If there is one big take-away from the Winter 2010 Television Critics Association tour it's that broadcast television can still stir up more excitement in more ways than any other medium.
At the very start of the tour, CBS Entertainment President Nina Tassler didn't simply praise her network's hit freshman series NCIS: Los Angeles and The Good Wife. Rather, she declared that it has been "a great season for network television" and "an outstanding freshman class across the board," noting the success of ABC's Modern Family, Fox's Glee and The CW's Vampire Diaries. Collectively, she said, all of these successes in one season demonstrate "the diversity and the vitality of [broadcast] programming." She also noted that CBS was looking forward to the second half of the season, which for the network will include the Super Bowl, the Grammy Awards and the most eagerly anticipated new unscripted broadcast series of the season, Undercover Boss.
Tassler made these remarks on the first day of the TCA tour. Fittingly, it concluded eleven days later with visits to the sets of Modern Family and Glee, two hit shows that are doing much to change the face of broadcast television by respectively putting a new spin on the time-worn family sitcom and creating an exciting new genre that combines music with comedy and drama. Indeed, in twenty years of TCA set visits I have never seen its members as excited as they were about their trip to the Glee set. They talked about it constantly since their arrival here in Pasadena back on January 8, many of them largely fueled by the interest and enthusiasm expressed for that show by the thousands of readers who follow them on Twitter. Glee has yet to develop into a monster smash, but it is clearly a pop-cultural phenomenon, as indicated on iTunes by sales of songs from its ever-growing soundtrack.
The overall excitement about broadcast continued to build as the tour progressed, though it was not always generated by good things. NBC's titanic blunder in its handling of Jay Leno and Conan O'Brien, which played out during TCA, did more to keep its members busy than anything else in recent memory. Interest in this story simply cannot be contained, let alone understated.
NBC probably hoped that its upcoming coverage of the Winter Olympic Games, another big event for broadcast, would provide some distraction from its runaway late-night drama. No such luck. Not even an admission from NBC Universal Sports and Olympics Chairman Dick Ebersol that NBC will for the first time in his long tenure at the network lose money on an Olympics detracted from the increasing ugliness of its late-night fiasco. (Ebersol asserted that NBC would lose money on the Olympics not because of ad sales, which have "taken off" during the last few months, but because of increased rights fees.)
As of this writing, it is clear that Jay Leno will soon resume his previous position as host of The Tonight Show and that Conan O'Brien will leave NBC altogether. (It's interesting to note how much more dynamic Leno and O'Brien have been as hosts of their shows since this mess started. The change is so dramatic it suggests that O'Brien had been operating in second gear since he moved to Tonight last June and that Leno had been phoning it in since his move to primetime in September.) If broadcast television and its stars didn't matter to so many people there wouldn't have been near as much heat surrounding this story. Similarly, the excitement here at TCA that followed a surprise appearance by American Idol judge Simon Cowell and his shocking announcement that he would be leaving that show after its current season was appreciable. This was huge news, as was Cowell's revelation that he would bring his hit British series The X-Factor to Fox in 2011, and it managed to generate headlines even in the thick of all that ugly NBC drama.
There were many other events and announcements throughout TCA that kept broadcast at the forefront of it all. CBS marked the tenth anniversary of its groundbreaking reality series Survivor with a spectacular party at its Television City studios featuring more than 200 veteran players from that still-vital franchise. The executive producers and stars of ABC's Lost came by to talk about the final season of their show, as much a broadcast scripted series game-changer as Modern Family, Glee or 24, another format-defying Fox series that received a major push here. ABC also scheduled a session for its daytime drama All My Children to mark both its 40th anniversary and the move of its production from New York City to Los Angeles.
Certainly, the pay and basic cable networks previewed many tantalizing new programs set to debut in the months ahead, but there was something about the collective broadcast experience at this tour -- good, bad or otherwise -- that did much to reinforce its dominance in the media landscape. The changes that are still to come in the late-night arena and NBC's decision to once again schedule original scripted dramas in at least some of its 10 o'clock time periods, reinvigorating the industry wide competition for quality dramatic product, should keep interest and excitement levels high.
CBS' Tassler was right: This has been a sensational season for broadcast television. It shows no sign of stopping.