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CBS' message to TV critics: Tradition works on television, if you're CBS

moonves_a.jpgLOS ANGELES -- Les Moonves, the guy who turned CBS from status as TV's old age home to one of the most successful networks on television, says there's a big reason why his shows are racking up viewers even as critics seem not to notice.

Traditional TV works. Especially on CBS.

"Tradition has worked...all our businesses are working," said Moonves, the only president and CEO of a major television corporation who seems to enjoy pressing the flesh with critics at their semi-annual party, holding court at a reception in the Beverly Hilton Hotel Sunday night.

But doesn't the lack of edgy programming keep the network from getting critical praise and Emmy nominations? "I don't think our network's not doing edgy," added Moonves, who nevetheless had trouble naming a cutting edge, Emmy-bait show on his air beyond The Good Wife. "Cutting edge is the wrong is the wrong word. Commercially viable quality is the better word."

CBS made that statement with the guest list at its party Sunday, featuring stars from all its television platforms, including CBS, Showtime, The CW network and beyond. 

At one end of the reception, a mini-Friends reunion was underway, as Web Therapy star Lisa Kudrow hugged former co-star Matt LeBlanc, now leading Showtime's comedy Episodes. Both were briefly joined by Aisha Tyler, a pal who once appeared regularly on Friends who now serves as a co-anchor on CBS' daytime show, The Talk.

Elsewhere, Dennis Quaid and Michael Chiklis were talking up their new Mob-meets-a-new school cowboy show Vegas (though Chiklis also spent some time touting his progressive rock band, MCB). Charlie's Angels co-star Lucy Liu took questions on her role as a new school Dr. Watson on the network's Sherlock Holmes series Elementary, while British actress and Black Swan alum Janet Montgomery explained how she watched Mira Sorvino and the 1988 film Working Girl to figure her note-perfect New Jersey accent for the new show Made in Jersey.

cbs-nina-tassler-tca.jpgCBS entertainment president Nina Tassler explained the influx of talent by noting that the film industry has become a more narrow field, focusing on internationally-friendly blockbusters and super small films, making television a more attractive medium for increasing numbers of film stars and producers -- even on a network with the most traditional values of them all.

That may be why CBS only had four new shows to tout at this year's TV Critics Association summer press tour, proudly touting its status as the only network which will stick with the traditional model of debuting its new shows when the 2012-13 TV season officially starts in the week of Sept. 24.

Critics use CBS as a synonym for the kind of formulaic,yet-profitable programming exemplified by shows such as NCIS and CSI -- predictable, easy to replicate shows featuring a crime of the week and close-ended stories which can score well in repeat broadcasts.

But as complex dramas such as Breaking Bad and Mad Men soak up the attention from critics and Emmy love, there is a sense here that CBS is stretching its brand a bit -- developing the story of Las Vegas's transformation into a gambling mecca with Quaid, Chiklis and a concept developed by Goodfellas screenwriter Nicholas Pileggi.

"When a producer comes through our doors, they know the bar is high,: Tassler said. "They know it’s competitive. They know it’s hard to get on the schedule. But when they do, they are given the best chance for success."

Perhaps its a measure of CBS' stability that even its biggest panel of the day -- bringing on the anchors of CBS This Morning days after replacing longtime anchor Erica Hill with NBC expatriate Norah O'Donnell -- passed with little controversy, as the crew took questions mostly focused on how it will possibly climb out of a distant third place finish competing with NBC's Today and ABC's Good Morning America.

"I think when you have an opportunity to put someone in that really is a good fit, why not take that?" said Chris Licht, executive producer of CBS This Morning, himself imported from MSNBC, where he produced Morning Joe.

"I do think that the audience is smart, and the audience knows if things are being done as a gimmick or to make original reporting, which is what we’re all about, more a part of the broadcast," he said. "So I think the audience that we have is there for the format, is there for what we stand for, and what we’re doing, and I think they’re going to very much understand why Norah’s there."

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Charlie Sheen's appearance raises question: Is FX's Anger Management smart business or bad enabling?

sheen1.jpgLOS ANGELES -- Twitching and squirming, there was not a star who looked less comfortable in his skin than Charlie Sheen did Saturday morning.

Facing critics here to discuss his new sitcom, Anger Management, he had to know it wasn't a friendly room. The show has garnered a pile of harsh reviews since its debut last month, and some critics still choke on the idea that a man with a long history of substance abuse issues and fighting with romantic partners could build a public image as a harmless raconteur.

But ask him how his life is different now -- past the most epic public meltdown in history -- to ensure he might not lose it again, and you don't get a very insightful answer.

"It was sort of like a dream I couldn’t wake up from or some runaway train I couldn’t get off of, but I was the conductor, you know," Sheen said, fidgeting in his chair so much, he accidentally pulled off his clip-on microphone. "It was something that could never happen again, so that was pretty cool. Not that anybody wants it to, including me. I learned a lot. I learned stick to what you know. Don’t go on the road with a one man show in 33 days in 21 cities with no act. (Laughter.) No act. Warning. So, yeah. So my life’s different now that I’m not insane anymore."

Watching the press session unfold, as executive producer Bruce Helford (The Drew Carey Show, The George Lopez Show) seemed to act as both translator and handler, you had to wonder: Was this a business deal with a TV superstar or the enabling of a guy hanging on by his fingernails?

Or both?

