Previously on ABC: The network was as lost as a bunch of plane-crash survivors marooned on an island, and as desperate as a bunch of suburban housewives. The Big Three network had sunk to No. 4 behind Fox. Even The Bachelor was on the wane, and there was no competing with the procedural dramas: all those CSIs and Law & Orders.
Then came Extreme Makeover: Network Edition. Under new prime-time entertainment president Stephen McPherson (who took over from ousted ABC Entertainment president Susan Lyne in April), the net is defying expectations, turning preseason critical buzz for dramas Desperate Housewives and Lost, and the already-ripped-off-by-Fox reality show Wife Swap, into staggering ratings: Lost premiered to 18.7 million viewers, giving ABC its most watched drama debut since 1995...until Desperate Housewives debuted with 21.6 million viewers, making it the highest- rated new show this season. (Yes, bigger than Joey and CSI: NY.) Housewives even beat NBC's Law & Order: Criminal Intent, helping ABC dominate Sunday thanks also to Extreme Makeover: Home Edition and Boston Legal. Wife Swap held its own on Wednesday, despite declining numbers for lead-in The Bachelor and the stiffest time-slot competition around, NBC's Law & Order and CBS' CSI: NY.
How'd ABC do it? ''I believe it's all about the creative,'' says McPherson. ''The talent behind the new stuff really delivered, and that's allowed us to get passionate about it.'' More shocking still, McPherson's rivals NBC Universal Television Group president Jeff Zucker and CBS chairman and copresident of Viacom Les Moonves actually concur, admitting that they wish they had Desperate Housewives and Lost. ''At this point, who wouldn't want those shows?'' says Zucker.
''[The networks] still all talk about procedural this and that, but ABC zigged when everyone else zagged,'' says Mark Itkin, an exec VP at the William Morris Agency. ''And it paid off.'' What also paid off is ABC's hefty marketing investment. The network notorious for leading quality shows to slaughter with little promotion mounted a major blitz for its most promising pilots. ''I couldn't have asked for more,'' says Housewives creator Marc Cherry. ''I'm even a little embarrassed when stars of other ABC pilots are like, 'Could you give us just one of your billboards?'''
McPherson says the network prioritized. ''We worked on individual campaigns, as opposed to broad launch campaigns.'' (Translation: Housewives and Lost billboards were everywhere; Rodney billboards, not so much.)
The real test is maintaining those numbers and building on them. ''Two weeks does not a season make,'' says Campbell Mithun media buyer John Rash. ''These are not Rosetta stones, but potential cornerstones in rebuilding their schedule.''
Maybe so, but expect other nets to come up with some very similar-looking cornerstones for next fall: One agent reports that other networks are already calling in a frenzy, saying ''We need our Lost!''