ABC at TCA: Bitches Abound; "Cougar Town" Producers and Cast Take Matters into their Own Hands

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Ed Martin Live from the 2012 Winter Television Critics Association Tour

The most interesting event to date at the Winter 2012 Television Critics Association tour turned out not to be an official TCA activity at all. Monday night, Cougar Town executive producer Bill Lawrence rented out the bar at the Langham Huntington Hotel, the home of this tour, and invited TCA members to come by for drinks, hors d'oeuvres and casual on-the-record conversation about the many mysteries surrounding ABC's treatment this season of his show.

Interestingly, ABC had nothing to do with this unofficial event, even though it took place during the network's portion of the tour. The night was open and Lawrence seized the opportunity. (For the record, ABC was perfectly okay with letting Lawrence sponsor the evening as long as the network didn't have to pay for it.) The bar was packed for over two hours with dozens of reporters who weren't there simply for the free drinks and food. Rather, it was a rare opportunity to record lively interviews with virtually everyone responsible for a single series without the usual interference by network or personal publicists.

To say the evening was a huge success would be to understate its impact. (Producers of other series who feel that they aren't being particularly well treated by their networks ought to take note.) Lawrence was accompanied by his fellow producers and the entire cast of Cougar Town, including its lead actress Courteney Cox, one of those high-profile television personalities whose time with the press at previous TCA tours when she was promoting series such as Friends and Dirt was always somewhat limited and very carefully controlled. Turns out she's a pleasure to talk to when she isn't surrounded by professional handlers. Who knew?

The Cougar Town story is increasingly strange and fascinating. It is owned by ABC, it earned respectable ratings during its first two seasons, it steadily improved creatively throughout those two seasons, it has enjoyed ongoing critical acclaim and media coverage and it's a whole lot better than many of the comedies ABC has favored this season, including Man Up, Work It, Don't Trust the B---- in Apt. 23 and Happy Endings. And yet it wasn't included on the network's schedule last fall, it had been scheduled for a December return but was then pulled, its episode order was cut from 22 to 15 and ABC will say only that Cougar Town will be back on its air "in March."

Monday's unprecedented event was part of a grassroots movement Lawrence has organized that involves sending cast members from Cougar Town around the country to show episodes from the yet-to-be seen third season at fan gatherings. Never has a group of producers and actors worked so hard at keeping a show alive.

Tellingly, despite their frustrations at ABC's handling of their show, the producers and stars of Cougar Town in the hotel bar Monday night never actually said anything negative about ABC, other than to express their disappointment with the treatment their show has received. They were consummate professionals throughout.

Unfortunately, ABC Entertainment Group President Paul Lee didn't offer much insight into the Cougar Town situation during his official executive session yesterday morning. He claimed that when the show finally does return to ABC the network will "bring a big strong message that we love the show." Lee added that he would eventually like to put together "a group of irreverent young adult comedies" that would include Cougar Town, Happy Endings and Don't Trust the B---- in Apt. 23.

Lee had little else to say, mainly because ABC's fall season has largely been very successful, with the launches of four new series that appear to have traction (or, as Lee likes to say, to be "sticky") -- Revenge, Once Upon a Time, Last Man Standing and Suburgatory – and the establishment on Wednesday of a true must-see lineup of shows. Lee noted that his has been "the only broadcast network that grew" in the 10 o'clock hour, "which is good for the whole of ABC."

There was an interesting question during the session with Lee about the use of the word "bitch" in the titles of two ABC shows: Don't Trust the B---- in Apt. 23 and GCB. (The letters in the latter once stood for Good Christian Bitches but now stand for Good Christian Belles.) Why build a word into the title of a broadcast show that for a number of reasons cannot remain in the title of a broadcast show? (CBS did the same thing last season when it developed S--- My Dad Says.) Lee didn't have much to say about it, other than to suggest that if Don't Trust the B---- in Apt. 23 succeeds it will likely come to be known simply as Apt. 23 and that he hopes the title GCB will "pique people's interest." But it raises an interesting point for network and studio executives: Why play so fast and loose with silly and vague titles for shows? A bad or vague title can grievously compromise the perception of a series. Just ask Bill Lawrence about Cougar Town.

Lee also said he wasn't concerned about the vague quality of the title GCB, which reveals nothing about what the show might actually be, and compared it to CBS's decision years ago to run with CSI. The comparison didn't really work, however, because that show was initially (and heavily) promoted with its full title, the self-explanatory CSI: Crime Scene Investigation. The rest is history.

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