ABC's Practice: A Makeover Success Story?


The Practice
is back in business. After a disastrous move to Monday nights in the middle of last season, David E. Kelley's Emmy- and Golden Globe-winning legal drama has returned to Sundays at 10 p.m. ET with a new cast and storylines that ABC and he hope have revived the show in its eighth season.

After three weeks, The Practice
is once again winning its time period in adults 18-49 and beating NBC's new and heavily promoted legal drama The Lyon's Den. On Oct. 12, The Practice
beat Lyon's Den
by 11% in viewers and by 33% in adults 18-49.

The show also has improved its performance by 24% over what it was doing in late January, after ABC moved it to Monday. It's still playing catch-up, however, to get back to where it was before the move, underperforming last year's first few weeks by 27% in adults 18-49 and 24% in viewers on Sundays.

"I think the show needed some kind of creative overhaul," Kelley says. "I'm very fond of all these actors and indebted to them. Even when The Practice
was yanked off after four or five initial airings [in 1997] and put on the shelf until the next season, all the actors collectively said, 'We like making this show. Let's keep doing it.'

"When the show went on to become a big hit, the cast remained the original cast all the way through. Every one of them remained loyal to the show. Now here was the show starting to decline toward the end of its seventh season, and it was very difficult as captain of the ship to start throwing people overboard. To a certain extent, having my hand forced by the economic realities made difficult decisions not easy by any means but maybe less difficult."

That Kelley has so far succeeded in revitalizing a failing show is something of a rarity in television, and a surprise. At last May's upfronts ABC made no mention of the cast changes. Series star Dylan McDermott was even at ABC's upfront presentation at Radio City Music Hall, along with other established ABC stars.

"Clearly, shows have had cast changes, but never such a wholesale change as we've seen this year," says Gary Newman, president of 20th Century Fox Television. "I don't think there's anyone other than David Kelley who could pull this off."

Increasing the challenge was the fact that ABC was willing to pay only half of The Practice's approximate $6.5 million license fee, forcing Kelley to drop most of the show's stars—including big names like McDermott, Kelli Williams and Lara Flynn Boyle—in favor of a smaller cast.

But the new fee also forced him to make creative changes that the show needed. Storylines among the main characters had run their course, and much of the show's audience had drifted away.

"I think The Practice
is very good this year. I've watched the show for years, and the problem was that the characters were getting boring and they weren't likeable characters," says Steve Sternberg, director of audience analysis at Interpublic Group's Magna Global USA.

"The biggest risk would have been to have stayed pat," says executive producer Robert Breech. "Changes needed to be made."

The highest-profile change was casting James Spader as attorney Alan Shore, who adheres to his own ethical code. It was a choice that has gone a long way toward bringing viewers back to the show. Kelley also brought on Rhona Mitra, playing a strong-willed third-year law student.

"Once I got excited about this character, then my first choice to play him was absolutely James Spader," Kelley says. "I first talked to Spader's agent, and then I was going to ABC and concurrently meeting with James, trying to convince them both to do this."

Spader has a history of playing complicated characters, and Kelley knew that Spader would agree to the part only it were a complex character and good material. For example, at his previous law firm, Shore had embezzled funds, but it wasn't quite as clear-cut or criminal as it sounds. In short, Shore bends the law. "What ultimately makes this character winning is that he is extremely selfless," Kelley says. "When he does the right thing or the humane thing, it isn't because he wants to be interpreted as a just or righteous human being. He does not care about the impression he makes on others."

Recalling the invitation to join the cast, Spader says, "All arrows pointed toward a character who was going to be surprising and funny and fun to play."

For its part, ABC is pleased with the results of the changes to the show. "The Practice
is a show people are talking about again," says Susan Lyne, president of ABC Entertainment. "We would not have gone through that process if we didn't think David could deliver a great show. We have another terrific drama that we are saving for midseason, Line of Fire, that got wonderful buzz. We renewed The Practice
not because we didn't have options but because we believed David had an idea that could really invigorate the show."