableFAX Daily subs know, we extended our usual stay in order to catch more of the cable panels.
 
In terms of an overall impressions, the shows that nets chose to showcase suggests that the reality genre remains strong—yet smart scripted dramas and comedies continue to grow as well despite often higher production costs. Some nets, such as FX, have rejected reality altogether and chosen instead to focus solely on well-produced scripted fare. The new “Terriers” looks promising. And of course the returning “Sons of Anarchy” continues to build even if it failed to grab any Emmy nominations (The cast had some choice words on that front during the “Sons” session, and frankly many of the critics agreed with the sentiment: Sons should have been nominated. Period). Meanwhile, MTV orchestrated an audacious entrance for its “Jersey Shore” hit reality show cast even while vowing to put on more scripted fare like its new “Teen Wolf” and the critically acclaimed “The Hard Times of RJ Berger,” which just got picked up for a 2nd season. As for Starz, the net seems poised under Chris Albrecht to eventually give HBO and Showtime a good run for their money as it continues to invest in big projects like the “Spartacus” franchise and its new “Camelot” epic starring Joseph Fiennes. Of course, Showtime and HBO both have increasingly strong slates these days. Much buzz surrounded HBO’s new series “Boardwalk Empire,” Martin Scorsese’s take on the roaring ‘20s on Atlantic City during prohibition—along with the usual mob-fueled antics one might expect from a Scorsese drama. Add Steve Buscemi as the lead, and this one looks promising. And it’s nice to see the increasingly robust competition between Discovery and Nat Geo, both of which showcased wonderful nature-oriented shows as well as broader news/info/reality fare (The excellence of both Discovery’s “First Life with David Attenborough” and Nat Geo’s “Great Migrations”—both premiering this fall—seemed to impress critics).
 
AETN’s panels also proved that the “reality” genre can mean many things—and remains ripe for innovation. Its docu-series “Brad Meltzer’s Decoded” tries to examine hidden symbols and codes throughout history while “Top Gear” (based on the award-winning BBC series) takes a lighter look at automobiles with its eccentric hosts. But perhaps the most interesting take on the reality genre will be “Teach: Tony Danza,” which later this year will document the well-known actor’s attempt to teach in a Philadelphia public school—not for a few weeks or a couple of months while cameras were rolling… but for an entire school year. Danza’s voice cracked as he told critics about how much the experience meant to him, and he even showed off his yearbook picture to everyone during the gaggle after the panel. “Jersey Shore” this is not. And as an Italian-American, Danza got philosophical about the MTV hit. “I think shows like “Jersey Shore” make it harder on teachers, in general,” he said. “Every day I tell kids, ‘Good behavior will pay off. Promise. Good behavior will pay off.’ And then they go home and watch that show and say, ‘Wait a minute. Mr. Danza, you’re wrong. Bad behavior pays off’.”
 
TCA also lets TV writers witness the evolution and growth of certain nets. For example, Rainbow’s IFC has become a standout of sorts as the scrappy net with a “slightly off” sensibility continues to snag more big-name projects. On the heels of its incredible Monty Python reunion series last year, IFC showcased “Kids in the Hall: Death Comes to Town,” which brings together the Python-inspired sketch comedy troupe for a new series starting Aug 20. Also on IFC’s deck: “The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret,” which gives actor/writer/comedian David Cross (you’ll remember him from HBO’s “Mr Show”) a chance to foist his unique brand of cringe-inducing humor upon IFC’s hipster audience. In addition, it was nice to see indie stalwart Ovation run its first TCA panel, during which it presented a couple new shows—one (“Ghosts: Faces of a Vanishing World”) that follows a young photographer as he creates portraits of endangered tribes and cultures, and another (“The Scenic Route”) that explores “life’s treasures that lie just off the beaten track.” And BBC America continues to impress with gritty shows like “Luther” (Oct) and “Outcasts” (Dec) while also spinning off numerous shows to other nets through BBC Worldwide, most notably this year the aforementioned “Top Gear” (History) and “Torchwood,” which Starz will revamp as a new and more globally focused series in the summer of 2011.
 
As for parties and receptions, TCA always gives critics, execs and talent a chance to mingle. Fox and ABC both threw star-studded parties, with the former once again inviting TV writers to party on the Santa Monica pier to imbibe cocktails and ride rollercoasters. Compatible? Sure. And Comcast Entertainment Group once again chose to bring its talent (including reality royalty The Kardashians) to a courtyard reception at the Beverly Hilton rather than hold formal sessions during the tour. As one rep explained it, it’s just easier to make everyone available to critics in a casual setting rather than pick and choose shows to feature during the tour. Different strokes, etc… but it seems to work pretty well for Comcast. Besides, it’s hard not to enjoy a long conversation with Alison Haislip, who has been doing a bang-up job filling in for Olivia Munn on G4’s “Attack of the Show” (Munn is a new correspondent on Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show” and will also star in a new NBC sit-com). If Munn decides to leave, Haislip has our vote as permanent co-host. Meanwhile, hats off to BBC America, which threw the final “wrap party” for critics on Sat night complete with a British Beer bar set up at the Beverly Hilton pool and patio. A good time was had by all—especially since critics and admittedly the BBC America staff was ready to blow off some steam after another long tour. Until next time, peace out.
 
(Michael Grebb is executive editor of CableFAX Daily).

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