Kelley Puts Himself on Personal Hiatus

Although he is one of television's most prolific and honored creative talents, David E. Kelley will not be producing and writing most of the episodes of a single show this fall--for the first time since Ronald Reagan was president. He is taking a personal hiatus for at least a year while he develops his next show, recharges his creative batteries and moves with his movie star wife, Michelle Pfeiffer, and their children to Northern California.

"I love television and want to keep doing television," Mr. Kelley said. "But in terms of the writing of it, I would like to develop the next show that I am going to do with some time off to do it and not try to run a show at the same time, because it is tough."

His company will remain active with at least one and possibly two series on the air. Mr. Kelley will take a producing credit but not do most of the writing, as he did on his hits such as "Ally McBeal," "Picket Fences," "Chicago Hope" and "The Practice."

David E. Kelley Productions has a deal with ABC to produce 22 episodes of a "Practice" spinoff for ABC, so far untitled, to be done with a lighter touch. Bill D'Elia, who worked with Mr. Kelley on "Chicago Hope" and was showrunner on "Ally McBeal," has been tapped as executive producer. "We're still looking for a new writing force to reinvigorate that," said Mr. Kelley, who may pen a couple episodes.

Kelley Productions, which has a development deal at Fox, is also developing a half-hour comedy to star Camryn Manheim, based on her "Practice" character, with former "Frasier" producer Dan O'Shannon and aimed at midseason 2005. A pilot is in the mix at ABC for the fall called "The DeMarco Affair," a dramedy about a wedding planner. It is being exec produced and written by Jason Katims, who worked on Kelley Productions' soon-to-be officially canceled drama "Boston Public."

All of the key executives that brought Mr. Kelley to ABC recently left in a network reshuffle. The irony is that Mr. Kelley battled with those same executives in recent years over the scheduling of his shows but had finally made his peace. Now Mr. Kelley is concerned about the prospects for "DeMarco," since the executives who championed it will not be selecting the fall schedule. "That series' [prospects] are probably more precarious because of the change," Mr. Kelley said.

On the day Stephen McPherson was chosen to head programming at ABC last month, one of the first people he called was Mr. Kelley. "I just had a brief conversation with him," Mr. Kelley said. "I look forward to meeting him soon."

His real concern, Mr. Kelley said, is about the state of TV, which he senses has undergone a change since he first walked away from being a Boston lawyer in the mid-1980s to write and produce shows such as "L.A. Law" and "Doogie Howser, M.D."

"Television has changed so much it behooves all of us to take a step back, take a breath and then assess that," Mr. Kelley said. "There is pressure on the networks [today] to have a hit or cut their losses. They're not inclined to stick with a character-based show as long as they were perhaps 10 years ago."

"Character-based" shows are what Mr. Kelley creates. He points out that "Picket Fences," "The Practice" and even "Ally McBeal" weren't hits right out of the gate. They took time to find an audience. Today, Mr. Kelley feels he would not be given that same amount of time, as happened with "girls club" and "The Brotherhood of Poland, N.H."; both were quickly canceled. "There's such a burden on us now to be a hit in the first two or three episodes or you are gone," said Mr. Kelley. "And if you look at my shows, I've never started that way."

He has also felt the sting of network censors for the first time in recent months, which he blames on the concerns over indecent content on TV since the Super Bowl. On an episode of "The Practice," a character could not be shown smoking a marijuana cigarette, though she could be shown holding it. "That's the first time in 17 years I've ever had a network say, 'You can't have that idea.' It's one thing if they say you can't have that word, or that nudity, but quite another when you get a note from Broadcast Standards that says you cannot have that idea. That was a big scary."

Another concern is that what now works on TV isn't what he wants to do. He cites "Poland," which he felt was strong creatively. "In this day and age a television show has to be young and noisy in order to succeed. It's very difficult for a show like ["Poland"] to succeed and to carve out a constituency that allows [it] to live."

Part of that has come from the rise of reality TV, about which Mr. Kelley has been an outspoken critic in the past. He now has mellowed somewhat: "Some of it is god-awful and repulsive but I don't condemn it all. Some of it is quite nice. 'American Idol,' for example, is one I always quite liked."

"The ones that exist only to make fun of their contestants," added Mr. Kelley, "to exploit people, to appeal to the lowest common denominator, those are the ones that we all have to be concerned about."

The real problem with reality TV is that it provides a kind of lower-cost junk food for the mind that replaces more nourishing fare. "We're all dealing with the fact networks can make [reality] shows at a cheaper cost and yet get big ratings," Mr. Kelley said. "So when it comes to scripted television, network executives look at us and say, 'Why pay extra and get less of a return?' It's difficult to argue with that. The argument you try to proffer is, 'Well, what business are you in? Are you in the network business just to deliver product? And is that product creative or are you just trying to generate ratings?'

"And the frustrating part is that 10 or 15 years ago, most network executives were proud of the magic. They put on a lot of junk but they knew they had to put on junk to support shows they really cared about, the ones they were proud to associate with. That philosophy is now kind of gone. Now the shows the networks are proud to be associated with are the ones that get the biggest numbers. The scary part is the guardians of television don't really respect the medium as much as they used to."

While embarking on what he calls this "transition year," Mr. Kelley, a Maine native who turned 48 last month, has also been writing movie scripts. He is nearing completion on a remake of "Witness for the Prosecution" for MGM and has completed "Chasing Montana," which will star his wife, marking the first project they have done together.

"When I finished writing ["Montana"] she read it and was interested," Mr. Kelley said. "And I was fired [as a producer] from the project the next day. We will both be involved, but we are going to stay true to our commitment not to actually work with each other."

They will be moving with their children out of the L.A. area later this year. "The idea is one we've had for a long time, that when our kids hit middle school age that we would seek a smaller-town life," said Mr. Kelley. "So we've been looking at towns for a number of years and we've found one."

Over the years Mr. Kelley has developed a pattern of working a 9-to-5 shift, locked away in his office on the third floor of the Manhattan Beach, Calif., studio where his shows are produced and then being home each night for dinner with his family. "I don't really think [the move] will affect my professional life because the reality is, I'm in my office writing all day," Mr. Kelley said. "I rarely get to the set any more. So I'll be doing the same thing. I will open an office up there and write from there. All the editing and video technology exists for me to get cuts and dailies up there."

When in production, Mr. Kelley will charter a plane and fly to L.A. one day a week for meetings. "Being in Manhattan Beach, we don't really intersect with Hollywood that much anyway," he adds. "The reality is most people won't know I've left."

Mr. Kelley makes changes slowly. He still works closely with the same attorney and agent-turned-manager that he started his career with. He still believes that television needs to show the diversity of society and deal with socially relevant issues. He still loves to write whimsical stories. Whatever he does next will extend what he has done before. And he won't do a show just because it is marketable: "I'll do a show I can get creatively excited about," said Mr. Kelley. "It will probably be another long shot."

His unique vision intact, wherever he lives, Mr. Kelley will remain an important creative force in television.

©Television Week, tvweekonline, Alex Ben Block May 2, 2004 (Thank you, kitkat)

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