"I know that this group of people didn’t like it all that well, at least judging by your reviews," said FX president John Landgraf, speaking to critics before Sheen took the stage. "But, look, some of you reviewed it in the context of, you know, comparing it to LOUIE or comparing it to WILFRED or comparing it to ARCHER. And, you know, with due respect, I think its fair comparisons really are to — you know, to “Two and a Half Men” and “2 Broke Girls” and “Mike & Molly” and multicamera shows. And in that regard, I think it’s developing really nicely. I think it will stand very fairly and very squarely in with four camera sitcoms."

Of course, those shows Landgraf mentioned are also sitcoms that critics don't think much of, creatively.

charliesheenshawneesmith2012summertca0tz0www5dvwl.jpgWhat we think may not matter; according to FX, Anger Management has been drawing 13.8 million viewers and 7.1 million viewers in the advertiser-friendly age of 18 to 49. Those numbers are two to three times the viewership of critically-lauded FX shows such as Louie, Archer and Justified.

If the show keeps its current viewership, FX must decide if it will make 90 more episodes after the first 10 finish airing. If those "back 90" episodes get picked up, then Sheen's father, former West Wing star Martin Sheen, will join the cast as his father.

"It’s just the people that you’re the closest with you go the farthest from," said Sheen, whose sister and brother also work on the show. "So why don’t I just bring them all to work? Just bring them all to work."

Clad in plaid shorts and a wrinkled shirt, Sheen looked a bit like had just rolled out of bed and walked into the session. After the formal questioning ended, he donned a pair of black-rimmed glasses which gave him a vague Nicholsonian look, especially considering his rapid-fire speech pattern, as if his thoughts were moving too fast to be sifted into sentences.

And for critics who have wondered why the show feels so awkward at times, Helford offered a clue: Scenes in the first 10 episodes were filmed out of order, without rehearsal, leaving actors unsure where scenes were going on what their characters were doing.

"Almost every actor came to me at some given point and said, 'What am I doing?' because they never had the chance to feel the entire play," Helford said. "Usually when you do a multicamera sitcom, you do the whole play in order for an audience. There’s no audience there. So more like film style, it’s out of order...It's a difficult process."

What critics never learned during his time with us, is how Sheen has changed his life to keep to old headlines -- massive partying, fighting with producers, clashing with ex-wives, gathering multiple girlfriend "goddesses" -- from emerging again.

"Anything I’m doing is fun, as far as I’m concerned," Sheen said. "It’s how it’s interpreted that I have an issue with. I don’t look at it as chaos. I look at it as challenges and things in the moment that have to be dealt with. And, you know, it’s all about choices, and sometimes you don’t always make the right choice."

Some folks might say that sounds like denial. But FX seems ready to make a 90-episode gamble on Sheen keeping his psyche together at least long enough to create another marketable TV franchise.

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Louis C.K., Showtime's Homeland win big in TCA Awards, otherwise known as the SuperNerdProm

tca-cranston2.jpgLOS ANGELES -- Everyone had an excuse.

Comic Louis C.K. spoke passionately about picking up his daughter from sleepover camp after a month of not seeing her. The cast of PBS' British drama hit Downton Abbey had just appeared at a little gig called the London Olympics Opening Ceremonies.

But longtime late night host David Letterman had the best excuse for not appearing in person Saturday at the Television Critics Association's 28th annual TCA Awards:

"As my friends know, this is the night I eat glass," cracked the host in a pre-taped message, accepting the Career Achievement Award for serving as host of a landmark late night talk show. Later, he had a look-alike bound onstage to grab the Lucite trophy and run offstage while the crowd looked on in bewildered amusement.

tca-danes1.jpgThat's the tone of the TCAs, which unfolded as a loose, occasionally-bawdy celebration of TV shows critics value most, with awards handed out in a ceremony which is not televised or videotaped, giving celebrities a rare chance to be a little naughty in public without fear of seeing it immortalized in footage for eons.

If the White House Correspondents' Dinner is the Nerdprom, then the TCAs are the Super Nerd Prom, with people who can have passionate arguments about the subtext in Charlie Sheen's lame-o sitcom Anger Management rubbing shoulders with stars from some of the best series on television.

Historically, those who win awards attend the ceremony, which has welcomed Tom Hanks and the cast of Mad Men in previous years. This time out, however, circumstance made getting to the Beverly Hilton's International Ballroom difficult for stars such as Louis C.K., who must have said "I'm sorry" at least a half dozen times in two video messages sent from Albany, N.Y. where he was actually picking up his daughter from camp.

Breaking Bad star Bryan Cranston set the tone as host -- a gig where a funny celebrity bounds onstage to offer a brief comedy routine before critics announce the actual awards. "Welcome to the Beverly Hilton; Hollywood's favorite place to die,"quipped the star, in a not-so-veiled reference to the hotel's infamous history, which includes the passing of pop star Whitney Houston and actor Peter Finch.

Showtime's Homeland and Louis C.K. won multiple awards, with other honors parceled to ABC Family's Switched at Birth, HBO's Game of Thrones and Downton Abbey. Cheers was honored with the TCA's Heritage Award, leading to a sidesplitting speech by former head writer Ken Levine.

