By Wayne Karrfalt
Special to TelevisionWeek
ABC was a network desperate for hit a year ago, when Mike Benson and Marla Provencio began promoting a new prime-time Sunday night “dramedy” set on an idealized suburban street called Wisteria Lane. ABC’s top marketing executives pulled out all the stops trying to build water-cooler buzz for “Desperate Housewives,” embracing such guerrilla tactics as using Cessnas to pull banners in the skies over major markets and placing ads on local dry-cleaning bags.
“We were looking to find a way to sell it that was accessible, and dry-cleaning bags fit,” said Mr. Benson, senior VP of marketing, advertising and promotion for ABC. “Everyone has a little dirty laundry in their closet. People have secrets. How well do you really know your neighbors and what’s going on next door?”
As the summer wore on, excitement about the soap began to build. ABC aired longer, 60-second, promos to introduce all the characters that made the series feel “more like a theatrical event,” said Ms. Provencio, the network’s VP and creative director for on-air marketing. A tracking tool developed by Initiative Media, Trendum and TVTracker.com mined chatter on Internet chat sites and predicted big numbers.
The campaign turned out to be a runaway success. By the time “Desperate” premiered in October it was well on its way to becoming a national phenomenon. It became and remained a top-rated show on television throughout the season, posting its best ratings for its season finale May 22.
The show is being honored with a Promax Campaign of Distinction Award because of its innovative marketing strategies and the incredible impact they had on ABC’s fortunes.
Industry observers have credited “Desperate Housewives” with helping to reverse years of erosion that have taken steady chunks out of broadcast television’s prime-time share. It also set new standards for product placement and created a launching pad for two more series that have become huge successes of their own-“Lost” and “Grey’s Anatomy.”
“In essence they pulled a rabbit out of a hat, then used that rabbit to pull two more out of the same hat,” said Jim Chabin, president and CEO of Promax&BDA. “‘Desperate Housewives’ proved that if you build the right story and market it right to the public, broadcast television is still capable of building a huge audience and creating a single platform marketers can use to launch a product with a big blast.”
Title: Senior VP, marketing, ABC
How long in current position: Seven years
Year of birth: 1962
Place of birth: Minneapolis
Who knew? He used to work for his grandparents making “Benson burgers” in the family-owned Benson’s Caf%E9;.
Title: VP and creative director, on-air promotion, ABC
How long in current position: Two years
Year of birth: 1956
Place of birth: Los Angeles
Who knew? Ms. Provencio loves to play Texas hold ’em and enters poker tournaments any chance she gets.