TV trip ended on a high note (at last)

It was at the very end of the TV tour -- final network, final day -- when we finally came across what had been missing -- a really superb, top-of-the-line new show.

That's "Boardwalk Empire," the richly layered Martin Scorsese series that opens Sept. 19 on HBO, in the "Sopranos" slot. We're not surprised that it's great; we are surprised that it's alone.

A typical fall crop might include several superb shows. Last year brought "Glee," "Modern Family," "The Good Wife" and more.

This season? "Boardwalk Empire," which starts just as Prohibition begins in a giddy Atlantic City, is alone at the top.

At least, this tour (organized by the Television Critics Association) offered some things with promise. I'll tell you more about the trip soon; first, here are some of the better things I saw:

-- A brilliant, break-out performance by James Wolk. That's in "Lonestar," a complex character-scam piece on Fox.

-- Two first-rate comedies -- CBS' "Mike & Molly," ABC's "Better Together."

-- A complex conspiracy thriller, NBC's "The Event."

-- "My Generation," a clever-but-complex ABC drama that visits teens at graduation time and 10 years later.

-- Some OK police stories; ABC's "Body of Proof" and CBS' "Blue Bloods" -- that stand out.

-- ABC's offbeat (and sort of fun) "No Ordinary Family."

-- Lots of PBS documentaries. "Circus," "God in America" and Ken Burns' "Baseball" sequel are excellent; and on cable, a sampling of National Geographic's "Great Migrations" looks spectacular.

-- The brilliance of British writers. I haven't seen PBS' "Sherlock" yet, or the "Torchwood" that is moving to Starz, but they are being written by the superb Steven Moffat and Russell Davies, respectively. I have seen the first hour of BBC America's "Luther" and it's compelling.





It will be a good "Dance" finale

Things get crowded during the Television Critics Association tour. On one busy Thursday, we met Yoko Oho, Sacheen Littlefeather, a Wallenda high-wire star, two White House photographers, two American Indian filmmakers and six PBS news people.

I also met a clown (for the record, the first clown I've ever liked) and twin jugglers. I was reminded anew of the rich variety on PBS; I'll be sending stories to papers in the months ahead.

Fortunately, I also got to see "So You Think You Can Dance," setting up next week's finale. Adechike Torbert is gone now, leaving the final three -- front-runner Kent Boyd, strong contender Lauren Froderman and perpetual survivor Robert Roldan. They'll have one more chance to gather viewer votes on Wednesday; this should be a good one.

On "Idol," Hooters and Michael Feinstein

A few random comments, from my temporary Hollywood outpost:

1) During a Los Angeles bus ride this week, I saw a Hooters restaurant and was confused. Why, in Los Angeles, would anyone need to go to a Hooters?

2) Is it good news that Nigel Lythgoe is taking over "American Idol"? Probably. Lythgoe does a great job at "So You Think You Can Dance," where his passion clearly lies. It's good to hear that he favors three "Idol" judges instead of four (although he might have four anyway) and that he wants to give the singers a chance for bigger productions. Other changes are needed, however, to make sure that the more distinctive contestants aren't dumped before getting to the final 12. Also, judges need to quit insisting that every contestant, on every song, follows the mantra of "make it your own." Sometimes, a straight-on rendition can be perfect.

3) I missed Wednesday's "So You Think You Can Dance," but I'll catch up tonight, when the show picks its three dancers for next week's finale. Things have been busy out here at the Television Critics Association sessions, peaking with a great night last night. Backed by a 17-piece band, Michael Feinstein -- whose latest show reaches PBS on Oct. 6, 13 and 20 -- gave a sensational concert. If you ever get a chance to hear this guy with a big band, do it. "American songbook" classics are performed with swing, zest and consummate skill.




"American Idol" -- mostly, questions

If I had my way, "America Idol" would trim back to three judges next season, possibly Randy Jackson, Bret Michaels and Shania Twain.

There would also be a system to let judges choose three of the final 12, to make sure the who;e thing doesn't become as bland as it was this year. And I'd beg judges to quit telling everyone to always "make it your own"; sometimes, a great rendition of the original version is its own reward.

I don't have my way, of course -- and so far, Fox hasn't decided anything either. Here's the story I sent to papers today:


LOS ANGELES -- A month before “American Idol”
needs its judges, the show still has an information vacuum.

Peter Rice, chairman of the Fox
network, refused Monday to confirm or deny any of the rumors. He
wouldn't say whether Randy Jackson or Kara DioGuardi will be back …
whether Simon Lythgoe will take over as producer … or even whether
there will be three or four judges.

The only definite thing, Rice said, is
that Ellen Degeneres won't be a judge.

She had said in early June that she
wasn't comfortable on the show, Rice said. “I tried to persuade her
that it would be different in the future.”