"We were getting our ass kicked by something called Tucker's Witch," he said, recalling the show's low ratings in its first year. "Who knew the star who would become a movie star was Woody (Harrelson)?"

tca-louisck.jpg2012 TCA Award recipients are as follows:
•    Individual Achievement in Drama: Claire Danes (“Homeland,” Showtime)
•    Individual Achievement in Comedy: Louis C.K. (“Louie,” FX)
•    Outstanding Achievement in News and Information: “60 Minutes” (CBS)
•    Outstanding Achievement in Reality Programming: “So You Think You Can Dance” (Fox)
•    Outstanding Achievement in Youth Programming: “Switched at Birth” (ABC Family)
•    Outstanding New Program: “Homeland” (Showtime)
•    Outstanding Achievement in Movies, Miniseries and Specials: “Masterpiece: Downton Abbey” (PBS)
•    Outstanding Achievement in Drama: “Breaking Bad” (AMC) 
•    Outstanding Achievement in Comedy: “Louie” (FX)
•    Career Achievement Award: David Letterman
•    Heritage Award: “Cheers”
•    Program of the Year: “Game of Thrones” (HBO)

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Modern Family stars strike a deal with ABC, saving the network's most important hit

steve-levitan.jpgLOS ANGELES -- In a room packed with preening actors and nervous television executives, there may have been no one in this space more relieved than Modern Family's executive producer, Steve Levitan.

When the tall, recognizable producer strode into the International Ballroom at the Beverly Hilton Friday, walking through ABC's evening reception for its new fall stars, experienced reporters knew something was up. With the cast of his hit show reportedly in tense negotiations for salary hikes amid a lawsuit alleging their contracts were invalid, Levitan would have been insane to face a crowd of journalists while on the hook for such a hot issue that he couldn't possibly talk about.

Then the news spread: A deal had been reached with stars Sofia Vergara, Ty Burrell, Julie Bowen, Jesse Tyler Ferguson and Eric Stonestreet, almost all of the adult stars on ABC's highest-rated comedy (Star Ed O'Neill already had a substantially different deal than his co-stars). 

According to the Hollywood Reporter, the cast sealed pay increases boosting their salaries from $65,000 per episode to $170,000 or $175,000 per episode in the coming, 22-episode season, including bonuses (reportedly, the actors sought $200,000 per episode). The cast also gets a small percentage of the show's "back end" profits -- revenues which come from sales of the show into syndication which could flow for many years after the program stops producing new episodes (O'Neill already had such a deal, in exchange for taking a lower salary when the series began.)

modern-family.jpgSo why did it take a lawsuit, leaked rumors of salary negotiations and a brief cast walkout on a "table read" rehearsal to produce an agreement?

“There was a studio, a network, and about six agents and six lawyers (involved); that’s why it took so long," said Levitan, eager to smooth over the stories of harsh negotiations. "I don’t know who made it public. Personally, I deeply regret that any of this went public. I would love to find out who released all the details. Because at the end of the day, this could have easily been settled quietly and it made no difference."

On Friday, Levitan cast the current result as an inevitability. Modern Family is ABCs most successful comedy; every adult member of the cast now seeking a pay raise has been nominated for Emmy awards two years running, the show returned to record ratings last season (more than 14-million people) and has been credited with reviving the family comedy on network television.

In such circumstances, it is expected that a show's cast would get pay raises to recognize their contributions, which made the negotiation impasse all the more puzzling. Levitan agreed.

"Not for one second did I ever think it would come to (writing characters out of the show or delaying the series debut)," he said. "At a certain point, there's an inevitable conclusion to this, every time. That's what happens 99.9 percent of the time. And I'm sure everyone will be relived to be back onstage."

Loathe to share many plot details, Levitan acknowledged that the first episode of the new season this fall will feature each member of the show's extended family finding out that Vergara's Gloria Pritchett is pregnant, a detail revealed in the final episode of last season.

And does Levitan expect tough negotiations with the show's other stars: the young actors playing the family's children?

"I hear Lilly (played by 5-year-old Aubrey Anderson-Emmons) is going to be a monster," the producer said, laughing. "I hear she's demanding a swing set."

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Dancing with the Stars all star Bristol Palin takes tough questions as ABC clams up on Modern Family

bristol_palin_summer_tca_a_p.jpgLOS ANGELES -- Bristol Palin thinks she's gotten a raw deal.

"I like gays," said Palin, who has spoken out in the past on her belief that gay people shouldn't have the right to marry. "I'm sick of people saying I'm homophobic. Just because I believe in traditional marriage doesn't mean I hate anybody...But this is not about politics; it's just about dancing and having fun."

Unfortunately, Palin's declaration felt loaded with hypocrisy; a bit like saying you love women but allowing them to vote would destroy the nation.

Still, it also was a predictable script when the daughter of onetime Alaska governor Sarah Palin faced journalists here in a press conference to announce celebrities filling the all-star edition of Dancing with the Stars set to debut this fall.

It unfolded like this: Palin dodged questions on the way her family has jumped into reality TV shows and her views about gay people, blaming the media for unfair coverage. And journalists, sensing the intoxicating smell of horse puckey, kept pushing her for better answers.

"God provides these opportunities," she said, in response to a question on whether reality TV had become the Palin family business. "The press is going to be talking about me, anyway. So I might as well be having fun."

One reporter put it plainly: Reality TV is a good gig, with great pay for doing mostly-fun things. Why act like media attention has "forced" you to chase fame and fortune on unscripted shows?

"You guys -- and I do mean you, the media -- will talk about me even if I would have gone back to my little life in Alaska," she said, an edge in her voice. "Do I like providing for my son? Yes, I do."

But in a sense, unscripted TV has become the Palin family business. Her dad Todd Palin stars in the NBC competition series Stars Earn Stripes, her mother had a TLC series Sarah Palin's Alaska and remains a paid analyst for Fox News Channel.

