Marc Cherry’s Winning Formula

Dec 13, 2004  •  Post A Comment

Marc Cherry, the creator of ABC’s new hit drama “Desperate Housewives,” doesn’t have much free time these days, but that doesn’t stop him from jumping in and answering the phones when things get busy around his office.

“I never think twice about that,” he said after picking up a ringing phone. “I was Dixie Carter’s assistant.”

Mr. Cherry has come a long way from his days with the “Designing Women” star. He is the brains behind a show that averages more than 20 million viewers a week and has helped change the fortune of its once-struggling network. He is also the man who has gotten development executives to stop talking about procedural dramas and start pursuing more serialized, character-based fare.

A former sitcom writer (“The Golden Girls,” “The Five Mrs. Buchanans”), Mr. Cherry was out of work for two years before selling “Desperate” to ABC as a spec script. An immediate favorite with viewers and critics, the show’s ability to buck TV conventions has more than a few viewers wondering whether the show is a dark drama or a campy comedy minus the laugh track.

“Our show has elements of comedy and drama,” he said. “It’s its own genre, really-soap opera, mystery, drama. The amazing thing about our show is how flexible it is. There is an elasticity to it. “

The hour-long show was developed as a drama. It is being submitted, however, to comedy categories for consideration by awards such as the Golden Globes, nominations for which will be announced Dec. 13.

Mr. Cherry said he had no idea “Desperate” was going to be such a success, but he knew his show was something different.

“I had a cognizance,” he said. “My feeling was the show will be a huge hit or a huge disaster because we were attempting something pretty grand. Once the critics’ reviews came in and were pretty positive, and once I realized how much ABC was putting into the promotions, I had the feeling we wouldn’t be a disaster.”

Mr. Cherry said the concern soon changed to how the show would perform against its time-period competitor, NBC’s franchise “Law & Order: Criminal Intent.”

“Then it became a different kind of worry,” he said.

That worry has been mitigated by the show’s ratings performance. For the first 11 weeks of the season, “Desperate Housewives” is the No. 2 program in total viewers and adults 18 to 49, according to Nielsen Media Research, and No. 1 among all key women demos. The cultural impact culminated with a Newsweek magazine cover story less than two months after its debut.

Then there was the controversy over the now-infamous promotional spot during “Monday Night Football” in which “Housewives” star Nicolette Sheridan took off her towel and jumped into the arms of an NFL player. The attention took Mr. Cherry, who participated in making the promotion, by surprise.

“I didn’t realize people watch `Monday Night Football’ with their children,” he said. “I don’t consider that a child-friendly viewing experience with all the beer commercials, Viagra commercials and scantily clad models.”

He did say the apology that came from the network and the show was sincere.

“I was misinformed,” he said of football’s viewing audience. “I legitimately feel bad that we offended people. We didn’t need to do the promotion. We were doing fine in the ratings. No one wanted the controversy.”

The more shocking demographic revelation for Mr. Cherry was The New York Times editorial that pointed out more viewers in the 2 to 12 demo watch “Desperate Housewives” than “Monday Night Football.”

“Of course I was immediately appalled,” he said. “I thought, good God, what parents are letting their 2- to 12-year-olds watch our show?”

The process of unfolding the lives of the four housewives on Wisteria Lane has led to a few surprises for Mr. Cherry.

“Certain story lines, you see them play out and you realize they are stronger than you anticipated,” he said. “You start taking your cues off what works. Fortunately we’re so behind in the script-writing process here we can react instantly to what’s on the screen.”

That included the realization that Ms. Sheridan’s character, Edie Britt, was a powerful force in the relationship between Teri Hatcher’s Susan Mayer and James Denton’s Mike Delfino.

“From the pilot I was so surprised at how much Nicolette Sheridan popped,” Mr. Cherry said.

Another surprise has been the speed at which stories develop and resolve themselves.

“We gobble up story lines here,” he said. “You find yourself going, `Oh, I thought that would last six episodes’ and we finished that in three. Friends in the soap opera genre warned me that would happen, and they were right. That kind of pressure leads you to some pretty extravagant storytelling.”

Last week Touchstone Television signed Mr. Cherry to a three-year deal. He said he had no plans to launch something new for Touchstone or ABC anytime soon.

“Touchstone and ABC want me to keep this going, and maybe by season three we can talk about other development.”

Mr. Cherry said he has thought of a spinoff, but said he would “not say anything until I have Steve’s [McPherson, ABC prime-time entertainment president] approval.”

But it was clear he was not interested in pursuing a “Desperate Husbands” format, speculation about which has been floating among TV programming insiders in Hollywood for weeks.

“It started because development executives at other studios have said they want a `Desperate Husbands,”‘ he said of the rumors. “The joke for me is that the men are here to be obstacles. I supposed someone could do a show about desperate husbands, but I don’t know what it would be about.”

“`Desperate Husbands’ sounds good, but people have to come up with what men face. It’s not just a soap opera with rich people fighting over companies. What we’re doing here is deeper, under the surface of the antics these women face,” he said.