ABC renews 'Modern Family,' two others

'Cougar Town' and 'The Middle' also returning

ABC has handed out early renewals to its three promising freshman comedy series, "Modern Family," "Cougar Town" and "The Middle."

The decision was announced Tuesday by entertainment president Steve McPherson at the Television Critics Assn.'s semi-annual press tour.

The pickups follow Monday's early renewal by Fox of its breakout freshman dramedy "Glee."

In the fall, ABC made a risky move by launching a two-hour comedy block with all-new series on Wednesdays. All but canceled "Hank" have performed solidly.

The overachiever is "Modern Family," from Steve Levitan, Christopher Lloyd and 20th TV, which has been widely praised by critics and has been the strongest performer for the network on the night.

"Cougar Town" and "Middle" both boast A-list female leads: Courteney Cox in "Cougar," from ABC Studios and Bill Lawrence, and Patricia Heaton in "Middle," from Warner Bros. TV, Eileen Heisler and DeAnn Heline.

There is no decision yet on the fate of ABC's struggling comedies "Scrubs" and "Better Off Ted."

"We've obviously been disappointed," McPherson said at TCA. "Whenever we put comedy other than Wednesday is a bit of an island."

McPherson took the stage following a panel on the final season of "Lost," whose departure cast a nostalgic shadow over the proceedings.

"I'm fortunate to have been along for the ride, it proved you can put that kind of production value on screen, that you can be that serialized and complex," said McPherson, who had supported the series from the get-go though he admitted his initial reaction to the concept was: "Don't we have GPS? Can't we find these people?"

McPherson restated the "Lost" producers' statement that the show will have a conclusive ending and there will be no spinoff.

In reality news, McPherson seemed to suggest that backdoor pilot "Conveyor Belt of Love" will return, joking, "How can we be done with such a genius show?"

McPherson added that "Dancing With the Stars" will cut back the number of contestants to 11 or 12 in an effort to get stronger pool of contenders. In the fall, "Dancing" had expanded to its largest cast yet, with 16 contestants, leading to fan complains about some of the casting choices. The change won't result in fewer episodes, ABC said.

On whether Simon Cowell leaving Fox's "American Idol" is an opportunity for ABC to make ratings gains, McPherson said: "He's an incredibly important part of that show, but it's not like he's going back to England; he's still going to be on Fox. I'm not sure it's some giant win for us."

Asked for a reaction to NBC's ongoing late-night drama, he said, "There's too many jokes to make." He then added seriously: "Seeing a great network tumble is not something we rejoice over. It's disconcerting when things happen in our landscape. It's like playing for the Yankees and the Red Sox decide to stop playing."

But McPherson took issue with NBC topper Jeff Gaspin's saying that ABC's 10 p.m. ratings have declined.

"Gaspin said we were down at 10 p.m.," McPherson said. "We're actually up, so it's a little odd for that to come out."

It seems the networks were using two different types of data. NBC was looking at Live+SD ratings Monday-Friday, which has ABC down 4%; ABC was counting only when scripted programming aired in the hour, which has ABC up 8%.

"Not sure why he says Jeff Gaspin got it wrong," said an NBC insider. "Jeff wasn't making a claim about scripted programming; he was making a claim about 10 p.m. in general."