ABC gets a taste of success this season

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broadcast networks don't get long to make an impression, and three weeks into a new season, media agencies are already surprised at what's taking hold and what's coming in limp.

The terms "lost" and "desperate" have long been applied to Walt Disney Co.-owned network ABC. Now it's the home to three of the biggest hits thus far. "Lost," about a plane crash in a remote jungle; "Desperate Housewives," a drama/murder mystery; and "Wife Swap," a reality show featuring households that exchange mothers. All are drawing cheers from executives who bought in.

"We did a deal where we booked five clients into `Desperate Housewives.' It is one of the rare times we've been right," jokes Peter Olsen, exec VP-national broadcast director at Grey Global Group's MediaCom.

Magna Global's Steve Sternberg, senior VP-director of audience research, credits ABC's triumph to effective promotions and a simple fact: "People are looking for something different." Mr. Sternberg suggests perhaps there's too much reality TV, and viewers seek something fresh.

"The big surprise is ABC's fantastic numbers," says Jason Malty, MindShare's managing director-national broadcast. ABC won week two (Sept. 27 to Oct. 3) of the season, pulling in the largest number of adults ages 18 to 49-5.3 million. (CBS took second place with 4.8 million and NBC had 4.6 million-though the first presidential debate that week affected both networks disproportionately, since their Thursday schedules are higher-rated). "Desperate Housewives" won the top spot in the 18-to-49 demographic in week two and ABC shows "Lost," "Monday Night Football" and "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" also appeared in the top 10.

trouble brewing

Over on General Electric Co.'s NBC meanwhile, trouble seems to be brewing. According to buyers, the network has lost about a fifth of its audience compared with last year. "I wouldn't say disappointment," says Mr. Maltby. "I would say people might be concerned that it could be off by 20%."

The "Law & Order" franchise appears to be weakening against CBS's "CSI: Miami" on Wednesdays. According to Shari Anne Brill, Carat's VP-director of programming, Tuesday's "Father of the Pride" lost 15% of its audience between weeks one and two of the season. On Sept. 21 it drew 8.1 million viewers compared with 9.5 million viewers the previous week-after drawing 12.3 million viewers for its Aug. 31 debut. While "Joey" was ordered for a full season, the sitcom is also losing altitude. And "The Apprentice 2" is not doing as well as many had hoped, though no one's quite ready to bury The Donald just yet.

David Poltrack, CBS's exec VP-research, crows that his network is beating NBC not only in total viewers, but in the crucial 18-to-49 demographic.

"Now you're getting more young adults, plus bonus adults aged 50-plus. That is great," he says. Among the shows delivering that younger demographic is "Survivor: Vanuatu," which beat "Joey" and "Will and Grace" in week two, while "CSI: New York" outperformed "Law & Order" among the same age group. Mr. Poltrack contends shows in decline rarely make a comeback, though he admits "The Apprentice 2" could show some pickup.

Tom Bierbaum, NBC Entertainment's publicity VP for ratings, says some of the year-on-year ratings declines could be because NBC had launched many of its premieres early this year. He also points out that the data only reflected a single week, since the presidential debates affected week two. He adds that "Joey" and "Will and Grace" remained the No. 1 and No. 2 comedies, respectively, while "ER" was the No. 2 drama. He says it wasn't a surprise that "Joey" wasn't doing as well as "Friends" had, but expects that the show would grow over time.

Media executives warn that the picture could change in the next few months. "Fox will do better in January with `American Idol' and a lot will depend on midseason shows such as `Average Joe' and `The Contender' on NBC," says Magna Global's Mr. Sternberg.

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