HBO at TCA: Wednesday Afternoon Smackdown with Aaron Sorkin

Aaron Sorkin at TCA.

Wednesday was cable’s turn at The Television Critics Association Press Tour as HBO took center stage for its presentation with the main event – Aaron Sorkin vs. The Critics over controversial new drama The Newsroom. Things were so tense, you wonder if Larry Merchant (HBO’s boxing analyst) should’ve moderated the panel. But first, a few undercards:

– HBO executive session: HBO has long been associated with quality television, but Showtime, AMC, and FX have caught up. Asked about the increasing competition of scripted quality fare, HBO co-president Richard Plepler quipped “There’s plenty of room for quality work. It’s not a zero sum game.” Plepler said Larry David is welcome to do Curb Your Enthusiasm as long as he wants to, and also has signed David to do a movie for HBO. While Pleper defended Newsroom and Sorkin, one of the co-exec producers on the show (Scott Rudin) has failed to reach a deal with HBO to develop new series. Programming president Michael Lombardo also hinted a possibility of producing movies based on since-canceled series Entourage and Bored to Death.

– Tippi Hedren was on stage talking about Alfred Hitchcock for the upcoming movie The Girland it wasn’t kind: “He ruined my career”, said the veteran actress, who appeared in two Hitchcock flicks, Birds and Marmie. “But he didn’t ruin my life”. The movie deals with Hedren’s not-so-pleasant dealings with the famous director, which included sexual harassment and blicklisting her from the industry.

– Flimmaker Rory Kennedy appeared on stage with her mother during the Ethel presentation, an upcoming documentary on her mother’s life – the first interview Ethel Kennedy has given in 25 years. (both are related to John and Bobby Kennedy, who were assassinated in the 1960’s.) The documentary airs October 18.

– And now… the main event as Aaron Sorkin takes on the critics over Newsroom, which some disliked. The creator of past hits West Wing and Sports Night said he disagreed “100 percent” at critical jabs at Newsroom. From Huff Po: “I want to make a clear distinction between me and the characters that are in the show. I… most of the time… write about things I don’t know much about. The political opinions that I have are at the level of sophistication of a person who has a BFA in musical theater,” said Sorkin. He added: “For sure we all know that there were critics who did not enjoy watching the first 4 episodes… and there were critics that did. Anytime that people are talking this much about a television show, it’s good for television – good for people who watch television and good for people who work in television.”

Sorkin also defended the portrayal of female characters on Newsroom, with critics noting they are weak on the show: “I completely respect that opinion but I 100% disagree with it,” Sorkin said, according to B&C.  “The female characters are equals of the men. They’re not just talked about as good at their job they’re plainly seen as good at.” And while there will be a second season (scheduled for June 2013), Sorkin said he wasn’t going to change his writing style on Newsroom just to appease critics:”I’ve only ever tried to write the way I write. I haven’t tried to figure out what it is that most people will like.”

Sorkin also cleared up rumors about the entire writing staff being fired from the show after the first season: Sorkin promoted two writer’s assistants to the full-time writing staff and a few of the scribes were released.

You can catch The Newsroom Sunday nights at 8 p.m. (CT) on HBO.

Did You Know? The Newsroom was also a title of a CBC drama series, which ran for 32 episodes from 1996-97 and again from 2003-05. Unlike the U.S. Newsroom, the series is a little more comic in tone, as “The Newsroom” was generally understood to be based on the publicly-funded broadcaster’s news operations itself. The program has aired on several PBS stations in the U.S., including WTTW in Chicago.

Not surprisingly, Canadian critics (in a lighthearted tone) blasted Sorkin for stealing the name of their show to use in the U.S. (as this piece attests.) However, HBO actually obtained permission to use the Newsroom name from creator and star Ken Finkelman.

And on the subject of ripping off titles, we Americans can do that on our own (the upcoming CBS programs Vegas and Partners, The Doctors, Double Dare, Hard Copy, and many others.)