Mr. TV: Thoroughly Modern

Not surprisingly, my favorite highlight from attending NATPE 2010 was moderating the Modern Family panel on opening day. Being on stage with the actors and series creator of what is now one of my all-time favorite sitcoms was a blast!

After waiting in the so-called “green room” for the panel to begin, I came out onstage first, announced Modern Family creator Steve Levitan, Fox executive Dana Walden and the cast: Julie Bowen, Ty Burrell, Ed O’Neill and Sofia Vergara. Eric Stonestreet, my personal favorite in the cast, and Jesse Tyler Ferguson, who play gay couple Cameron and Mitchell, couldn’t make it, but I got to meet them later that evening at the Twentieth Television cocktail party.

We talked on the panel, among other things, about the evolution of Modern Family, life after Married With Children for Mr. O’Neill, what it means for an actor to be on a successful series, and why this show worked and a similarly built comedy like Arrested Development (no laugh track, multiple intersecting storylines) didn’t. “People relate to these characters,” explained Levitan. “We are big fans of emotion. Comedy with an emotional attachment went out of fashion for awhile, but sitcoms cannot survive on laughs alone. That’s like living on junk food.”

Trying to tread lightly, I asked O’Neill and Vergara why their characters seem so compatible despite their large age difference. “We love each other; he makes me feel safe, and he cares about my child,” said Vergara. “Those are the things that count in a relationship, not how much older one is than the other.” Quipped O’Neill: “I spent 10 and a half years with my right hand down my pants on Married With Children. Now I have a reason to keep it out of my pants.”

As expected, NATPE 2010 was a much smaller version of its once exploding self. The robust convention floor from days gone by looked liked the bargain basement at Ikea. But considering that my itinerary on Monday alone included breakfast with Warner Bros., lunch with TV historian and Associated Television International exec Jim Romanovich, a cocktail party with Twentieth, the Brandon Tartikoff Legacy Awards (which honored wounded NBC exec Jeff Gaspin, GroupM CEO Irwin Gotlieb, producer extraordinaire David E. Kelley and Judge Judith Sheindlin), dinner with NBC Universal, and an invite to the House of Blues, I wouldn’t have missed it.

One of my gripes (I have to always complain about something, right?) was the opening NATPE cocktail party on Sunday evening. Times are tough, I know, but attendees who’ve flown and paid to attend shouldn’t have to pay for their own drinks. You can work up a real, ah, thirst trying to keep up with everything going on.

Anyway, back to business. I don’t understand why Twentieth wouldn’t announce the launch of game show Don’t Forget the Lyrics in first-run prior to the conference so it could get some ink. Distributor Debmar-Mercury, meanwhile, unveiled a test-run project for a U.S. version of U.K. talker The Jeremy Kyle Show in a limited, multiweek on-air preview later this year. And hostess extraordinaire Martha Stewart announced she’s taking her low-rated NBC Universal talker over to The Hallmark Channel starting next fall.

While one hungry syndication salesperson literally grabbed me in the hall, crowing about another hour of daytime opening up, note that few people were watching cellar-dweller Martha.

As I attended some of the more notable Q&As (Judge Judy and David E. Kelley, to name a few), I got a kick out of Judy’s response when asked if she would exit daytime syndication when her current contract expires in 2013. “I was not invited back to the party yet, so I don’t know what will happen,” she said modestly. But we all know, CBS Television Distribution will cough up plenty of green to keep this court show juggernaut afloat.