Fox: In a state of excessive plenty

This is a busy time at the Television Critics Association sessions. Here's a story I sent to papers about Fox:


Life is very difficult – well, maybe
a little difficult – for a first-place TV network.

“We have some high-class problems,”
said Kevin Reilly, Fox's programming chief.

Now those problems grow. There are
major shows – “House,” “Terra Nova,” “Fringe” – he
might not bring back next year; there are people trying to copy or
pillage pieces of “American Idol.”

Those problems expand because Fox has:

– Fewer spaces. It was created with
15 hours of primetime hours (instead of 22) to duck federal rules.

– Expensive shows. For “Terra Nova”
and “Fringe,” there are big-budget special effects. “House”
follows the TV habit of costs expanding as shows get oplder.

– Success. Fueled mainly by its own
“Idol” clone (“The X Factor”), Fox's Nielsen rating for the
first 15 weeks of this season were up 14-15 percent. CBS is up a tad,
ABC is even, NBC and CW plunged.

This mid-season brings three more
high-concept dramas – “Alcatraz” (from the “Lost” people),
“Touch” (from “Heroes” creator Tim Kring) and “The Finder”
(created so “Bones” can trim back to make room for Emily
Deschanel's maternity leave).

A series surplus is growing. Last year,
Reilly drew criticism for dumping “The Chicago Code,” “Human
Target” and “America's Most Wanted.” This year? “We've done a
good job of avoiding some of these decisions,” he said.

He's sure of a few things: “Allen
Gregory” won't be back, “New Girl” will be. “Glee” will be
back, but won't add a sequel; the characters who graduate –
including Rachel (Lea Michele) – will stay.

Other shows bring questions, including:

– “House.” Last summer, Reilly
implied that this season – its eighth – would be its last on Fox.
Now? “We just simply haven't made the decision.” If the show
isn't brought back, he said, he'll give it enough warning to have a
finale – except that “House” still could jump to NBC – which
produces it.

– “Terra Nova.” Reilly praised
its epic visuals and its cast, but not its storytelling. “The show
was hunting for itself creatively through the season.” Ratings were
fairly high; costs were very high.

– “Fringe.” Many critics and
science-fiction fans have loved the show, but it was renewed for this
season only by being exiled to Fridays, a difficult night. “We lose
a lot of money on that show,” Reilly said. “At that rating, on
that night, it's almost impossible for us to make money.”

By comparison, “American Idol”
remains on top. Reilly does expect it to drop in ratings this year,
as viewers digest NBC's “The Voice” and “America's Got Talent”
and Fox's own “The X Factor.”

Some shows even loot talent. Ryan
Seacrest, the “Idol” host, already has a deal with one of NBC's
cable networks (E). He said he's negotiating with NBC, but wouldn't
comment on what a deal might include or preclude. “I can't imagine
life without 'American Idol,'” he said.

Other shows tend to hire “Idol”
people. “X Factor” has Simon Cowell and Paula Abdul as judges;
“The Voice” is adding Kelly Clarkson – the first “Idol”
champion – as a mentor.

“This show ('Idol') has created
superstars (and) other shows want to use those superstars,” said
Mike Darnell, Fox's alternative-show chief. “We're not hiring a lot
of people from 'The Voice.'”


It's know-your-Downton time

As the "Downton Abbey" sequel nears (see previous story), you're forgiven for not remembering who's who and who does what.

No problem; here's a handy guide I sent to papers:


Life can get tangled inside a grand
estate in 1916 England. As the second round of PBS' “Downton Abbey”
begins, here's a guide to the characters:

The Crawleys

– Robert, the Earl of Grantham. His
adult life has simply involved being head of the estate.

– Cora, the Countess of Grantham.
She's Robert's wife, with three daughters.

– Lady Mary, their eldest. The
complicated rules tied to the estate say only a male can inherit it;
she was going to marry a distant cousin who would run it, but he was
reported among the Titanic dead. Mary has lived her life cautiously,
except for one night she gave in to a Turkish diplomat. He promptly
died in her bed,a scandal that keeps almost emerging.

– Lady Edith, the middle sister. She
wrote a spiteful letter about Mary's sinful night; Mary retaliated by
sabotaging her romance with a local farmer.

– Lady Sybil, the most independent.
She's thought about jobs, political causes and the chauffeur.

– Matthew. A small-town, small-time
lawyer, he's suddenly in line to inherit the estate. He asked Mary,
his distant cousin, to marry him, but she dawdled so long that fell
apart. Now he's an Army officer.

