Can This Monkey Conquer Prime-Time TV?

NBC's 'Animal Practice' Uses Creature to Lure Viewers, But Needs More to Keep Them

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Any monkey can run a TV network, so one line of cynical thinking goes. At the start of this TV season, however, a scrap of that idea is close to fruition.

Crystal, the capuchin on the cast of 'Animal Practice'
Crystal, the capuchin on the cast of 'Animal Practice' Credit: NBC

A female capuchin named Crystal is one of the cast members of a new NBC sitcom called "Animal Practice," which is set at a veterinary office. And whether or not her status as celebrity was intended, she is perhaps the best-known element about the new show -- and, maybe, NBC's entire fall season. Ad buyers report NBC has been touting the monkey's powerful reception among test audiences when trying to sell them (and the sponsors they represent) into the program. Chances are the casual TV fan will recognize Crystal before he or she does series star Justin Kirk.

NBC executives "are high on it," said Sam Armando, senior VP-director of strategic intelligence at SMGx, a unit of Publicis Groupe devoted to media research. "I'm not sure they're high on it because of the writing or if it's a real good show, or because it tested well with the monkey."

Viewers expecting "Animal Practice" to be shanghaied by Crystal while her human castmates linger about are in for disappointment, said Scot Armstrong, one of the show's executive producers.

"It's a great marketing tool to use this monkey, and she is really funny," said Mr. Armstrong, a former ad-agency creative executive. "But there's a lot more going on with the show that makes it smart, different and unique."

Come for the monkey, stay for the show? For now, millions of people are talking about the animal. And no wonder: NBC screened the pilot of "Animal Practice" commercial-free in the middle of the last night of its Olympics broadcast, forcing legions of Games-watchers to wait until late at night to catch up on a tape-delayed edit of The Who closing out the event.

The network will have to hope the massive sampling trumps any negative sentiment accorded to "Animal Practice" for its Olympics interruption when the show begins its regular schedule Wednesday at 8 p.m. The sitcom is part of a daunting turnaround effort at NBC, where scripted prime-time programs have long been mired in ratings ennui. As part of that project, the Peacock is quietly exiting a bunch of comedies that appeal to hip, urban audiences, such as "The Office" and "30 Rock," now in their final seasons, and "Community," banished to Fridays. Its new sitcoms seem intended to deliver decidedly broader appeal (and, perhaps, a touch less snark).

The much-loved Mister Ed and his (on-television) owner
The much-loved Mister Ed and his (on-television) owner

The prime-time grid has been built on the backs of many hard-working animals, whether they be Flipper, Lassie, Mr. Ed or Bear from the late 1970s-early 1980s series "B.J. and the Bear." The programs in which those creatures starred, however, were from the outset recognized as series in which an animal was going to play an outsize role. In the case of "Animal Practice," Crystal is supposed to be just one member of an ensemble cast.

Viewers will find members of the show's human cast getting more screen time than any single animal, said Mr. Armstrong. And Crystal isn't the only member of the animal kingdom to grace the show's set, he added: "It feels like animals might really live here. Penguins, a Bengal tiger -- we had one in the pilot. And we've got the dog from 'Marley & Me,' the monkey from 'Hangover, Part Two' the dog from 'Beethoven,' and the dog from 'Frasier' stopped by ."

Ad buyers are not entirely sanguine about the program's prospects, though they all believe "Animal Practice" will turn in robust ratings for at least its first week. They point to the show's 8 p.m. time slot, which gives it only local programming as a lead-in -- a challenge for a brand new show. And they cite its heady competition: Wednesday at 8 p.m. also plays host to Fox's popular "The X Factor," CBS's venerable "Survivor," ABC's reliable "The Middle" and the CW's buzzy new "Arrow."

"The monkey might get people in front of the set initially, but the rest of the characters are going to have to carry the show throughout the whole season," said Brian Hughes, senior VP and audience analysis practice lead at Interpublic Group's Magna Global.

The Olympics gambit "might create initial sampling," because it will create "a curiosity factor" regarding possible monkeyshines, said Billie Gold, VP-director of buying and programming research at Carat, "but the writing has to hold up."

Or maybe not. "Animal Practice" has gotten another turn in the spotlight thanks to a recent campaign against the show by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. "We've taken great pains so that the animals are well-cared for," said Mr. Armstrong, including having representatives from the American Humane Assocation on set along with a veterinary technical consultant on all days of shooting.

Producers believe "Animal Practice" would succeed even if Crystal wasn't getting so much attention. "I think the show would be a genuine hit even if it didn't have a monkey in it," Mr. Armstrong said. Whether NBC executives and TV audiences agree is a matter to be decided in future weeks.

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