1343409916_kirstie-alley-bristol-palin-pam-anderson-article.jpgAnd Bristol Palin saw her 3-year-old son make national headlines when Lifetime aired a scene in her other reality TV show, Life's a Tripp, which seemed to depict him calling his aunt by a slur for a gay man (Bristol Palin later wrote in a blog post that he used the other f-word profanity in the scene, which was bleeped to obscure what was said).

What seems obvious, is that the Palin want the advantages of celebrity -- fame, big paychecks, flattering media showcases, adoring fans -- but have little patience for questions about possible hypocrisies or inconsistencies. 

Palin received the most pointed questions during a press conference here about Dancing with the Stars which revealed the 13 all-stars slated to compete on the show. Joining Palin will be former winners, including Olympic skater Apolo Ohno (Season 4), gymnast Shawn Johnson (Season 8), singer Drew Lachey (Season 2), NFL star Emmitt Smith (Season 3), race car driver Helio Castroneves (Season 5) and soap star Kelly Monaco (Season 1).

Among those who didn't win but were still popular: sex symbol Pamela Anderson (Season 10), actress Kirstie Alley (Season 12), soap actor  Gilles Marini (Season 8), singer Joey Fatone (Season 4), and reality TV star Melissa Rycroft (Season 8).

bristol_dwts.jpgViewers will pick the 13th all star in voting which opened this morning between several candidates: Disney star Kyle Massey, fashion expert Carson Kressley and singer Sabrina Bryan.

There are few actual big-name stars in this roster, raising the question: Can Dancing improve on last season's ratings -- some of the show's worst-ever numbers -- with a cast of sorta-stars viewers have seen already?

"It's a target-rich environment," quipped host Tom Bergeron, whose quick wit is sometimes softened for celebrities who are just getting used to Dancing with the Stars as a season begins. "All these guys already know how to do it, so I don't have to be as nice."

modern-family.jpgThe session capped an eventful morning for ABC at the TV Critics Association's summer press tour; earlier entertainment president Paul Lee tried avoiding questions about Modern Family, which saw a "table read" rehearsal this week pushed back a day as the show's adult stars teamed up to file a lawsuit aimed at boosting their pay amid the series' blockbuster success.

So far, the show hasn't re-signed the stars of its most successful comedy; the linchpin of its Wednesday lineup.

But Lee wouldn't even answer if the network has a backup plan if contract talks fail with Sofia Vergara, Julie Bowen, Eric Stonestreet, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Ty Burrell and Ed O'Neil, who recently joined his castmates' lawsuit.

"We're negotiating and we're optimistic about it," said Lee, who declined questions on why negotiations have become so public, given the show's importance to ABC and the Hollywood tradition of giving stars from hit shows substantial salary increases. "We expect the show to (debut) on time this season."

Otherwise, Lee talked up the network's slate of soapy new dramas and stabs at comedy, including returning family sitcoms to Friday nights and establishing a block of "good vs. evil" shows on Sundays with Once Upon a Time, the relocated soap Revenge and new supernatural soap 666 Park Avenue.

"You have to build up every year," he said, shrugging off the fact that ABC tied NBC for last place among viewers aged 18 to 49 last season. "You have to add a new brick, a new block, every year." 

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Tampa native JoAnna Garcia Swisher takes another shot at network TV stardom on NBC's Animal Practice

joannagarcia.jpgLOS ANGELES -- When we first met, 10 years ago, JoAnna Garcia was a bubbly, eager blonde transplant from The Big Guava; a graduate of Tampa Catholic High School scoring her first big showbiz success in the cast of The WB network's hit sitcom, Reba.

And when we reconnected last Tuesday, chatting poolside at the Beverly Hilton during an NBC party which featured GOP star Sarah Palin and a trained monkey -- more on that later -- what surprised most was how much of that energetic, good-natured performer was still there.

Her hair is a deep auburn now and the name is different (she's billed as JoAnna Garcia Swisher after marrying New York Yankees outfielder Nick Swisher two years ago). She's also joined the cast of NBC's new comedy Animal Practice after lead roles in comedies on ABC, CBS and the CW.

But Garcia Swisher, 32, remains that rarest of breeds in Hollywood; a professional, positive, steadily working actress who always seems one big part away from superstar status.

"I feel like a lot of that has to do with coming to work, being nice and grateful and kind and loving," she said. "I've been around and worked hard -- the work ethic is important. And I think that goes a long way, even though sometimes that doesn't get the most attention in our business."

Her most recent burst of good fortune came in May, when NBC snapped her up for the cast of its new comedy not long after CBS passed on buying a pilot she developed with producer Greg Berlanti (Green Lantern, Brothers and Sisters). The only drawback: She was replacing actress Amy Huberman, who had originated the role in an early version of the Animal Practice pilot.

animal-practicex-inset-community.jpgIt's a typical move in Hollywood; once some pilots are rejected and actors become available, better-known performers are often added to shows moving forward. Still, Garcia Swisher was cautious (she was on the receiving end of such treatment back in 2000, when NBC cut her from the comedy DAG, which freed her to join Reba).

"I've never done that before; obviously, I was very nervous and wanted to have a lot of respect for the actress that worked on the pilot," she said. "But I also had a lot of ideas. And I think everyone knew what type of comedic actress I was and what I bring -- good or bad."

That, I would realize later, is a trademark for Garcia Swisher, who often follows any statement which might sound bold or boastful with a self-deprecating aside, swiftly undercutting any perceptions of pridefulness.

Since Reba, she's had many at bats in TV comedy: CBS' Welcome to the Captain, ABC's Better with You and The CW's Privileged. It's the culmination of a long career which began with playing a 10-year-old Wendy n the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center's children's production of Peter Pan, through the '90s Nickelodeon series Are You Afraid of the Dark? and supporting roles on classic shows such as Party of Five and Freaks and Geeks.

