NBC at TCA: USA Network, Syfy, Bravo and Oxygen Seize the Day

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Ed Martin Live from TCA - "Special from Jack Myers Media Business Report"

In the absence of a controversy or major theme during the 2011 Winter Television Critics Association tour we have a budding trend: The programming from their basic cable siblings that broadcasters are increasingly adding to their TCA days is proving to be more interesting than that offered by the broadcasters themselves. In fact, in some cases the cable programming is so fresh and accessible that, when presented in such close proximity, it’s making the broadcast fare suffer by comparison.

ABC set this turn of events in motion on Monday, when during its very abbreviated day it slotted a session for ABC Family’s breakout hit Pretty Little Liarsright in front of one for the broadcaster’s brand new medical drama Off the Map. The latter generated as much interest among TCA members on Monday as it did among viewers on Wednesday, which is to say not very much at all. Liars, meanwhile, came off great.

NBC at TCA didn’t do all that much to excite critics about its new broadcast fare, either. The day included presentations for four sleepy new midseason series all lumped together in the afternoon after several hours of really appealing cable offerings. In what may be a first for a broadcast network at a TCA tour, NBC’s day did not include any sessions with any of its executives, though a number of them (including outgoing NBC Universal Television Entertainment Chairman Jeff Gaspin) were floating around the ballroom and lobby here at the Langham Huntington Hotel. Granted, the NBC executive roster is currently in a state of frozen flux, pending government approval of Comcast’s acquisition of NBC Universal, but does that mean that none of them are allowed to get up on a stage, make the necessary excuses (legal or otherwise) for not taking questions about the big changes to come, and then address programs that are currently on or about to join the NBC lineup?

While NBC came up a bit short, its parent company’s cable networks enjoyed a very good TCA showing, beginning with a very informal breakfast for USA Network in a poolside restaurant at the hotel. It was everything that a TCA activity should be: A gathering of popular personalities from new and returning shows (in this instance they included Matt Bomer and Tim DeKay of White Collar, Mark Feuerstein and Henry Winkler of Royal Pains, and Sarah Shahi and Michael Trucco of Fairly Legal) along with key executives from the network, all of them ready, willing and able to talk.

Press conferences for the upcoming Syfy series Being Human and Face Off followed. Being Human, which isn’t so much a remake as an expanded version of the popular BBC series about three supernatural twenty-somethings who live together and try to help each other survive, is so engaging that it has a strong shot at becoming Syfy’s next big thing. The reporters, bloggers and critics in the room were certainly impressed. Face Off, a reality competition series featuring up and coming special effects make-up artists, has as its host actress McKenzie Westmore, who comes from a family of legendary Hollywood makeup artists.

Bravo added some drama to the day with its press conference for the upcoming song-writing competition series Platinum Hit, which features the recently dismissed American Idol judge Kara DioGuardi as its head judge. When one critic dared ask if she would “clear up the circumstances under which she found she was no longer with [Idol],” DioGuardi stiffened.

“I’m happy to address that with you privately,” she said. “But today, I’m really here for Platinum Hit and to celebrate that.”

A number of critics began to boo – the season premiere of the retooled Idol next week being a big story right now and all. “You’re here because of that show,” one called out in obvious exasperation.

“I have to answer that,” DioGuardi replied, clearly not pleased by the critic’s call. “[Idol] was an incredible experience. It really was. But I’m here as a songwriter and I’ve sold over 150 million albums. That’s what I love about this show. It enables me to help young songwriters to be able to reach the market and have success.”

“Kara was writing songs for artists and publishing and mentoring up and coming writers way before she was on American Idol,” her Platinum Hit executive producer Evan Bogart chimed in.

Several critics later concluded that a simple statement from DioGuardi about her departure from Idol would likely have generated twice the publicity for Platinum than her comments during the session.

NBC’s final cable presentation of the day was an Oxygen session for The Glee Project, a reality talent competition billed as the first unscripted spin-off of a scripted series on another network. It is in every way a companion show to the Fox hit. In fact, the winner will receive a seven-episode guest-starring role on the third season of Glee. Oxygen also made news with the announcement of a new observational reality series with the self-explanatory title The World According to Paris Hilton. Paris and her mother Kathy were bustling around the Langham hotel throughout much of the day tending to matters involving their new project but did not appear on stage to promote it. Had they done so, the Oxygen session might have become the second most tweeted-about event of this entire tour, behind only the appearance of Oprah Winfrey.

In fairness, the final session of NBC’s day – a lively press conference with the cast of Community– proved to be one of the tour’s best broadcast sessions. And the network tossed a terrific party last night featuring stars from many of its shows. But even there, the company’s basic cable excitement dwarfed the big broadcaster. The stars that many TCA members were the most excited to see included Paris Hilton and the casts of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills and The Real Housewives of New York City.

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