The news yesterday that Conan O'Brien had thrown down the gauntlet in the mounting mess over at NBC, boldly rejecting his network's suggested plan to bump The Tonight Show to 12:05 a.m., largely eclipsed ABC's relatively low-key day at the Winter 2010 Television Critics Association tour. Even if ABC had put together a more robust schedule, it would have been difficult to compete for attention as one of the biggest stories in broadcast history continues to play out, taking one surprising turn after another.
But there were still a few breakthrough moments during ABC's day, including a press conference with the cast and creators of Lost and one of the more interesting series renewal announcements ever made at a TCA tour.
The announcements came early in the day, when ABC Entertainment Group President Steve McPherson revealed that freshman comedies Modern Family, Cougar Town and The Middle would be picked up for a second season. (The launch of ABC's Wednesday comedy night, home to all three shows, was one of the big television success stories of 2009.)
"We've had a tremendous fall with our comedy Wednesday, and we're going to pick up the three shows for next season right now," McPherson said. "We actually haven't told the shows. [They're] finding out from your blogs right now."
Sure enough, McPherson's announcement kicked off a frenzy of twittering and live-blogging throughout the ballroom. Later in the day, during a panel with the show-runners from all three shows, they noted that their casts and crews had learned about the renewals via tweets and texts seconds after McPherson broke the news.
Much of McPherson's session was devoted to the impending final season of Lost, a show most TCA members agree has done much to transform television. "I think it [is] arguably one of the most influential shows of the decade, if not all time," he said. "It proved that you could do serialized shows that were going to be challenging to the audience that people could invest in." Asked why so many shows that tried to replicate the specific success enjoyed by Lost have failed, on ABC and elsewhere, McPherson laughed, "If I knew that I would probably not have done derivative shows myself!
"If there is anything I would want to be known for on Lost, it was making the decision [to end the show before it dragged on too long], standing by it, and giving [show-runners] Damon [Lindelof] and Carlton [Cuse] that opportunity," McPherson later added. "I think it respected the show, it respected the viewers and it respected the television creative.
Lost executive producers Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse
"If we start to make [programming] just about the business -- how many episodes can we squeeze out of this show -- it's bad for everybody," he continued. "It ends up being bad for the business as well if you're just managing to the margins. Hopefully, [that's] a lesson we can all take."
McPherson was also asked about the ongoing drama over at NBC. "What's great about the situation that's transpired is it really has put the emphasis back on great creative," he replied. "Scripted shows are really a part of that landscape. [They're] what people expect in those time periods. For the creative community it will open up some more time periods, which was really, I think, the most tragic thing about [NBC turning over its 10 p.m. time periods to The Jay Leno Show]. So from that standpoint we're happy about the way things have gone down.
"Seeing a great network tumble is not something that we rejoice over," he continued. "We're all competitive, but we want a vibrant landscape. It's disconcerting when things happen in our industry, even to competitors. We don't take any pleasure in that. We're going to compete against them, but we want it to be vibrant. It's kind of like playing for the Yankees and the Boston Red Sox decide to stop playing baseball. You don't get excited."
There was great disappointment among TCA members that ABC did not have the first hour of the two-hour season premiere of Lost available for screening in advance of the farewell appearance by the cast and show-runners of the show. Many fumed that ABC didn't even offer a few clips. Predictably, the session didn't reveal much about the episodes to come, but Lost sessions never do, and fans (including critics) wouldn't have it any other way.
"The season premiere picks up right after the [Season 5] finale," Cuse revealed. "We've obviously been very circumspect about the sixth season, primarily because there [was a] big cliffhanger. [Juliet detonated an atomic bomb, seemingly destroying the island, resetting the cosmic clock and ensuring that Oceanic Flight 815 would not crash – or something like that.] That's why we've been very circumspect about what we said and why we haven't shown any new footage."
"All we can do is put our best foot forward," Lindelof added. "We do feel like the worst ending that we could possibly provide everyone who has invested this amount of time and energy into watching the show is the safe ending. You know, the ending that is basically, 'What's going to be the most appealing to the most people?'
"Fortunately for us, we've been talking about how the show's going to end since Steve gave us an end date three years ago, so we really have no excuse to say anything other than this is the ending that we wanted to do on the terms that we wanted to do it."
Cast members were a little more forthcoming.
"The premiere is definitely like, 'What? Wait! Let me read that part again. What?" said Jorge Garcia, who plays Hugo.
"It felt like a finale. That scale. Wow! Okay!" added Josh Holloway, who plays Sawyer.
"I had to read it about three times before it actually made sense," admitted Emilie de Ravin, who returns as Claire for the final season after disappearing for all of Season 5.
"Not helping," Lindelof laughed, adding, "Get ready to scratch your heads, America!"