Pasadena, Calif. -- Ted Turner's impassioned mea
culpa, a comedian mooning everyone to kick off Home Box Office's presentation and
a battery of new primetime series from cable networks can mean only one thing: It must be
the critics' tour.
During the cable portion of the Television Critics
Association summer tour here, from July 9 to 12, a wide variety of cable programmers were
all pitching their original primetime series.
The many original series being previewed were in addition
to cable's usual bumper crop of made-for-TV movies for the summer and fall. And,
echoing what has been said at prior TCA tours, a number of actors and producers -- most
prominently Jodie Foster -- insisted that their movie projects couldn't have been
done anywhere else but on risk-taking cable.
"I absolutely foresee doing more on cable, because I
realize that there are some things that are just incredibly well-suited to cable nowadays,
where people are willing to take the financial risks," said Foster, executive
producer of Showtime's The Baby Dance.
Cable courted TV critics from across the country at the TCA
tour, with presentations studded with talent as varied as fragile veteran Beach Boy Brian
Wilson, bitter Burt Reynolds, born-again Gary Busey, gracious Ann-Margret and former
"Scud Stud" Arthur Kent.
Afterward, several critics said they were particularly
intrigued by and enthusiastic about the eclectic assortment of programs coming from
Lifetime Television, BBC America, VH1, Sci-Fi Channel and Game Show Network.
But Fox Family Channel's Aug. 15 relaunch of The
Family Channel was still getting a negative buzz days after officials made their
Several TV writers pointed out that just a few years ago,
they and many of their peers used to skip the cable portion of the TCA tour. But critics
can't afford to miss it anymore.
"Cable has become more dominant as a cultural
force," TV Guide critic Matt Roush said.
MTV Networks and its stable of programming services
provided more details on a number of plans that have previously been announced. For
example, VH1 identified the films that will make up its first-ever slate of original
fiction and nonfiction made-for-TV movies.
Those include: The Two of Us, about a mythical
meeting of Paul McCartney and John Lennon after The Beatles' breakup; the documentary
Trouble Girls: Women in Rock; Sweetwater, the tragic story of lead singer
Nancy Nevins; the documentary Meat Loaf; That's Rock 'n' Roll,
featuring top rock performances; and Whirlygig, a dance-variety show.
At the tour, a number of critics were lauding as funny and
clever the new series that VH1 is debuting. That group of shows includes the half-hour Vinyl
Justice, in which two "music police" go out on patrol and stop people in
their cars to see what music they have on.
"They [VH1] are playing to their strengths,"
Roush said, referring to the network's new programming. "They really know how to
escape the clutter."
MTV: Music Television, continuing its major programming
revamping, unveiled two new shows: The Cut, a daily show that gives artists an
arena to present their talent; and Revue, where artists perform and talk about
themselves. MTV also ordered up to 22 new episodes of Celebrity Deathmatch; the
network said it has a pilot in production for its first one-hour drama; and it said it is
developing a 13-week soap opera based on C.D. Payne's Youth in Revolt.
The critics' reaction was particularly strong
and positive to Lifetime's three new original primetime series, which include two
sitcoms, Maggieand Oh Baby, as well as the hour-long drama Any
Day Now. Those shows caught the eye of Roush and several others.
"The three series looked great," said Diane
Eicher of the Denver Post. "I would watch any one of them."
Gail Pennington of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch
described the Lifetime shows, which debut Aug. 18, as "fabulous." She said,
"It's [Lifetime] really going to give the [broadcast] networks a run for their
And her critic-colleague, David Glasier of The
News-Herald in suburban Cleveland, agreed.
"They [Lifetime] seem to be extremely focused on their
niche now, which is the key to success for cable," Glasier said. "Their new
shows are so much better and so much smarter that what NBC did with its 'Ladies of
Monday' [Must-She TV] night."
In addition to touting The Baby Dance and its
airing of Lolita, Showtime on Aug. 1 will debut its two new original primetime
series: Linc's, which is like a black Cheersset in a
Washington, D.C., bar, featuring Pam Grier; and Rude Awakening, starring Sherilyn
Fenn and Lynn Redgrave, which is already being described as an American Absolutely
The blockbuster programming discussed at the TCA
included The Cold War, Cable News Network's 24-hour series, which debuts Sept.
27. Ted Turner, vice chairman of Time Warner Inc., was asked whether the public will tune
in to a documentary with such an exhaustive length.
"The Civil War [by Ken Burns] was 11 hours, and
people watched it," Turner said. "Believe it or not, [Cold War] is
already nicely in the black on its first run, and it's only sold, I think, in about
40 countries ... The reaction's going to be very positive. I know that because
I've seen it, and I'm not a dummkopf,although I don't feel
quite as smart as I did a couple of weeks ago."
Shortly thereafter, Turner went on to personally and
profusely apologize for CNN's "Operation Tailwind" story, which the network
has since retracted, which charged that the U.S. military used lethal nerve gas on
American defectors in Laos during the Vietnam War.
On the Cold War series, Glasier gave CNN credit for
taking on the project.
"I have always been a champion of endeavors like
that," he said. "When a network aims high and doesn't apologize for it, I
say bully for them."
Just as HBO began its presentation, comedian Bob
Odenkirk, star of its late-night Mr. Show with Bob and David, mooned the
audience of critics. They remained pretty much unfazed, as did HBO CEO Jeff Bewkes.
"Notice, by the way, no tanning -- no artificial or
regular tanning on that end," Bewkes pointed out, referring to Odenkirk's rear.
"All of our programming will live up to that today."
Two of HBO's key original movies for the coming season
are The Rat Pack, starring Ray Liotta as Frank Sinatra; and Winchell,
featuring Stanley Tucci as ornery gossip columnist Walter Winchell. The Rat Pack
debuts Aug. 22, while Winchell comes on Nov. 14.
Fox Family's unveiling of its new primetime
lineup and its plans to scrap all of The Family Channel's programming -- except The
700 Club, which it must keep on the air as part if its deal to acquire Pat
Robertson's network -- was criticized during its session. And critics continued to
carp at other networks' presentations, as well.
At Nickelodeon's TCA session, one critic, referring to
Fox Family, told Nick officials, "We had a presentation here a couple of days ago
from another network that's going into the kids' and family business that
didn't seem to have any smidgen of responsible broadcasting. You guys have always had
a smidgen. Can you talk about the responsibility of a programmer to do something other
than to simply entertain and make money, especially when it comes to kids'
Some critics were turned off by Fox Family's decision
to feature reality-based comedies that have "attitude" on a network that has
been traditional and family-value oriented, airing reruns such as Hawaii Five-0.
"I wanted to tell them to run for their lives,"
Pennington said. "Their programming is a retread of Fox [broadcast stuff]. The bottom
line is quality, even sight unseen."
Glasier complained about Fox Family "putting the pedal
to the metal on 'attitude'... It was a sell job, and that's not what we
need to hear."
But Glasier, who has been attending the TCA since June
1985, added that Fox Family is a network worth watching, and change isn't a bad idea.
"The Family Channel had gotten very musty and
redundant because of [Nick at Nite's] TV Land," he said.