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Has ABC Found Its Way with Lost?

By Ronald Grover My wife Valerie never ceases to amaze. Not merely with her beauty or her brains, both of which I have appreciated for years. But at the car wash last weekend, she declared, out of nowhere, that she wants to carve out some time in her Sunday night schedule for an ABC show called Desperate Housewives, a soap opera that takes a darkly comic look at women in suburbia.

That ABC has a program a smart person wants to watch -- one that doesn't include bachelors, football, or Regis Philbin -- is a huge step in the right direction for a network that recently seems to have set the world record for airing stinkers. And Desperate Housewives isn't even scheduled to debut until Oct. 3.

"NOT SPECTACULAR, BUT GOOD." This isn't to say that the Disney-owned (DIS) network is in the midst of a major turnaround. Finishing third among the Big Four networks would be an accomplishment. Last year was the third in a row in which ABC lost viewers in the key 18-to-49-year-old age group that advertisers most want, according to ad-buying firm Starcom Entertainment. And it finished dead last among the Big Four in both total network viewership and with viewers 18 to 49.

But a strange thing happened on the way to September, when the networks start to roll out their new shows. While Viacom's (VIA) CBS and GE's (GE) NBC have been duking it out in the early going for bragging rights to younger audiences, ABC has quietly put together a lineup with more promising newcomers and returning sophomores than it has had in years.

"The new shows this season aren't spectacular, but they're good," Starcom Senior Vice-President Laura Caraccioli-Davis wrote in a recent report. "In fact, [they're] some of the best ABC has had in recent years." Among them: the heavily hyped drama Lost, which follows a group of plane-crash victims on a deserted island.

It launched with a surprisingly strong opening week on Wednesday, Sept. 22, with 18 million viewers and a good showing with the 18-49 demographic. It was ABC's strongest opening for a new drama in nine years, and it gave the network the win at 8 p.m. for the night, according to The Programming Insider newsletter.

LONG WAY TO GO. "They could be onto a strong building block [with Lost]," says Brad Adgate, senior vice-president of media-buying firm Horizon Media. Adgate figures that ABC needs some strong dramas -- like CBS's CSI franchise and NBC's Law & Order -- to give it a jump start. Adgate also likes the prospects for Desperate Housewives, a soap opera about sex-starved suburban women that will air on Sundays at 10 p.m.

Promoting Tuesday's male-skewing comedy lineup during Monday Night Football games and concentrating on improving fortunes on Wednesday and Sunday nights, where the dramas usually draw larger audiences, is smart, Adgate says. "ABC has a defensible plan. Things are starting to look a lot more strategic."

Still, it has a long way to go, Adgate and just about everyone else agrees. The network last year lost about $350 million on about $3.1 billion in revenue, Merrill Lynch analyst Jessica Reif-Cohen wrote in a recent report. She figures that the overall amount of advertising that the four major networks sold in the "upfront" market this June increased by about 4%, to $8.4 billion.

ABC sold about $1.6 billion upfront this spring, about the same as last year, as it withheld a lot of spots in the hopes that its shows build audiences and can command higher rates. If the early numbers hold -- such as a better-than-anticipated second-season premiere of its Extreme Makeover: Home Edition -- ABC could have the last laugh.

HOT SHOW-PICKER. Promotion is another challenge. Unlike NBC, which had the Olympics, and Fox, which has American Idol, ABC didn't have a huge summer-ratings extravaganza that it could use to push its new shows. (Even its Monday Night Football games have the occasional stinker, and folks drift off.) Instead, it was forced to advertise its new shows on billboards and cable channels. But that strategy is working: Witness my wife's enthusiasm for a show she has yet to see.

Another reason folks are talking about ABC's shows is the network's new programming boss, 39-year-old Steve McPherson. He's considered one of TV's hottest show-pickers. Problem is that for the last few years, too many of the the shows he picked went to other networks. As head of Disney's Touchstone Television unit he green-lighted CSI, then saw it go to CBS when ABC decided not to air it. ABC also turned down Touchstone-produced Scrubs, which NBC picked up, and the UPN sitcom Kevin Hill.

"I can't dwell on the fact that we're getting killed by some shows that could have helped us here," says McPherson, who moved over from Touchstone to ABC in April, when Disney cleaned house at the network. Now, he'll make sure the best stuff stays at ABC. "The good news is that I know the shows and where they'll work best for us," he says. Among the shows he approved at Touchstone that will air on ABC are Lost, Desperate Housewives, and Gray's Anatomy, a medical drama that's already getting some critical buzz.

IT'S A START. McPherson is also lowering expectations -- a smart move for any ABC executive. "We're not programming for critics, and we're not going to take on NBC or CBS for the 18-to-49 demo lead," he says. "But we think we have the shows that can start to bring people to ABC, and that's where it all starts."

Indeed it does. And maybe, just maybe ABC finally has found the shows that folks will actually want to watch. Just ask my wife. Grover is Los Angeles bureau chief for BusinessWeek

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