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Times are tough all over these days - even in the dream factory of American television - but some broadcasters are weathering the storm better than others.

From early indications on this current TV critics tour, it appears the cable channels are outdistancing the network monoliths in these hard economic times. And nobody seems the least bit surprised.

Since its inception, the biannual TV tour has always embraced the sharp divide between U.S. cable and network television. Traditionally the cable outlets (in the dozens) went first and were allotted a combined total of four or five days to curry favour with critics each January and July. In most instances, cable was a blur of bulky media kits and back-to-back sessions, fuelled by fancy luncheons and cocktail parties.

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The second phase of the TV tour belonged to the six U.S. commercial networks - ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, PBS and, more recently, something called The CW - with each broadcaster receiving a comparatively luxurious two, sometimes three, full days to mount new-show promotional campaigns. Even if the cable people had complained about the obvious disparity, nobody would have listened.

But those were kinder, more prosperous times in the industry. Nobody ever made a direct comparison between the two worlds, because they existed on different business planes: Cable television was specialized and subscriber-based, while networks still lived and died on a broad viewer base and ad revenue. Things change in a tough economy.

The latest edition of the TV tour kicked off last Thursday here at the Universal Hilton Hotel, mere steps from the Universal Studios theme park. For reasons unknown, the opening day position went to PBS, which came and went in a day and a half with little fanfare (the public broadcaster's sole midseason highlight would appear to be a remake of The Electric Company). And then, the great American cable machine rolled into town.

It only took a few hours to realize cable had momentum going into the second half of this TV season. Somehow, it felt different from years past.

Whereas the main ballroom hosting hourly presentations from low-profile cable channels such as WE tv and Sundance Channel were once half-empty, or even sparser, critics now scrambled to find a seat.

Isabella Rossellini began the proceedings with an engaging chat about her acclaimed Sundance series Green Porno, which focuses on the sex lives of animals, insects and other non-humans (the second season focuses on the reproductive habits of marine animals). Hotel staff brought in additional chairs.

As the first day progressed, more critics turned up for the higher-rung cable channels. By late afternoon, it was standing-room-only when AMC wheeled out the cast and producers of the dramatic series Breaking Bad. Series star Bryan Cranston (last year's Emmy-winner for best actor in a dramatic series) was fairly swarmed by the media following the session. Only a few years ago, Cranston was the bumbling dad on Malcolm in the Middle. On this day, he was a star.

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AMC's success with Breaking Bad and Mad Men - recipient of last year's best dramatic series Emmy - led to an absurd level of interest in the network's coming miniseries remake of the sixties cult hit The Prisoner, starring Jim Caviezel as the rebellious man trapped in a world not of his making and Sir Ian McKellen as the nefarious No. 2. AMC showed sparing clips of the miniseries - it looks remarkable - after which Sir Ian held court and charmed every person in the room. The man truly is Gandalf-like.

Even former Saturday Night Live cast member Chris Kattan, who plays himself in the IFC miniseries Bollywood Hero, drew a crowd.

The cable energy level carried over to the next day, which brought slick sessions with more channels, and bigger names.

Names such as: Dreamworks CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg, who made a personal appearance in support of the Nickelodeon animated series Penguins of Madagascar, a TV adaptation of the film franchise; The Daily Show with Jon Stewart correspondent Demetri Martin gave a very funny easel-board chat for his new Comedy Central series, titled Important Things with Demetri Martin; HBO topped them all, bringing in deposed evangelist Ted Haggard, subject of the documentary The Trials of Ted Haggard, along with Kevin Bacon ( Taking Chance), Jessica Lange ( Grey Gardens), the entire cast of Big Love and Will Ferrell, appearing via satellite wearing very silly glasses (he repeatedly insisted they were prescription lenses).

By the midway point, the clear momentum of cable prompted some reporters to flip ahead to this week's tour schedule from the mainstream broadcasters. And what do networks have planned for viewers in this winter of our discontent?

In brief, the top-ranked network Fox has the return of 24 and American Idol, and the midseason entries Lie to Me - a formulaic cop drama starring Tim Roth - and Doll House, which has only the imprimatur of hailing from Buffy the Vampire Slayer creator Joss Whedon.

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Perennial runner-up ABC has a new season of Lost - finally - and will test a romantic comedy called Cupid, two cop shows and two non-descript animated series. CBS has a game-show/reality series hybrid titled Game Show in My Head. NBC will bring back the football soap opera Friday Night Lights to fill an hour on Friday night and, later this year, Jay Leno five nights a week in prime time. It's come to that.

The CW, meanwhile, decided to opt out entirely of media sessions. Instead, the network has planned a party at a diner called The Peach Pit, presumably in hope of drumming up interest in its flagging remake of 90210.

No question the cable industry is better suited to survive in a recession, but few critics expected the network profile to gear down this quickly. As with so many things here, the most telling indicator of the cable ascension involves signage.

Roll along Sunset Boulevard these days and you'll notice most of the enormous billboards are devoted to durable cable shows, such as F/X's Damages or TNT's Monk, now in its seventh season.

The billboards for the most-watched network series, such as Fox's House, have been pushed all the way to Los Feliz. Hollywood can be such a cold town in hard times.



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