A poor showing by "The Practice" in ABC's revised Monday night lineup has triggered the ire of Emmy-winning producer David E. Kelley, who says the network has seriously -- and perhaps intentionally -- damaged his long-running series.
Despite extensive promotion during ABC's highly rated telecast of the Super Bowl on Sunday, "The Practice" finished a weak fourth in its new time period this week. It was sandwiched between two modestly rated shows, "Veritas: The Quest" and "Miracles."
Kelley and his associates at 20th Century Fox Television, a unit of News Corp., had lobbied against the move. They suggest that it might have been driven by the fact that ABC has yet to negotiate a new licensing agreement to broadcast "The Practice" next season.
On Tuesday, the normally reserved Kelley called the time-period change "an act of stunning stupidity, which did all the damage it was meant to do." He expressed his preference that if "The Practice" does return for another year, it won't be on ABC, which is owned by Walt Disney Co.
ABC Entertainment Television Group Chairman Lloyd Braun said he appreciated Kelley's disappointment, but denied that any ulterior motives were involved.
"I understand emotions are running high right now, but it would be totally contrary to our interests to intentionally damage a show, and our schedule, to bring a series back at a cheaper price," Braun said.
Sources say ABC currently pays about $6 million per episode for the show, which has been its top-rated drama, but has hoped to revise that fee downward. By moving the program out of the Sunday time period it has occupied since 1998, Kelley and Fox theorize that the network believed it would either improve its Monday performance or damage the series, thus undermining Fox's negotiating position.
Asked if he thought ABC would consciously diminish the show, Kelley said, "When you try to guess what's going on inside their minds, it's dark and it's cavernous in there."
ABC has said that moving "The Practice" was intended to provide an established presence to bolster its new lineup on Monday, as opposed to simultaneously introducing three unproven programs. A revival of "Dragnet" will occupy "The Practice's" previous time slot beginning this Sunday.
Given that ABC canceled all four prime-time dramas that premiered in the fall, there is reason to question whether the network would consciously hasten "The Practice's" demise.
In addition, 20th Century Fox Television's sister network, Fox, has been responsible for dramatically altering the Monday landscape with the breakout hit "Joe Millionaire." Braun said gauging "The Practice's" true viability on Mondays will be difficult until that series completes its limited run next month.
Gary Newman, president of 20th Century Fox Television, said he is convinced "The Practice" could rebound from this week's setback if returned to Sunday nights. "This show has proven over seven long years to be incredibly resilient," he said.