– Isobel, Matthew's mother. She has
nursing skills and has already been overhauling the hospital that the
family supports financially. She sees bigger changes ahead.

– Violet, the Dowager Countess of
Grantham. Disapproving of most changes, she ranges from a core
decency to classic crotchety.

The help

– Charles Carson, the butler, runs
the estate, with endless honesty and a distrust of the 20th

– Elsie Hughes, the housekeeper.

– John Bates, the earl's valet. He's
been wounded in the military and in marriage.

– Sarah O'Brien, the countess' maid.
She grumbles and schemes a lot.

– Beryl Patmore, the cook. A simple
soul, she's good-hearted.

– Anna Smith. She's the head
housemaid, with two others under her. She sees the goodness under the
solemn surface of the troubled Bates.

– Tom Branson, the chauffeur. He's
interested in Irish politics, Lady Sybil and world change.

– Thomas Barrow and William Mason,
the footmen. Heading to war, they had opposite approaches. William
was idealistic; Thomas – who grumbles a lot with O'Brien –
schemes for light duty.

– Daisy Robinson, the kitchen maid.
Sweet and sometimes clueless, she barely notices William's love for
her. The handsome and heartless Thomas toyed with her, mostly because
he could.

The Emmy awards

– Maggie Smith, 77, won for her work
as the dowager; it's her second Emmy, to go with two Oscars.

– Julian Fellowes won for his
scripts. He also has an Oscar, for “Gosford Park.”

– Others were for the directing,
costumes and cinematography; also, for best movie or mini-series.

– Elizabeth McGovern, an American who
lives in England, was nominated for her work as the countess; other
nods went to the sets, casting, editing and sound editing. The Golden
Globes nominated both Hugh Bonneville and McGovern, the show's earl
and countess.

The times (check local listings)

– 9 p.m. Sundays, from Jan. 8 to Feb.

– The opener and the final two weeks
are each two hours; the rest are one hour.


"Downton Abbey" brings TV elegance

You're first duty now is to watch the season-openers of the IFC (Independent Film Channel) comedies, at 10 and 10:30 p.m. tonight (Friday, Jan. 6).

They're both odd and funny; there's a preview two blogs ago. The blog that I sent after that has newsy bits about NBC's makeover.

That leaves your next duty, to catch Sunday's elegant "Downton Abbey" season-opener. Here's the story I sent to papers; later, I'll also put a handy guide to the characters:


In the steady, sturdy world of
“Masterpiece Theatre,” change is rare.

Over 40 years, the series got much
respect and modest ratings; then “Downton Abbey” arrived. “It
is the best thing that has happened to 'Masterpiece' in ages,” said
Rebecca Eaton, the series producer.

There was a big bump in ratings (up 43
percent for the season) and in honors (six Emmys, including best
movie or miniseries). Now a second round of “Downton” begins.

Why the success? In the past, “Downton”
producer Gareth Neame said, “Masterpiece” writers have often felt
obligated to stick to the framework of a novel from centuries
earlier. This time, however, writer Julian Fellowes created an
original story. “I would say the show is closer to something like
'Mad Men,' where you have a period setting, but modern writing.”

The era – 1912 in the original, 1916
now – is viewed from a modern perspective. The pace is quick and
the events keep piling up, barely a notch above soap opera.

Providing the soapy push are two
attractive central characters who almost became engaged:

– Lady Mary Crawley, the eldest
daughter of Robert, the earl of Grantham. Her one-night stand with a
Turkish diplomat – who promptly died in her bed – was tenuously
hushed up. “Things only got worse for Lady Mary,” Eaton said.

– Matthew Crawley, her distant
cousin. He's a lawyer who is expected to inherit the estate. Now
wartime intervenes. “It's a bit of a darker storyline for him,”
said Dan Stevens, who plays him.

Stevens, 29, seems closer to a modern,
romantic-comedy star, complete with joltingly blue eyes and an easy
manner. He confesses to being “very badly behaved in school”
until he discovered acting; then he did the classics, on stage and in
the “Sense and Sensibility” on “Masterpiece.”

Michelle Dockery, 30, seems fairly
close to Lady Mary. Tall (5-foot-8) and well-spoken, she's done
theater and was Erminia Whyte in the “Masterpiece” production of
“Cranford.” Now she plays a hesitant character she understands.
“I'm very shy … I think a lot of people are like that.”