Her biggest lesson? "It's a business; it's not personal," she said, acknowledging a resume dotted with promising series which came to untimely ends. "Anytime a show doesn't succeed or you really don't understand a big feel like 'Is this a knock on me?' I realized I had to go Zen and resign myself to knowing there's a bigger picture. All you can offer is your best work."

flo-reba1.jpgGarcia Swisher is on a cusp of an important trend, as NBC tries to develop so-called "broader" comedies to pull itself out of third-place in the race for young TV viewers. For some critics, the word "broad" is a substitute for "dumbed down," and Animal Practice's use of a cute monkey for borderline slapstick moments -- Garcia Swisher plays a no-nonsense administrator taking over an animal hospital where her antisocial ex-boyfriend is the top veterinarian -- has led to some barbs.

But the actress shrugs off those notions, noting that the comedy really centers on humans like Weeds alum Justin Kirk's dysfunctional veterinarian George Coleman, who finds humans so annoying he gets along with the pets better than their owners.

nick-swisher-girlfriend.jpgA whirlwind courtship led to her to marry Nick Swisher -- two days after she moved to New York for a part on The CW's Gossip Girl, she met the Yankees outfielder; 10 months later they were engaged and six months after that they were married in a Palm Beach ceremony where former co-star Reba McEntire served as a bridesmaid. The two have tried to live as down-to-Earth a life as possible, visiting troops in Afghanistan and buying a home in the same Tampa neighborhood where she grew up.

"We didn't buy for any other reason than we wanted to put roots down," said Garcia Swisher, the daughter of physician Jay Garcia and ex-schoolteacher mom Loraine. "Our hope is to give our children a real shot at a good old Tampa life. My heart is there."

It may not make her a fixture on TMZ or the latest gossip sheet, but Garcia Swisher hopes to pull off a seemingly impossible feat; building a solid career in TV and film -- she's in The Internship, an upcoming film with Wedding Crashers co-stars Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson -- while keeping a low offscreen profile.

"I was never that girl hired for my big boobs or perfect body and I'm very comfortable being in this place at this point in my life," she said. "I sit back, don't overthink anything and follow my heart. I've resigned myself to enjoying the the most lovely way."

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WFTS-Ch. 28 names Florida-raised meteorologist Shay Ryan as new morning forecaster

shay-ryan2.jpgNearly three months after the mysterious firing of morning weather forecaster Stephanie Roberts, Tampa ABC affiliate WFTS-Ch. 28 has named her replacement: Sunshine State-raised University of Florida graduate Shay Ryan.

According to press materials from WFTS, Ryan was raised in Ft. Lauderdale and earned a degree in telecommunications from the University of Florida. Most recently, she worked as a weekend meteorologist for WNYW -TV, the Fox affiliate in New York, also appearing on the Fox News Channel. Before that, she worked in Detroit, Savannah, Ga., and Greenville, Miss.

She replaces Roberts, who was fired with little explanation in early May. Neither Roberts nor the station would say whether her departure was connected to an unpublicized arrest for driving under the influence in October or whether she informed the station when the arrest occurred.

Ryan starts work Aug. 13, according to WFTS. The station's press release is below:

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ABC News sees victory lap for Good Morning America hobbled by pointed questions on Brian Ross' mistake

abc_gma_anchors_nt_2_110608_wg.jpgLOS ANGELES -- They tried so hard to set the stage for a victory lap.

Facing journalists here at the TV Critics Association's summer press tour, ABC News president Ben Sherwood kicked off an early morning presentation touting the division's success competing against NBC's powerhouse Today show, essentially attracting the same amount of viewers aged 25 to 54 last week -- a feat he compared to winning an Olympic gold medal after 15 years of competition.

But what most of the journalists gathered here wanted to talk about, was the costly mistake in which reporter Brian Ross last week implied Colorado shooting suspect James Holmes may have been a member of the conservative tea party movement, because a man with the same name was in the membership list of a website. It was quickly determined that the man on the website was a different person with the same, admittedly common name.

While the entire Good Morning America anchor team and top producers looked on during a satellite hookup from New York, journalists asked whether Ross' mistake made it tougher for the public to believe the news division in other controversies, including an assertion by Holmes' mother that her responses during an interview with a producer were mischaracterized and allegations that reports on Holmes acting erratically in jail aren't true.

Clearly expecting the question, Sherwood noted that Ross called the Jim Holmes who was a tea party member and apologized to him, while promising ABC News would tighten its procedures to prevent similar mistakes in the future.

But during close questioning by reporters after the press conference, he eventually admitted the mistake was mostly made by Ross, a longtime investigative reporter whose big scoops have been marred by some high profile missteps. And although Sherwood gave Ross "a very serious and stern conversation" after the mistake, the reporter has not been suspended or officially reprimanded.

roberts-decoder-articleinline.jpg"We put something on the air that we did not know to be true," said Sherwood, who later noted he was on a plane when the mistake was made, but the news division kept the error from airing outside the East Coast broadcast and corrected it immediately. "And the part of it that we knew to be true, was not germane to the story that we were doing."

Still, when reporters asked if the fact of Holmes political affiliation was even worth reporting, ABC News spokesman Jeff Schneider called the query" a crazy hypothetical," denouncing a Denver Post column suggesting they stumbled on the errant connection by conducting Internet searches on the shooter's name and "tea party" to see if he was connected to the hardcore conservative group.

