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ABC acts like it's No. 1 at the TV critics' tour

Mamie Gummer (left) and Canada?s Caroline Dhavernas are in Off The Map, an ABC show debuting Wednesday.

Chris Pizzello/AP

A network has to have a strong portfolio in today's TV universe. ABC survives and thrives by putting new spins on bankable TV themes.

The tone of the winter TV critics' tour changed markedly with the network's arrival here on Monday. They were preceded by cable and PBS, which by comparison were almost apologetic in their midseason program pitches. ABC walks and talks like the No. 1 network in America, even if it isn't.

On most weeks, ABC is either the No. 2 or No. 3 network on American television. CBS is first right now, but will be supplanted by Fox when American Idol returns next week. The dogfight between Fox and CBS will rage for the remainder of the season. As it has for years, ABC will keep widening its roster, one show, or one network, at a time.

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While Fox and CBS are cocky, ABC remains contented. ABC is Disney-owned, of course, as made evident by the Disney logos everywhere. In case we had any doubt, there was also a station with Disneyland milliners making custom-fitted mouse ears.

And every stint by ABC on the TV tour is like a trip to Disneyland: Safe and reliable.

First up was ABC news president Ben Sherwood, in his post only a few weeks, ho gave a long and thoughtful mea culpa for his network's website, which in its rush had temporarily reported that congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords had died in last weekend's shooting tragedy in Arizona.

Then cut to ... a hee-larious clip from this week's Modern Family.

The clip was the intro for ABC entertainment president Paul Lee, now five months into the job. A well-spoken Brit, Lee lauded his network's successes and downplayed its misses (such as Skating with the Stars). For a network president, he was refreshingly realistic.

"Anybody in broadcast who doesn't believe they're in a fragmented universe is kidding themselves," he said. "We compete against powerful shows on cable and other media, be they Xbox or whatever."

So how to compete? How about Wipeout: ABC invited everyone to adjourn to the foyer to watch clips of its top-rated obstacle-course series. Cocoa was served, people posed for photos with the show's mascot, Ballsy, a giant walking red ball.

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ABC always does the slickest job on the TV tour. In recent years, ABC has had notable success in the half-hour comedy format, with solid numbers for series such as Modern Family, Cougar Town and The Middle.

The network has had even more success with hour-long dramas, particularly those directed at female viewers. Grey's Anatomy begat Private Practice, which eventually begat last year's filmed-in-Toronto cop drama Rookie Blue - a huge hit due to return later this season. In each instance, earnest stories delivered by an earnest and very attractive cast. It's become an ABC formula.

The formula is back in Off The Map, which debuts on ABC Wednesday. Set in the jungles of South America, the ensemble medical drama follows a gaggle of rookie doctors looking for love and life meaning while saving lives. The cast includes Canadians Caroline Dhavernas and Rachelle Lefevre. Sitting all together at the same time, they were arguably the best looking cast on TV today.

ABC knows the value of pedigree. Off The Map is executive produced by Grey's Anatomy's creator Shonda Rhimes, who bristled at the suggestion that the show was Grey's Anatomy in the tropics.

"It's not," she said. "These are people starting all over again, which is a very different dynamic."

There was similar distancing from the show's creator, Jenna Baus, also ex of Grey's. "These characters don't have the technology or resources of the people on Grey's," she said. "It lets us delve into stories no one else can really do."

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It was almost midday before anyone actually noticed that Off The Map was in fact the only new network show being pushed by ABC on this tour. There were press sessions booked all day, sure, but one was for the sophomore season of Pretty Little Liars, which airs on ABC Family in the U.S., and another was for the new show Lemonade Mouth, which will run on Disney Channel.

ABC has plenty of new shows alighting in the next few months - the new comedies Happy Endings and Mr. Sunshine, with Matthew Perry, and the crime drama Body of Proof, with Dana Delany.

The general perception is that ABC sees no reason for them to unwrap the new product while the current lineup is still performing sturdily. As with the spinning tea cup ride at Disneyland, ABC knows how to keep the line moving.

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