Pasadena, CA – ABC put together an excellent day at the Winter 2015 Television Critics Association tour – one that generated interest in new series while also giving critics and reporters time with the producers and stars of existing shows. In sum it was everything a network's day at a TCA tour should be.
When reporters are asked to spend an entire day in one room and remain interested in session after session for new and returning television shows, the overall success of the day has a lot to do with how well the network keeps everyone engaged. (It takes more than just trotting stars out on the stage.) ABC livened things up throughout, first with four cowboys working the room between sessions on behalf of the upcoming sitcom "Fresh off the Boat," in which a BBQ restaurant is prominently featured, then with a themed lunch tied to the same fictional restaurant, and later with a taped message from Tom Bergeron calling attention to the 25th anniversary of "America's Funniest Home Videos" featuring highlight clips from its impressive run.
In the time between the last press conference of the afternoon and the start of its evening party, ABC brought in award-winning composer Alan Menken to perform some of the original songs he has written for the new musical series "Galavant" along with songs from every classic Disney animated movie musical he has worked on. The experience of listening to this mini, one-of-a-kind concert was surprisingly emotional for critics – the young ones grew up on Menken's music, while the older ones have children who grew up with it. The cast of "Galavant" was in attendance, as were the cowboys, now dressed as court jesters and frolicking about, interacting with the press. It all made for a very Disney-esque experience.
The day began with a session with ABC Entertainment Group President Paul Lee, who talked about the successful rebuilding (or redefining) of the network's brand. "We're obviously very pleased with the fall and how the network is going," he said, reflecting on the success of such new series as "How to Get Away with Murder" and "black-ish" and ABC's powerful Wednesday and Thursday lineups. "One of the things we talked about from the very beginning was brand. We wanted ABC to be a smart, emotional network. We took 'Modern Family' and 'Grey's Anatomy' and [decided to] build out our brand positioning around [them], and I think that's really starting to be successful for us. Our internal brand positioning now has us way ahead of the pack on that."
Among viewers 18-49 and 12-54, ABC is "way ahead of the pack not just [among] our [broadcast] competitors but also the HBOs and the Showtimes and the other brands that are out there," Lee said. "That's critical for our ability to launch new shows and be a recommendation engine."
Lee also talked about ABC's success this season at "reflecting America" with its roster of diversity rich programming. "I really believed from the beginning that the demographic changes in America were just as important as the technological changes," he explained. "We've pushed hard this year to get the 'Scandals' and the 'Murders' and the 'Cristelas' and the 'black-ishes.' And you're going to see that with [midseason entries] 'Fresh off the Boat' and 'American Crime' today. The notion that we are there to reflect America is tremendously important to ABC."
One critic asked if the playing field was at all level for broadcasters given the looser standards of cable and digital platforms and the ever-increasing amount of content being created for them.
Lee was very positive. "The fact that a lot of great storytellers and actors are not finding what they want in features and are coming to television [is] one of the reasons [the business has] created so much great television at the moment. So I kind of welcome the competition. If you think about the sort of conversation that went on between broadcast and cable when cable did 'Sex and the City' and 'The Sopranos,' and then broadcast did 'Lost' and 'Desperate Housewives,' and then cable took it back. [That] competition has always been incredibly healthy.
"[Broadcast] is an ad supported ratings model and it's generated some pretty amazing storytelling over the last 30 years, from 'All in the Family' to 'Seinfeld' to 'NYPD Blue' to 'Twin Peaks' to 'Lost' to 'Desperate Housewives' to some of the great shows like 'Modern Family' that are there now," Lee continued. "So within the structure that is broadcast television, I think you can make amazing television. I would argue that despite the different brand prisms and sometimes financial prisms and sometimes regulatory prisms, this is a great age of television on every platform, right? In other words, you have 'Scandal,' 'How to Get Away with Murder,' 'American Crime' and 'Modern Family' on broadcast.
"Hey, I just picked my own shows," he paused, laughing.
"Then, on basic cable, you have the great 'Mad Men' and 'Breaking Bad,'" he continued. "On pay cable obviously you have 'Game of Thrones,' you have 'Girls,' and on Netflix and digital you have 'House of Cards' and others. So I don't know that those prisms have stopped great storytelling on [any] platforms. Sometimes … when you limit what you can do, it actually focuses you and allows you to tell more focused storytelling. I would challenge anybody to watch 'American Crime' and see whether extraordinary storytelling is happening on all platforms."
The series ABC previewed, including the timely and destined to be controversial drama about race relations "American Crime," the supernatural thriller "The Whispers," the dark drama "Secrets and Lies" and the Asian-American family comedy "Fresh off the Boat" were largely well-received by critics. The session for the latter, which featured more Asian Americans than have ever been seen at one time on stage at a TCA tour, was particularly interesting given the ongoing discussion at TCA tours about diversity issues in programming.
Anyone who thinks the need for continuing discussions about diversity need only hear about the opening question at the panel, which – fortunately – was asked by a "journalist" who is not a member of the TCA.
"I wanted to ask about the Asian culture," the "journalist" began. "I was just talking about the chopsticks. I just love all that! Will we get to see that, or will the show be more Americanized?"
"She'll see chopsticks, right?" one of the panelists asked Constance Wu, an actress in the series.
"We got some chopsticks!" Wu replied.
"Yeah, we got a lot of chopsticks," added producer Eddie Huang, in disbelief.
"Wait until episode five," writer and executive producer Nahnatchka Khan chimed in. "It's all about chopsticks!"
"The original title was 'Chopsticks,'" actor Randall Park helpfully revealed.
"But 'Chopsticks' was too controversial, so we changed it," Wu added.
This session was one that won't soon be forgotten.
Ed Martin is the Editor of Planet Ed and MediaBizBloggers and the television and video critic for MyersBizNet. Follow him on Twitter at @PlanetEd.
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