This concept is important to some people who already maintain a liberally-biased media is trying to discredit conservative groups with unfair reporting. And the real answer is probably too complicated for a press conference; it's tough to know if his membership in any organization is worth reporting until you know all about that connection, including why he's a member and what he's done in the group.

Good Morning America co-anchor Robin Roberts said she would likely take medical leave in late August or early September to begin treatment for cancer; a crisis which has sparked an outpouring of affection from fans. But news that stars volunteering to fill in include everyone from Katie Couric and Barbara Walters to Diane Sawyer, Kelly Ripa and rest of The View's co-hosts, also proves how quickly an expression of solidarity and concern can start to look like a programming move.

"I'm not goin' anywhere; I'm stayin right here," Roberts joked to applause from her co-anchors. "It's so fascinating/scary how you prepare for something like this."

katie-couric.jpgMinutes later, onetime NBC and CBS star Katie Couric faced the press, touting the Sept. 10 debut of her new daytime talk show, Katie. Executive produced by her former boss at the Today show Jeff Zucker -- Couric insisted the former head of NBC Entertainment would be so involved, he'd be sitting in the control room -- the program features a theme song by Sheryl Crow and a host who has vaulted from top jobs at two rival networks.

"I think I'm a little scared, which is good," said Couric, noting test shows for the program, tagged as "smart with heart" in promos, starts in August. "If I weren't, I would worry...I want to do the best job I can do and really be who I am and not be too affected by other hosts and other programs and how they're doing it."

Couric also expressed sympathy for two ousted morning show anchors she knows: Today's Ann Curry and CBS This Morning's Erica Hill, who the network announced today would be replaced by former NBC correspondent Norah O'Donnell in the fall.

"I have to refamiliarize the audience with the kind of person I was on the Today show a little bit," she said. "

She also admitted inviting as show guests President Barack Obama, GOP candidate Mitt Romney and tea party favorite Sarah Palin -- whose infamous stumbles during an interview with her was credited with seriously damaging Palin's candidacy for Vice President in 2008.

But has Palin responded?

"Not yet," Couric said with a laugh.

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My NPR adventure: Talking Sherman Hemsley and George Jefferson after great actor's passing

george-jefferson-on-the-jeffersons.jpgSad as it is to see major TV icons pass away, the losses do inspire us to remember how much these folks meant to us in the first place -- how their rise and development mirrored the pace of our lives and culture.

So it was oddly comforting to spend time with NPR Wednesday dissecting the life and legacy of Sherman Hemsley, the man who brought an energetic life to one of TV's most enduring characters, George Jefferson.

One thing we didn't get around to discussing -- explored in this excellent post on Richard Prince's Journal-isms online column -- was speculation among some fans that Hemsley may have been gay.

Combined with the recent, posthumous outing of astronaut Sally Ride, the chatter about Hemsley, who was not married and had no children, got journalism ethicists talking about how to discuss such issues when they may surface for the first time in a celebrity's obituary.

At NPR, our focus was on the character's impact, the way The Jeffersons' reflected the new direction of socially-conscious sitcoms at the time and the impact playing such a character may have had on Hemsley, who died Tuesday at age 74 in his Texas home.

Check it out below.

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Sarah Palin on attending the RNC in Tampa: "We'll have an announcement in a couple of days."

aynobzpcmaa9e7w.jpgLOS ANGELES -- It was an odd sight; even for a party where one of the most popular guests was a trained monkey.

But as TV critics gathered poolside at the Beverly Hilton Hotel Tuesday for an NBC reception touting its new fall shows, they were joined by a startling, unexpected figure: onetime GOP vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin.

Palin, looking glamorous in an olive-colored dress, Hollywood-ready wrap-around designer sunglasses and high heels, had crashed the party with her husband Todd Palin, star of a reality show featuring celebrities executing military exercises, Stars Earn Stripes. (to see a photo of her there, click here)

But the only question this Florida reporter had for the former governor of Alaska and Tea Party favorite, was a simple one:

Will we see you at the Republican National Convention in Tampa this August?

"We'll have an announcement in a couple of days," said Palin, as an aide insisted journalists direct questions to Todd Palin. "I don't know if we'll do anything fancy as a press conference, but we'll get the word out."

As the GOP convention draws closer, rumors persist that Palin is scouting space to rent in Tampa and supporters wonder if she will be given a speaking slot. Palin declined to speculate on any of that Tuesday, preferring to shift conversation to husband Todd's performance on Stars Earn Stripes, telling another reporter it was "a great opportunity to support a great cause."

Despite her previous statements about "lamestream media," Sarah Palin seemed right at home with the members of the Television Critics Association, chatting amiably with journalists as some pulled out cellphone cameras to catch the moment -- a violation of protocol which later drew an emailed warning from the group's president.

Todd Palin is the third family member to star in a reality show, after daughter Bristol's appearances on ABC's Dancing with the Stars and her own Lifetime show on raising her son as a teen, single mom, Life's a Tripp. Sarah Palin also starred in a TLC series, Sarah Palin's Alaska.

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RIP Sherman Hemsley, the man behind the unlikeliest icon of black achievement, George Jefferson

hemsley-george-jefferson3951.jpgHe was headstrong and arrogant, occasionally racially prejudiced and given to shouting for his wife the same way some people might call for a problem child.

But George Jefferson was also a TV icon -- the central character in the longest-running sitcom centered on a black cast in TV history, a spin off of Norman Lear's landmark All in the Family comedy centered on Archie Bunker's former neighbors. Every TV fan of a certain age can sing the gospel-tinged theme song Movin' On Up, and most kids from my neighborhood could do the George Jefferson - a dance based on the funky shuffle the character broke into during moments of celebration.