Mary's relationships are usually
careful and understated. “It's really interesting to play those
scenes where the emotions and true feelings are repressed,” Dockery

These modern young actors transformed
at a base camp near Highclere Castle.

“It is an incredibly imposing and
striking building,” Stevens said. “You get into your costumes and
makeup … and then you have this 200-meter walk up to the house and
you're running the lines in your head. It's a wonderful preparation
for playing the scenes in that enormous house.”

Actresses made that walk often.
“Aristocrats had no function whatsoever,” Neame said. “So for
the women, most of their day was spent changing, dressing, undressing
…. There were four or five or six different outfits worn in any one

That's for the half of the cast playing
upper-crust Crawleys. For the others, things are simpler. “I've got
two costumes,” Siobhan Finneran said. “Just two. And they're both

She plays Sarah O'Brien, maid to the
countess (Elizabeth McGovern) and often scheming with William Mason,
the second footman. Except that William goes to war; so do Thomas
Barrow, the first footman, and Matthew Crawley.

Back at the castle, life continues
under the earl (Hugh Bonneville), his wife (McGovern) and the dowager
countess (Maggie Smith, who won an Emmy in the role). Meawhile,
Isobel Crawley – Matthew's mom – tries to nudge the manor into a
modern era.

“You see this beautiful world,”
McGovern said, “on the precipice of cataclysmic change.”

Life changes – even for Downton
Abbey, PBS and “Masterpiece Theatre.”

– “Downton Abbey, Season 2,” 9
p.m. for seven Sundays on PBS (check local listings)

– Opener (Jan. 8) and final weeks
(Feb. 12 and 19) are two hours; others are one hour




After the fall, NBC starts its makeover

We've started the newsy part of the Television Critics Association sessions now, so I'll be putting some things here, shortly after I send them to papers. Here's a quick overview of NBC:


PASADENA, Cal. -- Surveying the wreckage of his season,
NBC's programming chief was frank.

“We had a really bad fall,” Robert
Greenblatt told the Television Critics Association on today (Friday, Jan. 6).

And then some. While the other big
networks were up or even in Nielsen ratings during the first 15 weeks
of the season, NBC was down 9 percent in viewers, 11 percent in the
key 18-49 age group. Despite being propped up by football, it was
last in viewers, tied for last (with ABC) in 18-49.

There were quick failures – expected
(“Free Agents”), semi-expected (“Playboy Club”) and
otherwise. Despite some praise and a big promotion effort, “Prime
Suspect” never caught on. “I'm really not surprised when anything
goes down,” Greenblatt said.

Now the makeover begins, with a few big
events – Saturday's football play-offs, the Jan. 15 Golden Globes
ceremony, the Feb. 5 Super Bowl – to promote it. That includes:

– A comedy shuffling next week.
Thursdays (starting Jan. 12) have the return of “30 Rock” and the
transplanted “Up All Night.” That puts “Whitney” on
Wednesdays, in front of the brash new “Are You There, Chelsea?”
Greenblatt said “Community” later.

– A double shot of Betty White on
Jan. 16, the night after the Globes. Her 90th birthday
will be celebrated (one day early) at 8 p.m., in a special that
includes Ray Romano, Tina Fey, Morgan Freeman and more. At 9:30 will
be an advance peek at “Betty White's Off Their Rockers,”.with
seniors playing hidden-camera tricks. “My only function is to make
sure it's not too mean-spirited,” White said.

– Renewed attention to Mariska
Hargitay on “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.” She had less
air time this fall, Greenblatt said, because she was busy with an
adoption. Beginning Jan. 18, her character will finally have an
office romance: For four episodes, Harry Connick Jr. – whose dad
was the New Orleans district attorney for decades – plays an
executive assistant district attorney.

– The new season of “The Voice,”
debuting after the Super Bowl. This year, each judge has two major
music people as mentors for the team. Blake Shelton has Miranda
Lambert (his wife) and Kelly Clarkson, Christina Aguilera has Jewel
and Lionel Richie, Cee Lo Green has Ne-Yo and Kenny “Babyface”
Edmonds, Adam Levine has Alanis Morissette and Robin Thicke.

– A unique show that gets the spot
after “Voice” on Mondays. “Smash” is a Steven Spielberg
production that follows the fictional creation of a Broadway musical.
Sort of a “Glee” for grown-ups, it has drawn raves from some

– A new season of “Who Do You Think
You Are?” That returns to Fridays on Feb. 3, a week after the
“Chuck” series-finale. It probes the roots of a dozen
celebrities, including Reba McEntire, Martin Sheen, Rob Lowe, Blair
Underwood and Paula Deen.

