Mal-‘Practice’ charges at ABC

Kelley: 'They've killed it with one fell swoop'

Better night. Better time. Worst ratings in years.

And David E. Kelley is really pissed off.

“The Practice,” anchor of ABC’s rejiggered Monday lineup, looked extremely shaky in its new Monday timeslot, placing a distant fourth at 9 o’clock and getting pummeled by Fox’s “Joe Millionaire,” which hit another high.

Alphabet promos claimed the 20th Century Fox TV-produced “The Practice” was moving to a “better night” and “better time,” but one has to ask, “Better for whom?”

Every other broadcast net performs well in the Monday-at-9 hour, including Fox’s juggernaut reality series “Joe Millionaire” (11.0/25 in A18-49, 20.34 million viewers overall), leaving little room for any show to find an audience.

Not surprisingly, “Practice” creator-exec producer Kelley and 20th Century Fox TV prexy Dana Walden were fuming Tuesday, with Kelley virtually charging ABC with premeditated murder of his legal franchise.

“They’ve killed it with one fell swoop,” Kelley told Daily Variety, who said the decision to shift “The Practice” has puzzled him from the moment it was announced last month and has left the show’s cast and crew feeling “tremendously betrayed.”

“It didn’t make any sense when they announced it; it seemed like a death sport,” he said. “Today, some of us look smarter and some of us don’t. I would hope (ABC) would act in their own self-interest and put it back where it was doing well.”

Indeed, following Kelley’s decision to get more actively involved in the production of the show again this fall, “The Practice” was easily winning its 10 p.m. Sunday slot this fall, averaging a 4.9 rating/12 demo rating with original segs.

But Alphabet execs opted to give the Sunday slot to Dick Wolf’s forthcoming “Dragnet” update, sending “The Practice” to Mondays to anchor a new night of dramas.

The result: “The Practice” sank to its lowest firstrun scores since its first year (2.8/6 in A18-49, 8.96m.) Competing NBC drama “Third Watch” bested it by 57% in adults 18-49 (4.3 to 2.8), and CBS’ comedies “Everybody Loves Raymond” and “Still Standing” combined to beat it by 89% (5.3 to 2.8).

In fairness, ABC execs made the move before “Joe Millionaire” emerged as the phenom it has become. They believe “The Practice” will improve when “Joe” wraps up.

Kelley said he has heard the buzz that ABC execs moved his show to Mondays as part of “a scheme to get leverage” in upcoming talks with 20th to reduce the 2003-04 license fee for “The Practice” (Daily Variety, Jan. 9.)

“It’s hard to believe that they could act in such bad faith,” Kelley said. “But no matter how low you set the bar of intelligence for ABC, they manage to slither under it … . It’s folly to try to guess what’s in their heads because that would start with the presumption that there’s something (in them).”

Braun’s p.o.v.

ABC Entertainment Television Group chairman Lloyd Braun said it was “totally untrue” that the move of “The Practice” was anything but a sked shift.

“It would be the ultimate example of biting off your nose to spite your face,” he said.

Braun said he understands that “emotions are running high right now” but argued that it’s too soon to tell what “The Practice’s” long-term prospects are on Mondays, particularly since “Joe Millionaire” wraps up in three weeks.

“(‘Joe’) is effectively a stunt that will end,” he said. “When it does, we’ll have a better sense of where we are Mondays at 9. We’re not going to rush to judgment.”

Braun is also looking to see how “Dragnet” fares in its Sunday bow later this week. If the Wolf skein improves the 10 p.m. slot, ABC can point to the launch of a new hit; if not, the scenario will be more lose-lose.

“You can’t make schedule changes and expect them to pay off overnight,” he said. “I find it hard to believe that an established show that’s widely recognized as one of the best dramas on TV isn’t going to be able to establish itself Mondays at 9.”

Walden said she’s still holding out hope that ABC will move “The Practice” back to Sundays.

“This is heartbreaking,” Walden said. “While we all questioned ABC’s decision to move (‘The Practice’) into what seemed an obviously inappropriate time period, we still held out hope that it could survive there. Given last night’s performance, I must believe ABC has a backup plan and will not allow this Emmy Award-winning flagship series, which is still extremely vibrant, to perish.”

While Braun said he was bummed about “The Practice” number, he maintained the Alphabet still had a positive story to tell on Monday, arguing “Veritas” and “Miracles” were off to good starts.”

“We had two pieces of good news and one piece of bad news,” he said.

Nielsen’s numbers

According to Nielsen, ABC’s drama lineup placed fourth Monday in adults 18-49 (3.2/8), 10 shares behind leader Fox (7.6/18) and 4 shares off the pace of third-place NBC. CBS was second in 18-49 and edged out Fox in total viewers.

At 8, adventure series “Veritas: The Quest” placed fourth in adults 18-49 (3.3/8) and third in total viewers (9.12m), providing ABC with its best series scores of the season in the hour (outpacing episodes of “Drew Carey” and “Whose Line” as well as “Monk”).

At 10, “Miracles,” starring Skeet Ulrich as an investigator of modern miracles, ran third in adults 18-49 (3.6/9) and total viewers (8.74m) and edged out NBC’s “Crossing Jordan” for second in adults 18-34 (3.2/9).

While those aren’t great results, it’s unlikely ABC could have expected much more from “Miracles” in an hour where it faced the top-rated new dramas of this season (CBS’ “CSI: Miami”) and last (NBC’s “Crossing Jordan”). Also encouraging was that it grew slightly on the half-hour in 18-49.

“I’m very encouraged; this show has some strength,” Braun said.

Elsewhere, CBS’ “CSI: Miami” led at 10 (6.5/16 in A18-49, 16.87m), while NBC’s “Fear Factor” matched its season high in 18-49 (6.5/16, 15.00m) to take the 8 o’clock hour. Also at 8, Fox’s “Bridezillas” spec tied with CBS repeat comedies for second in 18-49 (4.3/11).