For that reason, the pop culture world should take a moment to recognize the eccentric, talented actor who created George Jefferson, Sherman Hemsley, who passed away of natural causes today in El Paso, Texas, according to TMZ and the Los Angeles Times.

Like a lot of African American kids growing up in the '70s, I dug the cornball flavor of Hemsley's Jefferson, even while I knew his character was a bit old fashioned and politically incorrect. It was great to see a black character credited with building a business successful enough to get out of the ghetto; even if the plotlines on The Jeffersons sometimes left you wondering how hardheaded George managed to pull it off.

Though they were blown up to cartoonish proportions -- especially his conflicts with long-suffering wife Louise "Weezy" Jefferson, played as the ultimate straight woman by Isabel Sanford -- Jefferson's issues were the issues of smart, successful black folks, moving up in the world as the bonds of officially sanctioned segregation and oppression were loosened.

Cultural critics often talk of the way black performers in the early days of television used their talent to transcend stereotypes, turning characters which might be limited into truer touchstones just by a turn of phrase, an attitude or stride. With his energetic cackle and weaving strut, Hemsley had that in spades, handling the words of mostly white sitcom writers with the same aplomb Jefferson used to handle everyone in his orbit.

hemsley-nickatnite.jpgSo even as the world laughed at Jefferson's suspicion of white folks and desperation to impress his new, wealthy neighbors, others saw storylines where George had to relate to pals from his old neighborhood or rein in a hard-partying, wayward son and nodded ruefully at the truth within. (given what George Jefferson likely went through to get where he was, its understandable he might get a little twisted on certain issues of race and class.)

Small wonder the show lasted 11 seasons before its cancellation.

Perhaps as proof of the character's enduring impact, Hemsley kept playing George Jefferson even after the show ended, playing the Jefferson-like, irascible church deacon Ernest Frye on the series Amen. He also recreated the characters on shows such as Fresh Prince of Bel Air and Tyler Perry's House of Payne.

As a fan, I always wondered if Hemsley -- a singer and stage actor who came to fame in the Broadway show about a traveling preacher, Purlie -- felt hemmed in by the impact of George Jefferson. After so many years playing him, it seemed impossible to imagine Hemsley as anyone else; which can be the kiss of death for an actor.

Regardless, Hemsley leaves as his legacy a character burned into America's pop culture consciousness like few others -- an enduring symbol of social progress in ways intentional and not.

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Gwen Ifill talks on bringing Washington Week to St. Petersburg and the subtle departure of Jim Lehrer

ifill1.jpgLOS ANGELES -- She's sitting in a quiet corner of the Beverly Hilton Hotel Sunday, minutes after telling a roomful of journalists how PBS will offer its first all-female anchor team to cover the big political conventions and presidential contest, teaming with pal Judy Woodruff in their first election without longtime anchor Jim Lehrer.

But NewsHour co-anchor Gwen Ifill's mind is on Florida and St. Petersburg, where her Washington Week show will tape the Friday before the Republican National Convention in Tampa, taking over the Palladium Theatre Aug. 24 for a look at the issues facing the GOP and the state.

"It's easy for (national political reporters) to be lazy in Florida," Ifill said. "You walk into a room, and a story leaps out at you. But it might not be the right story. It might not be accurate...You don't have to do a full-on investigative project in Wauchula. But you can hear the voices of those people that normally don't get talked to and find a way to make them part of the discussion."

That's the goal, in part, of PBS' convention coverage, which will find Ifill and Woodruff covering the GOP convention in Tampa from the PBS Skybox at the Tampa Convention Center, devoting three hours of live coverage each night of the gathering from Aug. 27 to 30, along with a livestream online video platform, NewsHour AllHours, devoted to 24/7 reporting and analysis.

It's quite a slate of reporting for a process the broadcast networks have traditionally shrugged off as big-name publicity exercises, offering just an hour of primetime time coverage each day of each gathering.

"Well, of course (the political parties) are going to make it a publicity show, but we're going to make it something more," Ifill said. "Here we have a Republican convention in Tampa, where health care is a huge issue and Republicans don't like the solution the president (developed)...How does that discussion gets inside the convention hall? There's a huge Tea Party presence in Florida; I want to know how they'll be represented on the floor."

Most notably, this will be Ifill and Woodruff's first convention without the guiding hand of longtime anchor Jim Lehrer, who announced in mid-2011 he would step down as a regular anchor at PBS' flagship evening newscast The NewsHour. Ifill said he hasn't appeared on the show since Dec. 30.

"He pulled off the quietest, cleverest transition ever," said Ifill, noting that the show previously had always operated a bit by asking itself WWJD; What Would Jim Do? "It took a minute before people realized he was not there anymore."

pbs-elections-team.jpgNow, the coverage will be led by two women for the first time; the only all-female elections anchor team on TV. During PBS' press conference on its political coverage at the TV Critics Association's summer press tour Sunday, the session nearly ended before a journalist noticed that all the anchors featured onstage -- Ifill, Woodruff, Frontline's Raney Aronson and Maria Hinojosa of Need to Know -- were female.

"The good news, is that we didn't plan it that way," Ifill said. "The Judy and me seems silly to make it about 'Oh, look at the women together.' Between to two of us,we've covered 16 or 17 campaigns...I can finish Judy's sentences on how we're supposed to be doing this job, which works really well."