– A design competition. “Fashion
Star” will be at 10 p.m. Tuesdays, starting March 12

– And more in the summer. “Fear
Factor” – which NBC revived when it thought the pro-football
season might be canceled – may have more episodes then, Greenblatt
said. And “America's Got Talent” is adding Howard Stern as judge.
That has drawn criticism, but Greenblatt insisted Stern is “a very
thoughtful, intelligent person (and) he loves the show.”

That still leaves questions. Greenblatt
must find places for many comedy half-hours – including White's
hidden-camera show, a dozen “Community” episodes and the sharply
written “Bent” – and an intelligent but difficult drama,

He'll need places to put them. The way
this season has been going, that won't be hard.


Friday assignment: Watch IFC comedies

Today (Friday, Jan. 6) is a fine day for people who like cleverly off-center comedy: "Portlandia" and "The Increasiongly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret" start their second seaons.

Both are filled with perverse wit. Here's the story I sent to papers:


Something special seems to happen when
clever people are let loose.

Sure, Fred Armisen creates funny stuff
on “Saturday Night Live”; David Cross has done the same on
“Arrested Development.” But with little shows on little IFC
(Independent Film Channel), they are funny AND off-center and
(sometimes) really weird.

Armisen and Carrie Brownstein create
“Portlandia,” with sketches satirizing a fictional version of
Portland, Oregon. “It's a very self-reflective, sensitive city,”
Brownstein said. It's “a little bit easy to poke at. (But) I'm also
poking at myself, because I'm just very much like the city.”

Meanwhile, Cross co-writes and stars in
“The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret,” the story of
a foolish American who thinks he'll be a big-time businessman in

For Armisen, “Portlandia” is a
diversion, his summertime project. “It works out perfectly,” he
said. “The rest of the time is 'SNL.'”

For Cross, “Todd Margaret” became
a way of life. He spent eight months in London, writing and filming
last season's six episodes. “I found that I get lonely there” he

His dog was sent over. His fiancee,
actress Amber Tamblyn, visited. And friends did guest roles.

In this second season, the show has Jon Hamm as a
butler and Russ Tamblyn (Amber's dad) as Todd's father.

Russ Tamblyn is important to Cross, partly
because of his work in “West Side Story” (as Riff) and “Twin
Peaks” (Dr. Jacoby). “I was a huge 'West Side Story' fan,” he
said, “and Riff was the ultimate bad boy.”

Beyond that, Tamblyn serves a key
function: In the autobiographic parts of his humor book, Cross
described “my fantastically lazy and supremely irresponsible piece
of useless (bleep) of a dad.”

By comparison, Cross views hias
fiancee's parents warmly. “I'm just afraid I'm going to have too
much to drink and just say (to Russ Tamblyn), 'Daddy, I love you.'”

Cross' show started with a suggestion:
He was doing stand-up comedy in London, when TV producers suggested a
show about an America in London, aimed at both audiences.

“Portlandia,” by comparison,
started with a rock fan. Armisen says he was a big booster of the
Sleater-Kinney rock band and of Brownstein, its lead guitarist.

“I was and am really obsessed with
the band,” he said, “They just meant so much to me …. I
remember just driving around in my car, listening to full albums –
something I rarely do.”

He befriended Brownstein and her
bandmates. Then this Easterner from Long Island visited her Portland
world. “I liked how kind of overcast it was … The colors were
very dark and I just felt very comfortable there …. The people
there, I just liked everybody there.”

And Armisen fit right in, Brownstein
said. “He just has unwavering optimism and earnestness.”

Now they poke fun at Portland – and,
indirectly, mock themselves. “Portlandia” sometimes captures a vague world of well-meaning concepts.

So far, Brownstein said, people in the
Northwest don't seem to grumble about being treated unfairly.

“I don't think that we're driving
people away from Portland or Seattle,” she said. "But actually,
Seattle and Portland people would love that if we did – if we kept
the population right where it is.”

– “Portlandia” and “The
Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret,” 10 and 10:30 p.m.,
Fridays; second season starts Jan. 6, after the first “Portlandia”
season reruns from 7-10 p.m.

– Both rerun often, including 11 and
11:30 p.m. Sunday (Jan. 8), 10:30 and 11 p.m. Monday (Jan. 9).