Skein's move to Sunday provides Nielsen nirvana

In the case of “The Practice,” it was really patience that made perfect.

That, plus lots of confidence in the show, a couple of timely Emmy victories, and nice assists from Regis Philbin and Ally McBeal.

ABC execs maintain that the legal drama, which bounced around the net’s sked with low ratings in its first two seasons, was never in serious danger of cancellation. But they also admit to breathing a whole lot easier when the show began to generate a Nielsen pulse.

“Everybody is saying about certain shows, ‘Oh, we’ve got to give this one a chance, it’s gonna work,'” says Tom Sherman, head of drama series at ABC. “But, in truth, that can happen only when everybody is in the boat and pulling in the same direction.

“Everyone at the network believed in ‘The Practice’ from the beginning and really thought it was just a matter of time.”

The show’s ratings turnaround is quite remarkable. Here was a series that in its first season often finished last in its time period on the least watched night of the week (Saturday), but just two years later had become a dominant program on the most watched night (Sunday).

This season, according to Nielsen, “Practice” is averaging 18.3 million viewers in its 10 p.m. Sunday slot, winning every week it has aired an original episode. It’s added an average of nearly 2 million viewers vs. a year ago (16.4 million), almost 6 million more than the 1998-99 season (12.7 million) and a whopping 8 million more than its first full season in 1997-98 (10.2 million).

“I’m grateful that (creator and producer David E. Kelley) had the patience with us and we found the right time period, because the show certainly had a journey on our schedule,” says ABC Entertainment Television co-chair Stu Bloomberg of the skein’s move from Tuesday to Saturday to Monday to Sunday. “It’s become a signature series for us and, I believe, truly appointment television for viewers on Sunday night.”

Kelley certainly likes the slot.

“There are some shows that you could stick anywhere and the people would watch — phenomenons like ‘ER’ and perhaps ‘Friends’ or ‘Survivor,'” says Kelley. “Those kind of breakout shows can rise above the obstacles of timeslots.

“For the rest of us, we need the help. We need to be in a place where we have a chance to maximize our potential.”

Of course, to make room for “The Practice” on Sunday, ABC had to make a gutsy call in the fall of 1998 to jettison its movie night — a staple of the Alphabet’s sked for the previous 33 seasons.

“If we were going to drop the movie franchise from Sunday, we needed a strong show to step in,” says Bloomberg. “It seemed like the right time and place for ‘The Practice.’ “

A good timeslot can help, but it’s not always a guarantee of success. What aided “Practice,” most involved with the show agree, are a quartet of factors.

First was a crossover episode with another successful Kelley series, Fox’s “Ally McBeal, in late April 1998. “The Practice,” airing on Monday after “Ally” at the time, experienced a ratings bump of more than 20% and virtually sustained this gain in its final two episodes of the season.

Second was the critical support for the show, which had been strong from the outset and culminated in two consecutive Emmy drama victories in September 1998 and 1999.

That was followed in November 1999 by the addition to the Sunday lineup of quizzer “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.” Having Regis as a lead-in on a regular basis beginning in January certainly helped, as did a shot at the post-Super Bowl audience later that month. Airing after the big football game on ABC, “The Practice” drew a highest-ever 23.9 million viewers.

“It raised some eyebrows to put it after the Super Bowl,” Bloomberg says, “but look at the visibility that gave it.”

The hefty and broad audience of “Millionaire,” combined with the young-adult newcomers from “Ally” and a significant male audience after the Super Bowl combined to expose “The Practice” to many new viewers.

“These gave a lot of people the chance to follow a show that they had heard good things about but still hadn’t gotten the chance to see,” observes Bill Carroll, top programming rep for Katz Media in New York.

As it approaches this week’s 100th episode, “The Practice” has never been more dominant. Despite a smaller lead-in this season from a less-potent “Millionaire,” the drama is a top 10 fixture and beats its movie competition on CBS and NBC by 46% in total viewers and by 62% in adults 18-49 — up from advantages of 13% and 50% a year ago.

Carroll points out that the drama’s effect on the Sunday movies of both CBS and NBC this season — both are down significantly in the ratings — is perhaps its most important achievement. NBC, in fact, is expected to drop its Sunday movie in the fall and try to put a dent in “The Practice” with a drama of its own.

“I can’t imagine a more difficult situation to go up against the high-profile movies, especially their final hour, and win consistently,” Carroll says. “No matter what movies or dramas the other nets throw out there, ‘The Practice’ wins.

“That has really established the show in a unique position– it’s now in the league of ‘ER’ and ‘Law & Order’ in terms of appointment viewing.”

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