The anchor doesn't yet know which journalists will be featured in the Washington Week episode to be taped in St. Petersburg. And she's not sure how much of the reporting anyone does during the RNC will move outside the convention halls, because it the political world is so focused on that small space during that time.

But she is confident that Florida's shifting demographics and perennial swing state status makes it the perfect backdrop for an important step in the presidential election process.

"Florida's almost become a cliche as a swing's really so much more complicated than we've given it credit for," she said. "It's about diversity in a more complicated way; diversity of ambition and hope and whether change is a good thing or bad thing. And you can capture it all in Florida. If you pay attention."

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Fox executive Kevin Reilly uses cellphone call to reveal Mariah Carey is new American Idol judge

mariahcarey300.jpgLOS ANGELES -- It took a second of fumbling onstage with a cellphone, but Fox entertainment head Kevin Reilly was able to squelch a bunch of American Idol rumors with a single conversation on a speakerphone.

Within minutes, Reilly had confirmed pop star Mariah Carey was joining the blockbuster show's judging table and former judges Steven Tyler and Jennifer Lopez were definitely leaving.

"This all kind of happened really quickly," Carey said when called by Reilly. "I can't wait to get started in a couple of months."

Reilly said Carey's deal closed so quickly, she couldn't join TV critics at Fox's portion of the TCA summer press tour, so a few words of greeting over his cellphone's speaker had to do.

He also closed the door on speculation raised just an hour or so earlier when Idol executive producer Nigel Lythgoe told journalists here he wasn't sure Lopez was leaving the show. "That's a human thing," Reilly explained of Lythgoe's hedging. "I think I can say its 100 percent Jennifer won't be back to the show."

Critics here theorized that Fox and Idol may have been hedging on Lopez's departure -- refusing to publicly confirm her departure -- until they closed a deal with another big star. The news also seems to place Lythgoe in a precarious position, unaware of the shows move to hire such a big star while he's angling to stay on as executive producer (Lythgoe told critics here he's still negotiating his new contract.)

Left unanswered: Whether third judge Randy Jackson would come back, too. And if he does return, whether he would come back as a judge or mentor. Reilly would only say that Jackson, as Carey's co-manager, "was very instrumental in doing this deal" to bring her to Idol.

"We went into this season being transparent with our talent," Reilly said. "Although this show is vital as ever, our ratings were down. Not being the only game in town, we had to make changes."

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American Idol producer Nigel Lythgoe refuses to believe Jennifer Lopez is leaving the show


LOS ANGELES - Nigel Lythgoe was seated in a press conference here at the Beverly Hilton Hotel this morning to talk about the latest season of his other reality TV baby, the dance competition So You Think You Can Dance.

But make no mistake; what most writers gathered here for the TV Critics Association's summer press tour wanted to talk about was the 800-pound gorilla he also executive produces, American Idol.

Specifically, who is going to be on this judging panel, anyway?

Lythgoe insists it's not a done deal that judge Jennifer Lopez is leaving the judge's table, despite the fact that she told host Ryan Seacrest on his radio show: "I honestly feel that the time has come, that I have to get back to doing the other things that I do that I've put kind of on hold."

"I don't know why you'd say 99 percent," Lythgoe said after the press conference, referring to Lopez's non-definitive announcement that she was probably done with American Idol. "I don't know if it's a negotiating tactic. I really don't know."

(UPDATE: Fox confirmed Mariah Carey will join American Idol as a judge next year.)

nigel-lthgoe.jpgOf course, questions about Idol have filled the press since Aerosmith vocalist Steven Tyler announced he was leaving the show and Lopez sorta said she was going. Lythgoe said he was "upset" to hear about Tyler leaving and admitted that  -- given he is still negotiating his contract to remain as executive producer -- it is possible the network's drive to remake the show might include jettisoning him, as well.

"Because they asked me to come back two years ago, and we were lauded with what we did...I would have thoughts they'd want me back, without being egotistical about it," he said. "But they are negotiating, so I can keep my fingers crossed."

It's also worth noting that Fox and show producers 19 Entertainment has not officially commented on Lopez's supposed departure, indicating that perhaps negotiations continue. Makes one wonder if the show may be waiting to see if they land another big name -- like, say, Mariah Carey -- before finally pulling the trigger on that 1 percent change.

Lythgoe repeated previous comments that he would like to see the judges changed every year, perhaps to preserve the excitement which gave Idol a 10 percent viewership boost in the year Tyler and Lopez joined the panel.

"It's horrible to be in this position where you guys are like 'Who's it going to be?'" he said. "There are thousands of names being thrown out. I tried to deflate everything by saying (we'd hire ) the Three Stooges, can't negotiate with someone in a public marketplace. And once you've negotiated with the person, you then have to negotiate around that person. It's a bit like putting together a jigsaw puzzle without a picture on top of the box."


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PBS' Washington Week with Gwen Ifill to broadcast from St. Petersburg's Palladium just before RNC

washington-week-gwen-ifill.jpgPBS' Washington Week with Gwen Ifill will take over St. Petersburg's Palladium Theatre Aug. 24 for a special telecast before the Republican National Convention in Tampa.

The show, which regularly features Ifill discussing the political news of the day with a panel of leading journalists, will also include a 40-minute EXTRA/Florida edition with a Q&A involving audience members.

A limited number of free tickets are available online to local folks at or by calling (813) 739-2909.

Washington Week producers ask all guests to arrive by 3 p.m. for the taping, which will air later that day on PBS stations nationwide.

In addition to leading Washington Week, Ifill also serves as senior correspondent for the PBS NewsHour and is author of the book The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama.

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