Logo

Making ‘Practice’ Perfect

Sep 22, 2003  •  Post A Comment

ABC and David E. Kelley have armed this Sunday’s relaunch of “The Practice” with a marketing push more akin to a brand-new show than a seven-year veteran drama series.

The promo campaign, which will cost considerably more than a typical campaign for a returning show, is designed to familiarize viewers with the fact that half the original cast will be gone and two new characters-including an antihero-will be introduced. The series will continue to be more character-driven than plot-driven. It’s rare for a network and producer to go through the effort and pains of relaunching a seven-year-old show-especially when the financial benefit isn’t that great. The producers have already made their back-end profits by selling “The Practice” into domestic and international syndication. ABC could have seen more value in trying to launch a new drama franchise that could last longer than an aging series.

Indeed, ABC Entertainment President Susan Lyne said it was hard to decide whether it was more cost-effective for the network to reinvent the older series or just launch a new one.

“You obviously have a certain amount of failure when you’re launching new shows, but a show like `The Practice’ is also significantly more expensive even at our lower license fee than a new show is,” she said.

Madison Avenue’s appreciation for the series ultimately helped sway ABC toward the pickup.

“I still believe because advertisers love `The Practice’ and we do get a real premium for it that this was the right route to take,” Ms. Lyne said.

A 30-second spot on “The Practice” this fall was sold for an average of $154,118, according to Advertising Age’s annual prime-time network pricing survey. That’s down from the $180,106 the series garnered last season. However, it is above ABC’s $121,543 average for all prime-time spots.

The show is being relaunched in its eighth season following its first bout of off-screen drama. Earlier this year, the show’s ratings went south following a time slot change, and producers David E. Kelley Productions and 20th Century Fox Television had to accept a halved license fee from ABC to keep the show on the air. The cast overhaul, which involved letting several high-priced actors go, followed. From a producing standpoint, Mr. Kelley said, there is not a big financial benefit to doing the show this year in terms of profits alone.

“There’s certainly a tremendous financial benefit to everyone who works on the show because it was their mortgage payments,” he told TelevisionWeek. “Some crew members have moved to Manhattan Beach [where the show is filmed]. Everyone wanted it to come back. It did go through my mind [to] just end it now, but there were too many people here who were still committed to the show. I don’t think it would have been fair to them to say, `You know what? I’m going to move on to other projects.”’

Acting Quickly

Once ABC and Mr. Kelley agreed to bring the show back for another year, Mr. Kelley had to quickly decide how he would inject new life into it. He had only 10 days to decide which actors’ options to pick up.

“The big challenge was that all of us, and certainly David, felt that he had begun repeating certain beats,” Ms. Lyne said. “There were character dynamics that had set in that could not really be shifted with all the cast intact. There were stories that just felt as if they had been played out before. The issue here was how do you take a show with a phenomenal creator and shake things up for the characters in such a way that everything feels fresh again?”

Ultimately that meant that Dylan McDermott, Kelli Williams, Lara Flynn Boyle, Lisa Gay Hamilton and Marla Sokoloff were let go, while Steve Harris, Camryn Manheim and Michael Badalucco remained.

“It was modifying an existing show, because the franchise really isn’t being changed,” Mr. Kelley said. “A lot of the stories will be similar to stories that are consistent with the genre of the show. This year the series will be a little more character-driven than plot-driven. I don’t feel it will shock the sensibilities of the regular `Practice’ viewer. I think they will feel they are returning to the show they’ve watched, and yet if you’ve never watched the show before you may get that luxury of feeling that you’re starting at the beginning.”

He said the biggest change is the addition of James Spader in the role of Alan Shore, an “ethically challenged” antitrust lawyer who was fired from his firm for embezzling and now wants to join the firm.

“I wanted an antihero, someone that you wouldn’t trust to do the right thing at the end of the day,” Mr. Kelley said. “After seven years of the show, I think the audience arrived at a certain comfort level that the characters were righteous and would try to do the just and moral thing each episode. I was looking to take away some of that comfort level by bringing in this character who was a little more ethically challenged.”

The shift is risky, because it is unclear whether viewers will embrace a character not knowing whether they should root for him.

“He is not a conventional television character,” Mr. Kelley said. “He’s not warm and the kind of persona that people particularly like to welcome into their living room. We’re hoping that he’s interesting, complicated and entertaining enough that people will want to watch him whether they warm up to him or not.”

Mr. Spader has been the focus of ABC’s marketing campaign to let viewers know that “The Practice” is back and a little bit different.

Promoting Understanding

“We’re kind of approaching the marketing of `The Practice’ as if it were a new show,” said Mike Benson, senior VP of marketing, advertising and promotion at ABC. “Now that we had this major change in cast, we really felt like we had to tonally change the style of promotion. Instead of just telling people it’s changed, it’s proving it. We’ve found the moments that have captured the essence of the James Spader character and really tried to help the audience understand how he is going to come into the firm. It’s how the other remaining characters are either relating or not relating or reacting to him as a character in the show. I would almost say that we’ve added a little bit of an `L.A. Law’ feeling into `The Practice.”’

(Mr. Kelley was a writer and executive producer on “L.A. Law.”)

