ABC is mired in fourth place in the ratings, its executive ranks are in constant disarray and it hasn't had a major hit since Laverne & Shirley schlemieled onto the scene in 1976. Okay, I exaggerated a teensy bit with that last one, but you get the point. Despite all the doom and gloom, the Mickey Mouse network had reason to be upbeat as it kicked off its portion of the TCA press tour on Monday. Simply put: Of all the networks, ABC's got the best crop of new fall shows. Standouts include J.J. Abrams' island spooker Lost, the dark suburban soap Desperate Housewives and the hilarious family sitcom Complete Savages. It even has the most promising new reality show in Wife Swap. What more could a struggling network ask for? A minute-by-minute recap of yesterday's highlights, you say? Coming right up!EXECUTIVE SESSION9:10 am During her opening remarks, newly installed network president Anne Sweeney is upstaged by a series of sexually explicit clips from the FX drama Nip/Tuck, which for some unknown reason suddenly show up on the giant video screens behind her. Without missing a beat, a game Sweeney quips, "Those are some of my new friends — none of which are a part of the ABC family."
9:16 Sweeney introduces new entertainment president Stephen McPherson, who is beamed in via satellite from Paris, where he's currently on his freakin' honeymoon. After thanking the press for "understanding and letting me do this [from Paris]," he jokes to boss Sweeney: "Don't despair, I'll be back just after Thanksgiving." This guy's funny!
9:20 McPherson becomes the latest network exec to accuse Fox of reality theft. Specifically, he's peeved at Fox for ripping off ABC's upcoming series Wife Swap with its own partner-switch saga, Trading Spouses. "It's really upsetting," he laments, "and I don't think it's right." Begun, the Clone Wars have.
9:25 Tee-hee. The Q&A starts and a reporter tries to get McPherson's attention by waving his hand high in the air — clearly forgetting for a moment that the dude's in Paris and can't see him.
9:37 When asked how patient ABC can afford to be when it comes to allowing its new shows to find an audience, McPherson — displaying near-perfect comic timing — deadpans that Disney's top dogs "Michael Eisner and Bob Iger have made it clear that I have at least until August." ABC might want to think about giving this guy his own talk show.
9:38 Another reporter waves his hand at McPherson. Tee-hee.
9:40 Scoop! Despite the nightmare that was Kingdom Hospital, McPherson reveals that the network is thisclose to ordering a new movie from Stephen King.MONDAY NIGHT FOOTBALL LUNCHEON12:25 pm First uncomfortable celebrity run-in of the tour: While standing on the short veggie burger/chicken line, Al Michaels walks up next to me, takes a look at the long hamburger/hot dog line and remarks, "It looks like everyone's waiting for hot dogs." Not knowing exactly how to respond to that, I just chuckle and say, "Uh-huh."
12:25:30 Al Michaels is still standing next to me. Do I strike up a conversation? Should I lie and say I'm a big fan? I could tell him that I personally requested that veggie patties be added to the lunch menu. That's not a lie. Should I... oh, good he's walking away. Phew.
12:27 ABC's top communications guy, Kevin Brockman, walks over and says he has a surprise for me. "Wait here, I'll be right back," he teases. Gifts? I love gifts. What could it be? Is SoapNet picking up Santa Barbara? Is Keri Russell here? Did he get me an ice cold... No, he couldn't possibly. But what if he did? I'm not going to get my hopes up. It's probably an According to Jim T-shirt or something.
12:30 He got me a fresh four-pack of Diet Raspberry Snapple!!!! Oh my God! I can't believe it! I don't know what to say except, "Thank you so much... but were they all out of 12-packs?"RODNEY2:09 Stand-up comic Rodney Carrington — the appealing star of this otherwise generic family sitcom — walks on stage with costars Jennifer Aspen, Amy Pietz and Nick Searcy. Everyone claps. And by "everyone," I mean the actors' personal publicists sitting in the back row.
2:20 One of the producers is David Himelfarb. I know that name. I think I sent him a spec Empty Nest script when I was in high school. I wonder if he ever got it?
2:30 Aspen, who plays the supportive-yet-feisty wife, describes her character as a loving spouse who... Zzzzzzzzzzzzz...
2:36 ... Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz...WIFE SWAP3:10 Jodi Spolansky, the spoiled multimillionaire heiress who switches lives with a homespun mother of two in the show's first episode (Sept. 29), knows how to charm an audience. When asked if her Wife Swap experience led her to fire her four nannies and spend more time with her kids, she barks, "First of all, I have three nannies and a housekeeper, just to correct you on that."
3:15 Jodi — who a fellow reporter points out "looks like Sandra Bernhard with a blond wig" — butchers the pronunciation of "documentary." Next up for little Jodi: Dictionary Swap!
3:23 Scoop! Exec producer Stephen Lambert reveals that they're planning a special husband-swapping episode.
3:36 Blond Sandra Bernhard is asked to elaborate on what kind of business her hubby is in. "He's in the importing business," she replies. Could that sound any shadier?
3:40 Blond Sandra Bernhard isn't worried about coming off as a dimwit on the show because, "I do have my Masters." (Insert your own Western International University joke here).BOSTON LEGAL4:09 The panel for the new David E. Kelley drama that in no way resembles The Practice aside from the fact that it features many of the same actors, characters, sets and producers is about to begin.
4:10 Leading man James Spader appears on stage and... well... um... he's kinda chunky.
4:11 The rest of the cast and crew — including Capt. Kirk and Keen Eddie — comes out and... where the heck is David E. Kelley?
4:12 "David E. Kelley just moved up north to Palo Alto," explains exec producer Bill D'Elia, "and he's conducting business from there."
4:15 There's a long pause before questions, prompting William Shatner to quip, "Is there a moderator or is it just chaos?" No, chaos comes when the session ends and 100 grown men and women storm the stage like hungry wolves.
4:21 A reporter asks costar Mark Valley why Keen Eddie is not mentioned in his ABC bio. I can take this one: Because the ABC fact-checker was out buying me Diet Raspberry Snapple.
4:23 D'Elia is asked if Kelley pulled out of the press tour because "he's pissed" at the media. "No," he insists. "He told me to tell you that he loves you all very much." Nobody likes a smartass.DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES5:15 The show's dream cast — Teri Hatcher, Felicity Huffman (Sports Night), Nicollette Sheridan (Knots Landing), Marcia Cross (Crazy Kimberly) and Eva Longoria (Who?) — take their seats on stage.
5:16 I think Nicollette Sheridan got one of those spray-on tans, too.
5:17 "I'm just so grateful to have a job," Hatcher says of her Desperate gig. So she was out of work for a little while. It's not like she was reduced to doing Radio Shack commercials or anything.
5:25 After spouting off a million reasons why he's qualified to write about the plight of desperate housewives, series creator Marc Cherry cracks: "And, I'm gay."
5:27 — 5:57 Cherry has us rolling in the aisles with stories about his slightly off-kilter mother, his imprisoned agent and his experience pitching Housewives to Hollywood. You had to be there. (Translation: I was laughing so hard I forgot to take notes.)
6:03 Another press-tour day comes to an end.POSTSCRIPT6:10 I return to my hotel room and... what's this??? There's a 12-pack of Diet Raspberry Snapple on my coffee table! Not only that, but there's a giant tub of ice, too! I've died and gone to Snapple heaven! Who could it be from? Oh, there's a note! "Dear Mike," it reads, "hope this takes the edge off. From your friends at CBS and UPN." Geez, ABC finally comes in first and still gets beaten.
Coming up tomorrow: Day Two of ABC. For more press tour coverage, click here.