By David Bauder
AP Television Writer
PASADENA, Calif. "The Practice," which has soared in the ratings over the past few months, will stay on the air through at least spring 2004 in a deal announced by ABC executives yesterday.
ABC entertainment chiefs, in a meeting with reporters, also insisted they weren't worried about the aging of the network's audience but announced they're bringing youthful rock and pop stars onto "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" next month.
"The Practice" deal with producer David E. Kelley is part of a growing trend of networks locking up their most popular shows for extended periods. NBC has done the same for "ER" and "Law & Order."
The legal drama starring Dylan McDermott and Lara Flynn Boyle has been on the air since March 1997. It really took off with viewers, however, when it was paired on ABC's schedule with "Millionaire" on Sundays.
ABC will attempt some crossover episodes in March with "The Practice" and "Gideon's Crossing," a struggling medical drama also set in Boston, said Stu Bloomberg, ABC entertainment chief.
While "Millionaire" continues to do well in the ratings airing four times a week, its audience is among the oldest on TV and has increased ABC's median age to 46, second oldest only to CBS. That's a concern in Hollywood, where advertisers place a premium on youth.
"We're not unhappy at all," Bloomberg said.
Still, the network is bringing proven magnets with young people Nick Carter and Howie Dorough of the Backstreet Boys on the game show in February. Metallica's Lars Ulrich, Kiss singer Gene Simmons, Emily Robinson of the Dixie Chicks, Sisqo and Sugar Ray's Mark McGrath also will be on the music-themed special episodes.
The network's abandonment of its long-running "TGIF" lineup of teen-oriented comedies on Fridays also contributed to the aging of its audience.
That move has proved a failure, but ABC said it has better long-term prospects appealing to adults that night. Executives are hedging their bets, though, by reviving the reality series, "Making the Band," on Fridays.
ABC, struggling like all broadcasters to develop new comedies, announced that three new ones will premiere in March: "My Wife and Kids" starring Damon Wayans, "The Job" starring Denis Leary and an untitled sitcom starring Joan Cusack.
And the executives pledged continued support for the drama "Once and Again," which has failed to deliver a big audience.
"We will not rest until we grow this beyond a critical darling," Bloomberg said.
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