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ABC Gets Big Rise Out of Fall

ABC is taking back prime time—one night at a time. DOA last season, the network is battling CBS and NBC for the key 18-49 demo—and gaining momentum.

ABC ruled Sunday night last week with soapy smash Desperate Housewives. On Wednesdays, thriller Lost's
outstanding performance is overshadowing CBS's hot CSI: N.Y.,
and reality series Wife Swap
is strong.
On Monday and Tuesday, ABC is solid, thanks to Monday Night Football
and its sitcoms. Forget last fall's slams of "struggling" and "stagnant." This year, ABC is basking in accolades like "reinvigorated" and "inventive."

But with the season just three weeks old, ABC's freshman entertainment chief Steve McPherson remains cautious. "Our attitude is slow and steady," he says. "We know we have a ton to do."

Leading the network's resurgence is Desperate Housewives,
which reigned as the most-watched show on television Sept.27-Oct.3 among total viewers, 18-49s and 25-54s. "ABC promised a steamy, sexy soap, and that's what you get," says media buyer John Rash, senior vice president at Campbell Mithun. Lost, meanwhile, was also a top-10 performer in each group. (The new shows enjoyed some unconventional promotional support. See page 12.)

"Everyone said ABC had good shows," adds Laura Caraccioli-Davis, senior vice president and director of Starcom Entertainment. "The question was, would viewers find them?" They did.

In its Oct. 3 debut, Desperate Housewives
captured 21.6 million viewers and a stellar 8.9 rating in 18-49s. The sky-high marks wowed McPherson. "The interest was devastating, and it built from the half-hour," he notes. "There was an underserved audience on Sunday nights with women." Even Viacom Co-COO and Co-President Les Moonves called to congratulate him.

As for Lost, it's a hit after three episodes. On Oct. 6, the island thriller from Alias
creator J.J. Abrams
reeled in 16.6 million viewers and a 6.2 rating in 18-49s, about 10% less than it snagged on its premiere. New David E. Kelley drama Boston Legal
started strong Oct. 3 with 13.1 million viewers and a 4.8 rating in the demo.

While ABC surges, NBC looks a bit winded.

The Peacock did not have a single show in the top five last week in any key category. The best performer was The Apprentice
Sept. 29, turning in a sixth-place performance among 18-49s. Several NBC shows, such as LAX, Hawaii
and Father of the Pride,
are suffering. Law & Order
looks weak against the CSI

Compounding NBC's woes is a surging CBS. After the first two weeks, CBS lead its rivals in 18-49s and its own core 25-54s. (The Sept. 30 presidential debate and Oct. 5 veep debate interrupted network programming.)

The sizzling CSI
trio is leading CBS's charge. The Oct. 7 CSI
arrested 27.8 million viewers; the night before, CSI: N.Y.
captured 16.9 million viewers, and CSI: Miami
grabbed 20.7 million on Oct. 4. All scored big with 18-49s. Even so, there's no victor yet in the war for the ad-rich 18-49 demo.

NBC traditionally leads, but its competitors are clawing for a larger slice. For now, CBS and ABC remain challengers, and Fox, holding its new lineup until after the World Series, is considered the wild card. "The baseball playoffs will alter the 18-49 race some," says Rash. "The real story will begin to solidify in the November sweeps. "

Not resting on reviews, McPherson is already hunting for companion shows for Lost
and Desperate Housewives. "What makes these shows pop is they are different," he says. "We're looking for the next big thing, not the next Lost."