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TV Critics Meet During Tense Times

July 9, 2008

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. _ You know you’re at the Television Critics Association’s summer meetings when one moment you’re talking about what Barack Obama’s nomination is going to mean to TV One _ gavel-to-gavel coverage in Denver, for starters _ and the next you’re listening to Jane Seymour, ageless and demure in a blue dress, talking about “Dear Prudence,” a Hallmark Channel movie the network describes as a “whodunit with a heart.”

There’s a lot of unease in the television industry this summer. No one knows if the Screen Actors Guild will strike or if viewers who fled broadcast television during the writers strike will return in the fall. It’s not clear, either, how much longer these twice-yearly opportunities will continue to exist for those of us who write about television to spend time with the people who make it in an atmosphere that’s part seminar, part petting zoo.

Of the major networks, only CBS has even been able to send critics advance copies of its fall pilots, which most years arrive on our desks shortly after Memorial Day.

But on Day One, it’s business as usual for the cable portion of the tour, which has always involved a change of mood and topic that can leave observers feeling whipsawed. It’s best approached like dim sum, a little something for everyone, some of which may eventually add up to a meal.

Take Hallmark, which Tuesday morning offered a parade of people you probably know from other places _ Florence Henderson, Donna Mills, Corbin Bernsen, Ed Asner and Seymour, of course _ some of whom get asked more questions about past projects than they do about their current ones.

Seymour, for instance, fields the question her fans are still asking some TV columnists: Is “Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman” ever coming back?

Short answer: No.

Seymour, too, hears from “Dr. Quinn” fans. “I think we’re just going to move them right into the new character” from “Prudence,” she said. CBS owns “Dr. Quinn” and isn’t interested in reviving it, “but I still have all the clothes. Prudence could pretend to be Dr. Quinn.”

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I’d planned to watch the latest “Koppel on Discovery” series, “The People’s Republic of Capitalism,” even before Ted Koppel went on “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” last month and threatened to do away with his daughter’s dog, Pepper, if not enough of us tuned in.

I tend to think the dog’s safe, either way, but if the former “Nightline” anchor manages to draw just a fraction of those of us whose economic prospects aren’t feeling quite so rock-solid, Pepper’s looking at a long and happy life.

This four-part look at the country Lou Dobbs still calls “Red China” is airing at 10 p.m. EDT through Saturday on Discovery, and focuses largely on the city of Chongqing.

Between this spring’s earthquake and this summer’s Olympics, China, of course, is getting its close up, ready or not. But it’s one thing to be told that China’s embraced capitalism with a vengeance, quite another to see an affluent young woman in designer duds trolling the aisles of a Chinese Wal-Mart, looking not so much for bargains as for quality imports to take back to her McMansion.

Or to watch the members of a suddenly free-wheeling nation dealing with traffic _ and the all-too-frequent fender benders it generates _ like the extreme entrepreneurs some of them have become.

Poverty remains, but in these pre-earthquake interviews, Koppel’s frequently frustrated in his quest to find someone, even among the very poor, who doesn’t think he or she is better off under capitalism, a system he’s careful not to equate with human rights, free speech or democracy.

But are Americans better off?

It depends, as always, on who you talk to. Koppel talks to a wide range, from displaced American workers to their low-paid Chinese replacements, who’d like to make enough money to buy the goods they’re helping to assemble for shipment back to us.

There’s no one conclusion to be drawn from all this, except that what we don’t know might hurt us.

“The fact is, we in the West are the only ones who still see China as a Communist country,” Koppel declares in Saturday’s final segment, “It’s the Economy, Stupid,” which depicts a country that’s seemingly happy to put growth ahead of everything, including social welfare.

“China today is not communistic for sure,” billionaire developer Vincent Lo tells Koppel, adding, “Actually, a lot of countries in the West are much more socialistic than China. … In Europe, you name it, France, Germany, all very good countries, but they are more socialistic. That is why China has seen the growth that we’ve seen, because the government is the most pro-business government in the world.”

Maybe someone should tell Lou Dobbs.

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Ellen Gray: graye@phillynews.com

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