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Mr. TV: Winter Wonderland

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I’m filing my first column of 2011 from The Television Critics Association (TCA) Winter Press Tour in Pasadena, Calif.  

While nothing announced here will likely compare to NBC’s Conan vs. Leno drama which consumed last year’s TCA, you just never know.

I continue to be amazed by, and slightly suspicious of, the young bloggers  who cover TCA with their heads into their laptops tweeting at breakneck speed. Still, since I can’t beat them, I’ll be blogging up a storm, and I too won’t be shy in offering my opinion. The only difference, of course, is that I know what I’m talking about.

The grand Langham Huntington Hotel in Pasadena is a fine hotel to host this multiweek event, but in the winter you get The Shining vibe navigating the endless, sparsely populated halls and slightly drafty corridors.

ABC kicks off the network portion of the tour today, so I’ll be back to you with news from the five broadcasters later in the week via The Programming Insider and Adweek.com.  

The opening days of the tour consisted of presentations from the cable networks, which I personally prefer because the pace is faster, there are more networks participating and the caliber of the show panels tends to be higher.  

In just three days, participating cable networks included MTV Networks, TV Guide Network, National Geographic, TV One, ESPN, Turner Broadcasting, BET, Playboy Television, Discovery Networks (including OWN: Oprah Winfrey Network), AMC, WE tv, IFC, Hallmark Channel, Starz and the crème of the crop, HBO. It’s rushed, fun, exciting and and a bit incomprehensible, which seems to sum up basic cable programming neatly.

Twenty five years after first seeing a young Oprah Winfrey pitch her then upcoming syndicated talk show at NATPE, the more seasoned Winfrey was front and center to support her just launched cable network, and she knows how to turn it on when she wants something from the press. Unfortunately, it was at the end of a very long day, and we couldn’t get her off the stage. I was actually more impressed with her best bud, Gayle King, who I met at a party later that evening.

While I normally prefer panels focusing on new product, TV Land’s session with sophomore sitcom Hot in Cleveland (complete with Valerie Bertinelli, Jane Leeves, Wendie Malick and, of course, Betty White) only proves there is a real hunger for funny sitcoms. Most of us loyal prime-time viewers want to laugh, not figure out a rash of over-the-top and insider jokes.

Led by Hot in Cleveland, there were sessions with three upcoming cable sitcoms: Retired at 35 from TV Land, Working Class from CMT and Love That Girl! on BET. Although not a comedy in the traditional sense, another personal cable highlight was nonscripted Joan Knows Best? on WE. Love her or loathe her (I fall into the first camp), there is only one Joan Rivers.

Best line on day one of cable came from Working Class co-star Ed Asner, when he light-heartedly ribbed Cloris Leachman because she has one more Emmy win than him. “Well, you know, if you want to act nuts like she does, I guess you can get those,” he joked.

The oddest entry was a TV Guide Network session on The Nail Files, a new docu-soap set at a Los Angeles nail salon. As much as I do like a lot of this reality content, what’s next, a series set in an oral surgeon’s office?

Directly after cable was PBS, which I always vow I will pay more attention to when I get home after being captivated by the array of interesting sessions (including a reunion special of classic variety series Laugh-In). But you know what? Even with a DVR, I probably never will because I’m too busy trying to keep up with other programming options out there.

Maybe I should make a late-entry New Year’s Resolution and cut down my reality show binges. First to avoid: The Nail Files.