The one-two-three punch of ABC’s “Desperate Housewives,” “Lost” and “Grey’s Anatomy” repped one of the biggest network turnarounds in TV history.
Long in the ratings dumps — save a few years of success fueled by “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” — ABC had been struggling for years to get back in the scripted TV game.
By 2004, staples such as “NYPD Blue” and “The Practice” were fading, while entries like “Alias” had become cult hits but weren’t big ratings generators.
Along came “Housewives” and “Lost” in fall 2004. (“Grey’s” came later that midseason.) On paper, neither should have been hits: “Housewives” came from scribe Marc Cherry, who hailed from the comedy world and hadn’t had a success in years. “Lost,” meanwhile, had gone through several revisions, plus wound up with a hefty pilot pricetag.
What’s more, an exec shuffle at ABC on the eve of that year’s upfront presentation gave the impression of more instability: Touchstone TV topper Steve McPherson took over following the ousters of ABC Entertainment chairman Lloyd Braun (who came up with the original idea for “Lost”) and prexy Susan Lyne.
But McPherson was invested in the new shows: He’d developed both “Housewives” and “Lost” at the studio, after all. Under his watch, ABC poured most of its marketing dollars into launching those two shows.
And here’s the kicker: He had the goods to back that campaign. Both shows quickly earned rave reviews. With all that momentum, the Alphabet did what many assumed was impossible for the then-moribund network: It opened both “Housewives” and “Lost” to stellar numbers.
“(The shows) gave ABC and ABC Studios a credibility that it was lacking for a number of years,” says Mark Pedowitz, who took over the studio upon McPherson’s move to the network. “All three shows created an image of what was important for the network and studio.”
“I can’t think of a show in the past 10, 20 years that came out of the gate as strongly as ‘Desperate Housewives’ did,” says exec producer Bob Daily, who joined the writing staff in season three. “I remember you couldn’t go to a newsstand without seeing one of those women on the cover of a magazine. I think when that happens you have a target on your back.”
Five years later, the network and studio have kept “Housewives” fresh by, most recently, resetting the show five years into the future.
The idea came from Cherry himself, who was intrigued by the use of time by other shows (including “Lost”). By pushing the show forward, it gave him a lot of new material to use — including plenty of mystery surrounding what went on during that five-year time gap.
“The five-year reset did a lot of things for all of us,” Pedowitz says. “It put the show back to its natural roots.”
“Housewives” continues to thrive, having won its timeslot among total viewers over the past five years. Show reps one of Disney’s top DVD sellers among TV shows, and has been licensed in more than 220 territories. “Housewives” is also available via domestic and cable syndication, and through a steady stream of licensing and merchandising.
“I’ve never been much for hyperbole, but (“Housewives” and “Lost”) are the heart and soul of what ABC became,” Pedowitz says.