NEW YORK - For a network desperate for hits, "Desperate Housewives" provided quite the tonic for ABC.
The drama about suburban angst drew a stunning 21.3 million viewers for its premiere Sunday night, according to Nielsen Media Research. It follows the success of another new ABC drama, "Lost," which has also intrigued viewers during the first two weeks of the TV season.
They're encouraging early signs for a network that slumped to fourth place behind CBS, NBC and Fox last year and has been one of parent Walt Disney Co.'s biggest problem spots.
"Desperate Housewives" drew more viewers for a season premiere than any ABC series since "Spin City" eight years ago, Nielsen said. It was the best debut of any non-spinoff series since "Inside Schwartz" on NBC in 2001.
"It's good for broadcast TV that people are coming out in droves to things that are different and things that they're excited about," said Stephen McPherson, ABC entertainment president.
Two weeks ago, ABC had 18.7 million viewers for "Lost," its drama about tropical island castaways that are a carnivore's potential snack. "Lost" had 17 million viewers for its second showing, considered a strong audience retention rate for a new series.
Both shows drew good reviews and were the subject of aggressive marketing campaigns.
Two other potential bright spots for ABC: "Wife Swap" is holding up well against strong competition and "Boston Legal," the drama created out of the ashes of "The Practice," had 13.8 million viewers Sunday.
"I think this is going to be a turnaround season for them," said Steve Sternberg, a television analyst for ad buyers Magna Global.
Both "Lost" and "Desperate Housewives" represent something different for broadcast networks, which have depended heavily on procedural crime dramas and reality shows recently, he said.
Since its viewership has dwindled, ABC had to depend on something other than ABC to get the word out on its new shows. It advertised heavily on cable networks ESPN and Lifetime, and placed ads on billboards and on the side of buses.
Since "Desperate Housewives" had the tag line "Everybody has a little dirty laundry," ABC printed ads with that line on thousands of dry cleaning bags.
The network also hired people to plant plastic bottles on dozens of beaches, containing the message, "Help me, I'm lost. You can find me on Wednesday, Sept. 22 on ABC," the premiere date for "Lost."
Not everything ABC touches turns to gold, though. Fewer than 5 million people bothered to watch millionaire Mark Cuban give away money on "The Benefactor." The comedy loosely inspired by Mel Gibson's home life, "The Savages," had just 5.7 million viewers, Nielsen said.
And the network still has to prove it has something strong to replace "Monday Night Football" when the NFL's regular season ends, Sternberg said.
Still, it's a signal to television producers that ABC's "not in the toilet anymore," he said. Before McPherson's hiring earlier this year, the network drew wide criticism for a dysfunctional management that let hits like "The Apprentice" slip to other networks.
One big caution: It's still early, and ABC must hope these shows are more than a passing fancy.
"I hope it's good for the corporate culture here," McPherson said. "It's been a place where a lot of talented people have worked really hard and been kind of beaten down a little bit. I hope people can feel in their bellies that they have the ability to compete now."
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