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ABC at TCA: Pretty Lame

ABC seems to be the only network that can't fill a day's worth of sessions

Now that cable and PBS have come and gone, Day 6 of the Death March With Cocktails kicked off the broadcast network portion. Normally what that means is that members of the Television Critics Association get to meet the entertainment president and ask him or her, essentially, "What the hell went wrong last season." Just so you know it's not all about cynicism, sometimes everything goes right. But where we are right now - the nebulously titled "midseason" -- most of the questions are about fixing what went wrong in the fall by plugging holes in midseason.

Most networks use their winter TCA day to showcase what's coming up in the rest of the season, or to highlight a struggling but good series that might need some more ink or, if wishes were horses, to tell us how they'll program 52 weeks a year.  Got something for the summer you're not just burning off? Great!

Based on advance schedules, all the networks have full and interesting days.

Not ABC.

In a day that resembled some kind of unappetizing Swiss cheese -- holes everywhere -- the network thought it best to kickstart things at 8:30 a.m., when most other networks heed the TCA advice to start at 9. First up, Ben Sherwood, president of ABC News. Not a bad start. We always like to have executives. Next up, at 9:15 a.m., Paul Lee, President of the ABC Entertainment Group. Now, Lee is the kind of executive ABC should be touting. He's smart, not crazy, level-headed and quick on his feet. He's open and engaging with the press, giving straight answers when they're called for with precious few dodges. In short, he was the best thing about the day (I'll have more on his executive session in a separate post).

So far, so good. Then a break for the "Winter Wipeout Cocoa Klatch," featuring Ballsy -- that would one of the big red balls that dishes out carnage on the unscripted show -- and hosts John Henson and Jill Wagner, plus the aforementioned cocoa. Weird, but not out of the TCA norm.

Then back into the ballroom for Pretty Little Liars, the ABC Family "millennial" series that was just renewed for a second season. If you have a millennial in the house, perhaps they watch. It's the kind of turnaround hit programming that Lee brought to his former post as head of ABC Family that quickly put him in line to ascend to his current job. So, fair enough. Maybe not everybody's favorite panel to write about, but certainly not awful.

That went quickly enough and ABC was able to present, by 11:45 a.m., what amounted to its biggest midseason series: Off the Map, the new Shonda Rhimes series that is essentially Grey's Anatomy in the jungle. Or, if you prefer, Grey's Anatomy meets Lost. In the jungle. Hot doctors, strange medicine, isolated locale (that might lead to, say, some sexual tensions). What's not to like? Well, advanced buzz from critics is not good. In fact, it's near poisonous.

While 11 people on a panel might not make for the greatest session (people are left out entirely or they all talk over one another or someone in the room asks the worst question in that situation -- "For all the cast members, tell us about your character"). But it went fine enough. And that pretty much ended the ABC portion of the day. No, really.

At lunch, it was time for the newly minted Disney Junior to make its case. Not a sexy panel, for sure. But ABC is savvy enough to know that if you want critics to come to something they'd normally skip, make it a working lunch session. Trouble is, ABC (or Disney, or whatever synergistic entity is controlling these situations) should know that bringing out a couple of singing pirates trying to rally grumpy critics to sing along is a bad idea. But it happened. And people fled.

And lots of them fled for good. Why? Are pirate singers really that bad? Well, yes. But in this case, the schedule looked worse than half-ass padded. It looked boring. Gary Marsh, President, Entertainment and Chief Creative Officer for Disney Channels Worldwide was ostensibly the next panel. All by himself. Or perhaps roaming the Huntington Gardens. Who knew? Nothing against Marsh, but it would probably take Les Moonves to pull in even half the critics to mingle in a post-pirate ballroom for a couple of random quotes.

Next up was something called Lemonade Mouth, a Disney Channel original movie. Nothing says "go take a nap" more than the words Lemonade Mouth. Somewhere editors across the country and Canada were on phones asking what was coming up. "Um, Lemonade Mouth. Does this mean I can't come back to the winter tour again?"

After that, if you stayed, there was a writing break. From 2:15 to -- wait for it -- 5 p.m. Where was this writing break during the cable portion of the tour when we could have really used it? Was Lemonade Mouth so sophisticated in its premise that we needed three hours to process it and then write about it? Then, at 5 p.m., ABC was having what it billed as a "Midseason Mixer" for Off the Map. Given the buzz for Off the Map, this wasn't exactly inviting. But hey, the bar was open.

The immediate questions surrounding the ABC schedule centered on what could have or should have been here. Some critics were calling this the least useful TCA day in years, if not ever. Nothing against Disney stuff, or even ABC Family, but that's not the primetime content most writers are here for. To its credit, ABC seemed to acknowledge that today wasn't exactly thrilling. But it's hard to imagine much effort or foresight was put into this TCA for ABC.

Why not bring out Jimmy Kimmel? He's always engaging -- a TCA hit. And he could have filled 45 minutes in his sleep and generated stories and good will for his show. Why not panel one of the series that Lee touted earlier in the day as special to the network -- like The Middle? (ABC says it's bringing The Middle to the summer TCA press tour in July and didn't want to forfeit that for a lesser-attended winter tour.) Fair enough. But what about a show that could use some support, like Detroit 1-8-7, another series touted by Lee? Isn't Dancing With the Stars coming up? ABC said the cast wasn't picked or announced, so that was a no-go. Oh, really? Why not bring out the real dancers and the producers? That's a session people would have attended. Why not V? I walked into the Off the Map mixer and who is the first person I saw? Morena Baccarin. The schedule didn't say anything about non-Map talent being at the party. This is an event intended to dole out information and generate coverage, yes? Listen, you can never have enough Morena Baccarin, whether she's touting V or not. And there was Jeri Ryan from Body of Proof, a show all but forgotten (it's been pushed to March). Who knew she was going to be there - or, for that matter, how many other stars were there. (At least Lee was readily available and amiable - so points for that.) Hell, do a panel on "The Men of ABC" or "The Women of ABC" or "The Kids of ABC" or some kind of lower-executive panel. It beats Lemonade Mouth.

The point is, try harder. If you care, we care.