The relaunch campaign includes a heavy schedule of on-air promos running in prime time, daytime, during “Monday Night Football” and “Good Morning America,” and on sister cable network ESPN. ABC also took out full-page newspaper ads for the show in The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times.

“We want to make sure that people know that this show is coming back and it’s going to be a different `Practice,”’ Mr. Benson said. “It’s going out and getting the fans, but it’s also trying to bring a new audience in who might not have seen the show before.”

Promos for “The Practice” will also highlight two big guest stars. Chris O’Donnell appears in the first three episodes as a client accused of murdering his pregnant wife, and Sharon Stone begins a multiple-episode arc in the second episode as a lawyer suing her firm for wrongful termination.

While nobody wanted to lose the departed cast members, the current cast has welcomed the changes and sees the injection of new blood as a way to keep the series fresh, said Camryn Manheim, who plays attorney Ellenor Frutt. “It’s so thrilling to have James on board because he feels like something new and fresh that we have to rise to match [him],” Ms. Manheim said. “It’s easy to get lazy in the sixth and seventh season until you’re in jeopardy of losing it, and then you put on your boxing gloves and suit up and start fighting. In this eighth season we have come out of the gate fighting.”

Executive producer Bob Breech said he’s not afraid of alienating viewers with all the changes.

“Let’s not forget we retained four characters who have made very great contributions,” he said. “Those stalwarts remain with us. It would have been riskier to remain with the same group. You might have had one more ye
ar. This way we felt there was more life.”

In addition to Mr. Spader, the first episode introduces Rhona Mitra as Tara Wilson, a third-year law student and paralegal at the firm.

Unlike shows such as “Law & Order” or “ER,” which routinely rotate new cast members through the series, producers were hampered by the stories they could tell because some of them wouldn’t make sense given the history of the characters, and it was hard to avoid repeating stories. The cast changes this year gave the producers more opportunities for new story lines.

“When you’ve been on a television show for eight years and you have the same characters that revolve around each other, the relationships are pretty set,” Ms. Manheim said. “There’s not a lot of newness that happens between those characters. Most of the conflict happens between guest actors. Now we have two brand-new characters who bring two brand-new relationships, and therefore all of our emotional and intellectual styles have different relationships with them.”

The show picks up in present time, so a few months have passed since Bobby Donnell (Dylan McDermott) left and turned over the reins of the firm to Eugene Young, played by Mr. Harris.

The absence of the departed cast members isn’t dealt with in the first episode because producers didn’t want to dwell on the past and what is missing. But explanations will naturally appear in future episodes, and all of the characters may reappear in future episodes. For example, Ms. Sokoloff could reprise her role by returning for a stint as a rape crisis counselor, which was one of the dual roles her character played, and Ms. Hamilton could return as an opposing attorney. Mr. McDermott is slated to appear in four episodes, but details have not yet been worked out.

“I would love for them all to come back,” Mr. Kelley said. “It would be great if the show took off this year, ABC asked for a spinoff and I could do a new firm with Donnell, Dole, Washington and Gamble.”

When he had to sit down and decide which characters were staying and which had to go, Mr. Kelley said he looked at the individual story lines to see which characters had the most opportunities for the future.

Backstory

The developing personal relationship between the characters played by Jessica Capshaw and Steve Harris was one Mr. Kelley wanted to continue. He liked Mr. Harris’ dynamic intensity and the fact that Ms. Capshaw’s character is a younger associate through whom the show’s producers can explore the fresh ideologies of being a lawyer.

Letting go of Kelli Williams was a difficult decision, Mr. Kelley said.

“I made mistakes myself with respect to that character by loading on a murder conviction,” he said. “There was a lot of baggage, be it her marital connection to Bobby Donnell and then the murder conviction. That baggage was becoming more and more difficult to outrun. That was a really, really difficult one because I had always considered her so integral to the series.”

Lara Flynn Boyle’s character, Assistant District Attorney Helen Gamble, was another character who had been written into a corner. She wasn’t a member of the firm, and the show couldn’t really afford to keep on a permanent district attorney character, Mr. Kelley said.

While “The Practice’s” ratings dive can be attributed to moving the show from its longtime Sunday time slot to Monday nights, Mr. Kelley acknowledged it is possible that viewers were frustrated with some of the more outrageous plots, such as Ms. Williams’ character’s murder conviction.

“We have always been a bit of a grand show in terms of our plot lines and the characters that we put out there,” he said. “You need to have some point of reference of who the good guys are before you can put the interesting bad guys before your public.”

This year, Mr. Breech said, the show will add a little more humor than there has been in the past, and in addition to the big cases each week, will explore some smaller stories that have a bit more human value. For example, in the first episode, Mr. Spader’s character defends a homeless man against a criminal harassment charge.

For a seven-year-old show, much has been written about “The Practice” this year-and most of it has not been particularly positive. But Ms. Lyne said she’s not worried.

“I don’t think that people make a decision about whether to watch a TV show based on whether they think the actors have been dealt with fairly,” she said. “That was obviously a tough time for David and for ABC, but I don’t think it’s going to impact whether viewers tune in. If anything, I just think it makes `The Practice’ top of mind for everybody again. I have no doubt we will get sampling on this show come fall. Once people watch, I think they are going to stick around.”