Affils Irked by Shifting Practice

ABC's January efforts to bolster its prime time schedule has some affiliates worried that the network's speculative steps forward guarantee their affiliates will be taking steps backward.

Specifically, affiliates and news directors are concerned about the decision to move The Practice
from its 10 p.m. Sunday slot to Mondays at 9 p.m. now that Monday Night Football
is over.

Once a sleeper, even named TV Guide's "Best Show You're Not Watching," The Practice
survived early time shifts and ratings woes to become an Emmy-winning hit and has been a solid lead-in for affiliates' late news. The new schedule will have the show moving to 9 p.m. leading into ABC's new Miracles
on Monday, a drama that ABC thinks could attract a X-Files
-type cult following, if not protests from other viewers.

But the move to take away what's been their most dependable late news lead-in in recent years has evoked for some news directors and general managers some bad memories. Four years ago, they believed ABC sacrificed the momentum of solid performer NYPD Blue
in favor of the network-owned Once and Again
(B&C, Dec. 6, 1999, p. 4).

"The Practice
has been helping us out for years," said Matt Zelkind, news director at Nashville's ABC affiliate WKRN-TV. "I'm very disappointed that they're moving it." Lynn Heider, news director at Cleveland's ABC affiliate, WEWS(TV) said that "it's obviously a very disappointing, unpleasant surprise. A strong ABC affiliate doesn't need a great network lead-in to win the [late news] time period. But it's frustrating for a news director to have to watch what may be a poor-performing CBS affiliate benefiting from great lead-ins."

Those lead-ins clearly helped many historically poor-performing CBS stations gain some ratings traction in November. Meanwhile several ABC's stations slipped and one of the nation's strongest ABC stations, network-owned WLS-TV Chicago, lost the late-news crown for the first time in years.

Several station executives said they understood and agreed with ABC's desire to rebuild its prime time schedule, so that, they said, it won't be caught short with little in development as it was when temporary savior Who Wants to Be a Millionaire

"Short-term thinking is what got ABC into trouble in the first place," John Lansing, head of the ABC-loaded Scripps Howard Broadcasting Group, acknowledged. And while he understood that switching The Practice
was part of a long-term solution, the upside was "projected," but the downside to local news was "certain."

Lansing and other station executives questioned why the move was announced a day after a conference call with affiliates, and not before or during. But John Rouse, ABC senior vice president for affiliate relations, explained that the decision was made during a meeting that followed the conference with affiliates.

Still, Rouse acknowledged affiliates' concerns regarding the schedule shift and said the network has been pro-active in explaining the move."

The network hopes to get off solidly with its Sunday-night lineup given its Super Bowl promotional practice and its belief that the new Dick Wolf-produced Dragnet will draw viewers demographically and numerically similar to The Practice. "Hopefully," Rouse said, "we won't skip a beat. But we're hoping for multiple shows that do well and still hold on to The Practice. Monday will be stronger because of the move."

Explaining the move last month, ABC Entertainment President Susan Lyne said that "Monday is a really important night for ABC. It has been a strong performer for the first half of the season and we need an anchor show to keep our momentum. What better anchor could we have than The Practice
at 9 o'clock?"