At first, he said, Fox wasn't sure
about letting her leave. He approved that recently, “when we felt
confident that we can come up with a panel that doesn't include

Simon Cowell is also leaving, to create
an American version of “The It Factor,” which will reach Fox in
the fall of 2011. That means “Idol” could have as many as four
new judges; Names that have surfaced include Jennifer Lopez, Sean
“Diddy” Combs, Bret Michaels, Elton John, Shania Twain and Harry
Connick Jr.

Auditions have already started. Rice
said 16,000 contestants showed up in Nashville, 10,000 in New
Orleans; Milwaukee also had try-outs, with others coming to East
Rutherford, N.J. (Tuesday, Aug. 3); Austin, Texas (Aug. 11); and San
Francisco (Aug. 19).

In this first round staffers pick the
best and worst singers, to audition for the judges. By sometime next
month, Rice said, the next round – and the judges – should be in

“Idol” is the most-watched show on
TV, but ratings fell this season. “It's going to be in its 10th
season and Simon's departure (made this) a time to evolve,” Rice

The key often involves which people
become finalists, said Mike Darnell, Fox's reality-show chief. “I
still think season five was one of the best, because each person was

Many of the contestants that year –
Chris Daughtry, Kellie Pickler, Elliott Yamin, Bucky Covington, plus
champion Taylor Hicks and runner-up Katharine McPhee – landed
record deals. “The fact that I can remember them all shows what a
good group it was,” Darnell said.

Adam Lambert, from the 2009 season, is
already headlining a large tour this summer. “With Adam, you always
knew he was going to do something special with a song,” Darnell

Critics have grumbled that recent
winners have been bland. Kris Allen beat Lambert that year; Lee
DeWyze won this year. Darnell ducks that; “it's all in the alchemy,
the mix of people,” he said.

Whatever happens, Rice argued, the
basic concept still works. “Someone literally is standing in a line
in Nashville and can have a No. 1 record 10 months later. That's
great television.”




Talking to Shaq

As the Television Critics Association mixer neared, ABC said there were a few additions. One was Shaquille O'Neal.

"Will he be wearing a name tag?" I asked.

That wasn't really needed, of course. Shaq is listed at 7-foot-1 and 325 pounds, but seems bigger. He's not the tallest person I've interviewed -- the late Kevin Peter Hall was 7-foot-2 -- but he's close. Since he talks quietly -- and from well above my ears -- the tough part was simply hearing everything. Here's the story I sent to papers:


LOS ANGELES – When you imagine a
spelling bee, you might think of little kids with big glasses and big

You don;t think of Shaq.

Still, Shaquille O'Neal says he did
well in his childhood bee. “I finished second,” he said. “I
almost got to go to Washington, D.C.”

Now he has a second chance. When “Shaq
vs.” returns Tuesday (Aug. 3), he'll compete with the 15-year-old
National Spelling Bee champion.

O'Neal was talking about this Sunday
night, at an ABC mixer with the Television Critics Association. For
reporters, it was a chance for quick one-on-one interviews – amid
logistical problems.

Listed as 7-foot-1 and 325 pounds,
O'Neal was dressed elegantly – dark suitcoat, dark vest, bow tie –
and talk\ed quietly. Arms stretched upward, to get tape-recorders
close enough to catch him.

No longer with the Cleveland Cavaliers
– who also lost LeBron James between seasons – he isn't sure
where he'll play basketball this season. His four NBA championships
(and three most-valuable-player awards in the finals) are now six
years behind him. During the recent play-offs, he was (at 38), the
oldest man in the league.

What he does know is that ABC has been
his summer home. First was “Shaq's Big Challenge,” in which he
pushed kids to exercise … and schools to re-instate physical

“It's getting worse,” O'Neal said.
“A lot of schools are cutting out their programs. When we were
young, our parents would say, 'Go outside and play.' Now there's
technology and videogames.”

Last summer, “Shaq vs.” had O'Neal
facing athletes in their own events. Now the show expands to an hour
and includes two things – one non-physical. O'Neal spells in the
opener, does magic a week later.

Still, the physical challenges may be
the biggest draw. In the opener, O'Neal races against NASCAR driver
Dale Earnhardt Jr. “It was terrifying,” he said.

He had a special car built that he
could fit into. “You have six seatbelts, but it's still scary.”

It was the toughest thing he's faced,
he said – even scarier than facing a spelling-bee champion.

– Shaq. Vs.,” 9:01 to 10 p.m.
Tuesdays, ABC; most stations will rerun it at 3 p.m. Saturdays.

– Opener (Aug. 3) has Shaquille
O'Neal facing racer Dale Earnhardt Jr. and spelling-bee champion
Kavya Shivashankar; second week has 150-pound boxer Shane Mosley and
magicians Penn-and-Teller.

– Other weeks will include singer
Justin Bieber, chef Rachael Ray and hot-dog eater Joey Chestnut.