The cast of ABC's "Modern Family." (Peter "Hopper" Stone, ABC )
ABC'selephant in the room —"Modern Family"— got poked and prodded by a room full of reporters at the Television Critics Assn. press tour Friday, but the network's entertainment president mostly ignored the beast in his session presenting a fall season overview.
The Emmy-winning comedy has been making headlines as key cast members hold out for more money, skipping a table read for the coming season, then deciding to sue 20th Century Fox Television. As many as four questions during the 45-minute session focused on the network's hit comedy and the current status of contract talks, but ABC entertainment president Paul Lee kept things brief.
"I expect the season to start on time," Lee said, in his most lengthy answer to the topic. "We're in the middle of negotiations at the moment. We're hopeful. We're optimistic we'll be able to resolve it."
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The show's stars — Ty Burrell, Sofia Vergara, Julie Bowen, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Eric Stonestreet andEd O'Neill — are going to court in an attempt to void their current deals, which still have four seasons to go. As the hit show gears up for its fourth season, the six actors are looking to boost their pay as participants in a cash cow: ABC brings in hundreds of millions in advertising revenue, and 20th Century Fox Television will make a hefty $1.5 million per episode in its syndication deal with USA network.
Lee's subsequent answers to follow-up "Modern Family" questions were much of the same: "It's a wonderful show. They're a great cast. We're optimistic about it." And "we're in this with 20th … we're full partners with them," and "I don't want to discuss hypotheticals.'
Instead, Lee focused on touting the network's success in making Wednesday a comedy destination (a product, of course, of having "Modern Family" as a tent pole) and rebuilding their Sunday night lineup now that long-running nighttime soap"Desperate Housewives"has wrapped its run. A situation made slightly easier with freshman drama"Once Upon a Time"becoming a surprising breakout hit for the network.
Lee admitted that there is "more work to do and time to do it in."
ABC is down slightly in viewers, by just 1%, and a smidge more among viewers ages 18 to 49 (minus 4%). Overall, the network averaged 8.5 million viewers in prime time for the just-ended season, a decline of 1% compared with the 2010-11 season.
One of the network's big missions for the fall is beefing up its Friday schedule with comedies "Last Man Standing"and a new Reba McEntire comedy, "Malibu Country."
"I have wanted, since I came to the network, to bring family comedy back to Friday night," Lee said. "Audiences are home for that, and I think they're hungry for programming."
Lee was exuberant when it came to revealing the cast of its upcoming "All Stars" edition of "Dancing With the Stars."The network's most-watched series will see a return of celebrities from the previous cycles of the show — including Bristol Palin, Kirstie Alley, Kelly Monaco and Drew Lachey, among others.
Palin, daughter of ex-Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, was on deck later in the morning to promote her return to "Dancing With the Stars."
When asked why she would strap on the sequin gowns again considering how much negative publicity she sparked the first time, she said, "The press is going to talk about me no matter what, so I might as well have fun." When pressed more about her continuing presence on reality TV, which also includes "Life's a Tripp" on Lifetime, Palin responded: "Do I like to provide for my son? Yes, I do."
Palin also found herself defending her stance on gay marriage during the "Dancing With the Stars" presentation. The 21-year-old, who drew headlines during the 2008 election for having a baby out of wedlock, has become one of the best-known foes of same-sex unions just as the issue has stirred up nationwide debate. This spring, President Obama changed his position on same-sex marriage, saying he now favors it.
"I'm not scared of anyone or hating anyone," Palin said, adding that she's fed up with accusations that she's homophobic just because "I'm for traditional marriage."
Times staff writer Scott Collins contributed to this report.