Networks Court Critics

TCA showcases future programs

Con-artist moms, pot-smoking sluts and a zany family who manages a Vegas wedding chapel are all featured in new TV shows being rolled out at this year’s winter Press Tour, beginning tomorrow. The biannual event, sponsored by the Television Critics Association (TCA), lets TV critics nationwide converge on Los Angeles for two weeks of parties and panels that showcase the latest broadcast and cable offerings.

This year’s event runs Jan. 11-23 at the Hilton Universal City. In addition to being wined and dined and getting their sweaty mitts on TV shows early, the critics rub elbows with executives and talent who don’t usually make the rounds to the daily papers in, say, Nebraska.

For the execs, TCA is a chance to highlight new strategies and resuscitate ratings, if they are lagging. For example, after experiencing a 6% drop in prime time viewers last year, Lifetime is focusing on original movies this year, upping the number of its trademark originals from 12 to 18. The network’s Jan. 14 presentation will focus on two: Mom at Sixteen, about a teenage mother, and Lies My Mother Told Me, about a con-artist mother and her daughter. The movies’ stars—Mercedes Ruehl and Jane Krakowski for Mom, Joely Richardson for Lies—will act as presenters, alongside Trevor Walton, the network’s senior VP of original movies.

“It’s a good opportunity to define who you are to the critics, what you stand for as a network,” says Meredith Wagner, EVP of public affairs for Lifetime. TCA helps make a show pop in a crowded cable-programming landscape.

ABC Family is coming off a 33% jump in prime time viewers this year and will use the event to highlight its growth. The network’s Jan. 12 presentation will roll out new reality series Las Vegas Chapel of Love, introducing critics to the “dynamic family that owns and runs a hectic Las Vegas wedding chapel,” says Paul Lee, who is attending his first TCA tour as president of the network.

For critics, especially those from smaller markets, the tour provides an early heads up. “It’s a grueling schedule, but the chance to meet the producers, the actors and the executives is an incomparable, one-of-a kind experience,” says Hal Boedeker, TV critic at the Orlando Sentinel, who has been to 28 TCA tours in 15 years. “I find it fascinating. It means a lot to get to talk to the head of CBS and NBC.”

Cable presentations include previews of HBO movies Empire Falls (slated for May) and Lackawanna Blues (February). Showtime will unveil its first movie musical, Reefer Madness (April). ESPN is offering a half-hour ESPN Hollywood, which addresses the intersection of pop culture and sports.

On the broadcast side, high points include a Jan. 21 panel hosted by new NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams and a Jan. 17 Fox panel for its new animated show American Dad from Seth MacFarlane, creator of Family Guy.

After a day of previewing new shows, including drama Blind Justice, John Stamos’ sitcom Jake in Progress and the original movie Oprah Winfrey Presents: Their Eyes Were Watching God, ABC hosts a faux suburban bash on the set of Desperate Housewives to close TCA.

“There’s something about that trip that’s rejuvenating,” Boedeker says. “It reminds you why television is such an exciting medium.”

Reefer Madness, Showtime’s first movie musical, is slated for April.