July 26--BEVERLY HILLS -- The annual Television Critics Association summer press tour is where TV networks try to convince the nation's TV writers that theirs is the best new show of the fall season. But this year's tour officially got under way Tuesday with more talk about who wasn't there than who was.
Missing in action at the Beverly Hilton Hotel was Al Jazeera America, the American news arm of the Qatar-owned Al Jazeera Media Network. Just two days ago, Al Jazeera America canceled its planned presentation at TCA's opening day, citing "events on the East Coast," which turned out to be the announcement of its senior staff, including Kate O'Brian, ABC's senior vice president of news, as president of the network and Ehab al-Shihabi as interim chief executive officer.
O'Brian will be joined by CNN's David Doss as senior vice president of news programming, Marcy McGinnis of CBS News as senior vice president of news gathering and Shannon High-Bassalik as senior vice president for documentaries and programs.
Al Jazeera America will launch Aug. 20, having bought the former Current TV, and has spent the past several months on a hiring spree, landing seasoned veterans such as Sheila MacVicar of CBS as correspondent for the new network's "America Tonight" and CNN's Soledad O'Brien. Other hires: Joie Chen and Michael Viqueira.
Maybe the time just got away from Al Jazeera as the press tour neared, but pulling out of its planned appearance just a day before the start of the tour made Al Jazeera America the talk of TCA, and it hasn't been happy talk, either. Al Jazeera has deep pockets, but a lot of media outlets don't, and that includes the publications and websites sending people to TCA every year. Several writers said they made a point of coming to the start of the press tour just to hear about Al Jazeera America's plans.
Puppies as PR
Instead, they got to hold puppies brought in by the National Geographic Channel to promote its new show and hear Keith Olbermann insist that the reason he won't talk about politics on his new ESPN show, premiering Aug. 26, is "for the simple reason that it's a sports show."
NatGeo showed TV critics a clip from the dog show, launching Aug. 25, with close-up footage of a dog's tongue lapping water. Did you know dogs can make their tongues into the shape of a cup to raise the water into their mouths before snapping their jaws shut immediately to prevent all the water from escaping? It's very cool in slo-mo.
Jeremy Brandt will host a new show for the National Geographic Wild channel called "Jobs That Bite," which is kind of like the Discovery Channel's "Dirty Jobs" except it focuses on jobs that involve animals. NatGeo employed several TCA members to show their handiwork milking goats to help promote the show, which bows in November.
NatGeo will also be among the many media outlets marking the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy this year. "Killing Kennedy," based on the best-selling book by Fox News' Bill O'Reilly and Martin Dugard, is a two-hour docudrama planned for November, the month of the anniversary itself, and starring Rob Lowe as JFK and Ginnifer Goodwin ("Once Upon a Time") as Jacqueline Kennedy. Will Rothhaar will play Lee Harvey Oswald and Michelle Trachtenberg will play his Russian-born wife, Marina.
Trachtenberg said she didn't know anything about Marina Oswald, who is still living, but in her research, she found that Lee Harvey Oswald's funeral was the same day as Kennedy's and that Marina Oswald watched TV coverage of the Kennedy funeral before she had to leave to bury her husband.
A bit of Hallmark cheer
Other opening-day presenters included the Hallmark Channel, Crown Media and the Hallmark Movie Channel, with specific panels on the holiday movie "Christmas With Tucker," starring James Brolin, and "The Watsons Go to Birmingham," based on the book by Christopher Paul Curtis about an African American family from Michigan who travels to Birmingham in 1963 at the height of the civil rights movement. The film premieres Sept. 20. "Christmas With Tucker" will air on the Hallmark Movie Channel during the holiday season.
TV One will jump into the morning news swamp with "News One Now" in September, hosted by Roland S. Martin and drawing from the third hour of a three-hour weekday morning radio show syndicated through Radio One.
Martin recalled his days working at CNN to outline how "News One Now" will differ from other morning news fare by saying that if an African American story wasn't proposed by another African American staff member or Martin himself, "it wasn't discussed" at CNN.
The opening day ended with Adult Swim giving reporters a look at its new animated show "Rick and Morty," set to premiere in December. The show was created by Justin Roiland ("House of Cosbys") and Dan Harmon ("Community").
Since Harmon was famously fired -- and recently rehired -- by NBC as showrunner of "Community," that show figured in several questions. Harmon said he accepted NBC's offer to go back to the show because if he hadn't, he might spend the rest of his life wondering how it would have turned out. On the other hand, the worst that could happen by accepting the offer to return was a forthcoming fifth season that turned out ... well, Harmon made reference to solid waste. Harmon doesn't expect that and in fact, there's already talk of a push for a sixth season, which Harmon declined to cop to.
David Wiegand is The San Francisco Chronicle's executive features editor and TV critic. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @WaitWhat_TV
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