Nets back in the game

B'casters broke rules and grabbed viewers as cable stumbled through a ho-hum season

Network TV elbowed its way back to the water cooler last season — and it paid off in the ratings.

The big four networks finished the 2004-05 year — which officially wrapped May 25 — up vs. the previous season, an almost unheard-of feat in this age of viewer erosion.

And they did it thanks to new and returning megahits like “Desperate Housewives,” “American Idol,” “Lost” and “Survivor.”

People were talking about broadcast TV again — just as they weren’t talking about cable.

After several years making most of the noise, cable is facing a dud of a year.

“The Sopranos” won’t return for another year; “Sex and the City” is long gone; and Showtime didn’t get much traction with hugely hyped series like “Fat Actress.”

Then, to add insult to injury, cable’s big comedy hope — “Chappelle Show” star David Chappelle — went AWOL.

Now, as they head into summer, network execs — with a few exceptions — are feeling more optimistic than they have in a long time.

“I believe there’s a great hope that there’s another ‘Idol’ or ‘Desperate Housewives’ out there,” says Fox Entertainment prexy Peter Liguori. “History does repeat itself — and recent history does say you can deliver breakout hits, you can deliver huge audience numbers.”

hat’s not the only lesson webheads gleaned from the just-completed season. Other messages that came through:

Sudsers can still sizzle. Not long ago, webheads had all but declared serialized skeins dead. The thinking: Viewers had too many choices and not enough time to keep up with continuing storylines. Much better to fill up on self-contained procedural dramas like “CSI” that viewers could pop in and out of throughout the season.

Not so this year.

Season’s biggest drama hits all contained soapy elements, cementing a trend that began two seasons ago with Fox’s “The OC.” Even shows that weren’t immediate smashes (think UPN’s “Veronica Mars”) were able to generate some buzz with their ongoing plots.

ABC topper Steve McPherson says auds are simply looking to bond with the shows they watch.

“There’s such a thirst for appointment television, and that’s what serialized shows become,” he says. “You want that shared experience, that show everyone can talk about the next day.”

Stars don’t make TV shows; TV shows make stars. It’s the TV biz equivalent of “2 plus 2 equals 4,” and yet it’s a lesson execs never seem to get. Nets pay big bucks for big names and always seem shocked when viewers don’t respond.

Among thesps humbled last season: Jason Alexander (“Listen Up”), Heather Locklear (“LAX”), Taye Diggs (“Kevin Hill”), Sylvester Stallone (“The Contender”), Rob Lowe (“Dr. Vegas”) and Matt LeBlanc (“Joey”). Poor John Goodman actually struck out with two shows: “Center of the Universe” and “Father of the Pride.”

By contrast, when this season started, few people knew who Eva Longoria, Evangeline Lilly or Ellen Pompeo were. Now all three have hit shows to their names.

Being bold pays off. ABC’s comeback was engineered by a team of execs who had nothing to lose. That made it easier for the net to try supposedly “crazy” ideas like launching a Sunday night suburban sudser or spending most of their fall marketing budget on just two shows.

Likewise, Fox stuck by early underperformer “House,” only to watch it blossom into a hit once “American Idol” brought in auds to sample it.

Liguori says the lesson of this season is, “in a strange way, the only thing you have to fear is fear itself.”

“This is a business of managing failures more than managing successes,” he says. “But you can’t let the failures wear you down. You’ve got to display a little bit of bravado, a little bit of swagger. And the people who did that this year were rewarded.”

TV 101 still applies. For all the talk of a changing marketplace and the impending revolution about to hit network TV, some basic rules still apply.

Lead-outs, for example, are still valuable, even in the era of TiVo and 500 channels. It turned “Grey’s Anatomy” into a hit and helped “House” take off.

Another obvious pointer: Marketing — sometimes the first thing to go in belt-tightening eras — can still make or break a show; witness how strategic promotion helped turn around ABC.

And, in a sea of testosterone-led procedural dramas, Alphabet web found a hunger for shows that hadn’t been seen in several years on a mainstream web.

Don’t believe the hype. As much as they’d like to, network execs can’t will hits. Buzz was loud on new skeins such as UPN’s “Kevin Hill,” WB’s “Jack & Bobby,” NBC’s “Father of the Pride” and even the Peacock’s “Joey.”

Yet, for a variety of reasons, viewers mostly took a pass. (“Joey” squeaked by with a soph pickup, but both NBC and Warner Bros. TV admit the show needs an overhaul.)

The “Desperate Housewives” and “Lost” axiom is clear: If the show lives up to the hype, then the viewers will come.

“You’ve got to have the most distinct, original and best quality shows,” says WB Entertainment prexy David Janollari. “The lesson duly noted is from ABC. They had original, fresh and incredible voices behind them that connected with an audience.

“Now, what’s the next show that will not just get buzz or good reviews, but will connect with an audience?”

Ratings for “The Shield” have not declined this season. Due in part to the addition of Glenn Close, they have increased 30 per cent versus a year ago. Information was incorrect in an earlier version of this article.