Michael Benson & Marla Provencio

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Breakout hits "Lost" and "Desperate Housewives" couldn't have come at a better time for ABC. The network had just closed the 2003-04 season with a fourth-place finish, and it hadn't achieved a powerful ratings hit since "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" in 2000.

Then these two genre-bending programs landed like life rafts on ABC's lineup. They both drew critical raves, and with artful promotion guided by the team of Michael Benson, 42, and Marla Provencio, 48, both senior VPs at ABC Entertainment, they've emerged as hits powering ABC's turnaround.

It started when ABC imposed a new promotional and marketing approach, under the leadership of Entertainment President Steve McPherson. The plan: Focus ABC's marketing resources on key shows, with consistent messages, repeated, over and over.

Clever stunts using nontraditional media catapulted "Lost" and "Desperate Housewives" into the national zeitgeist. "You want to get word of mouth," Mr. Benson says. "It's the most important thing we can do-get people talking."

For "Lost," an epic series about marooned airplane crash survivors, ABC dispensed messages in bottles. It ran radio commercials sounding as if the stranded crew were breaking into frequencies with an urgent, static-laden SOS.

Meanwhile, potential viewers of "Desperate Housewives" got a hint at the sexy shenanigans to come on that show with images of the gorgeous, neurotic ladies of Wisteria Lane on dry-cleaning bags. "Everybody has some dirty laundry," the bags read. Ads in health clubs, women's magazines and Web sites spoke similarly in a push aimed at the 18-to-49-year-old females Madison Avenue pursues. ABC struck a placement with General Motors' Buick, which sponsors plot updates on America Online.

As of mid-April, "Desperate Housewives" had a 14.1 rating year to date, and "Lost" was pulling in a 9.8 rating, according to Nielsen. "It's like getting a report card every day," Ms. Provencio says of the Nielsen overnights. Judging by ABC's improving fortunes, the grade is A.

"One or two well-rated shows can change the fortunes of a network," says Lyle Schwartz, managing partner of WPP Group's Mediaedge:cia. "It sets [ABC] up nicely for building the audience next year."

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