“It appeared to be a normal day on Good Morning America until Charlie Gibson, who waited his whole life for something to happen to him, something exciting, found his calm exterior shattered by a voice from beyond.”
That voice—and the little monologue above—belonged to Brenda Strong, the actress who plays Mary Alice Young, the dead narrator of ABC’s smash hit Desperate Housewives. She delivered this creative adaptation of one of her lines on the show as an introduction to a Feb. 18 interview with Mr. Gibson, whose response, upon hearing it, was: “That is so cool.”
In an interview with The Observer, Ms. Strong couldn’t overstate how much she enjoyed her visit to Good Morning America. On countless occasions in the last year, Mr. Gibson has confessed his unequivocal obsession with Desperate Housewives.
“It was absolutely surreal,” the veteran actress said of her visit with the veteran anchor. “It was an out-of-body experience. It was kind of like meeting Oprah.”
Her only disappointment was not getting to meet Diane Sawyer, who was off on assignment that day.
“I’m a huge fan of hers,” Ms. Strong said. “She’s just such a stunningly beautiful person and a brilliant mind, all wrapped into this package. And you say, ‘How come she won the Lotto?’”
Well, it just so happens that Ms. Sawyer is a huge fan right back. She devoted a week of shows to the soap last winter and has interviewed all the female stars and most of the men. She found one early episode appealingly loaded with “sin and guilt.” She found another pleasantly dismaying because it made more sympathetic a character that she “was having a good time hating.” She appears to follow every twist and turn of the plot as she would follow troop movements in a major war.
After her interview with Mr. Gibson, Ms. Strong said the entire Good Morning America operation, from technicians to correspondents, gave her a standing ovation. “It’s funny,” she said, “because I didn’t really realize kind of the far-reaching impact that our show had until I went on and Charles actually said, ‘You know, you guys don’t understand—it’s even trickling down to the news department. The entire network feels like it’s gotten a fresh surge of optimism.’”
But when it comes to the slightly sloppy, gushingly passionate intra-network hug between Ms. Strong’s prime-time soap opera and Mr. Gibson’s daytime news show, the love that presently joins the news and entertainment divisions of ABC dare not speak its true name: synergy.
Desperate Housewives averaged more than 20 million viewers last season. The morning shows waver between a quarter and a third of that. For much of its time on top of the ratings, Today averaged six million viewers and beat GMA handily by one million to two million viewers each day. But during one glorious week in May, the spread between them was just 43,000 people.
That’s what we call a fresh surge of optimism.
Not that GMA is the first to figure that out. The Today Show often had the previous night’s ejected Apprentice around to chew the fat; nor was The Early Show reluctant to “report” on the exploits of that network’s Survivor contestants.
But to capitalize on the show’s marriage to the Housewives, GMA will have to repeat this May performance throughout this fall’s sweeps. From the Sept. 25 season opener of Desperate Housewives through the crucial month of November, the relationship between GMA and its evening sister show will have to become that much tighter.
GMA saw some of its most significant ratings jumps last spring, when it began showing deleted scenes—which it calls “secret scenes”—the morning after Desperate Housewives airs. The day after last season’s May 22 finale, GMA showed a deleted scene from the episode and drew 600,000 more viewers than Today, according to Nielsen. The next day, Today was back up over GMA by 800,000 viewers.
Commercials for Good Morning America—some of which appear during Desperate Housewives—pronounce the morning show the ultimate destination for any Housewives fan. GMA has featured interview segments with virtually every cast member (with the notable exception of Cody Kasch, the 18-year-old actor who plays Zach Young, and who noted during a recent interview with The Observer that not having been interviewed on Good Morning America was a source of some personal disappointment; he attributes the omission to his not employing a publicist).
And yet, in interviews, ABC News executives have downplayed the relationship between the two shows, making it seem more a schoolyard romance than the two-souls-becoming-one affair it plainly is on television.
Mark Bracco, the GMA producer in charge of coordinating the relationship between the two shows, declined to speak with The Observer unless he was given permission by the show’s publicist, Bridgette Maney. In lieu of that, Ms. Maney sent a statement:
“Desperate Housewives is a breakout national phenomenon. The program and its stars have graced the cover of so many national magazines, including Newsweek. Indeed, every morning program is making plans to report on the happenings on Wisteria Lane this fall. The show is popular with women and men of all ages. That’s why it’s a natural for Good Morning America and our audience.”
Last spring, as GMA inched closer and closer to its competitor, executive producer Ben Sherwood attributed the ratings gain to a six-year strategy of tweaks and nudges and virtually imperceptible improvements that he and his producers had made to the show. In interviews, he avoided discussing the impact of a wave of unflattering press about rival anchor-fatale Katie Couric, and on the tender subject of Desperate Housewives, he repeated one refrain:
Prime time doesn’t account for everything. This is evident because, as he told USA Today, it doesn’t “explain the CBS anomaly. The network is first in prime time yet is in third place in the morning with The Early Show. There must be something else at work: We air the most urgent, relevant and watchable program.”
But the “secret scenes” will be coming back this fall, as will the frequent “around-the-water-cooler” segments and other instances of casual banter in which GMA anchors discuss what happened on the soap opera that week or just, in general, how much they like the show. A typical exchange goes like this:
On March 25, Mr. Gibson and correspondent Bob Woodruff discussed their disappointment that another week had passed without a new episode of Desperate Housewives.
“But we are going to get a fresh episode Sunday night,” Mr. Gibson noted.
“Thank goodness,” said Mr. Woodruff.
On May 18, GMA even did a water-cooler segment in which the anchors discussed Desperate Housewives creator Marc Cherry’s presentation to advertisers during ABC’s upfront presentation.
Another brand of synergy uses Desperate Housewives as an assignment desk and has GMA producers and correspondents chasing down real-life examples of what happens on the show. In this capacity, GMA investigated the true lifestyles of America’s stay-at-home moms in a segment that aired on Oct. 18, 2004, titled “Are housewives really desperate? Desperate Housewives opens eyes to homemaker life,” and in a follow-up on Feb. 4 titled “Real-life Desperate Housewives, the unfaithful.” There was the “Desperate Housewives survival guide [to] beating holiday stress” of Dec. 8, 2004, and the “Desperate Housewives fashion show,” highlighting techniques for “low-cost sex appeal,” that appeared on Oct. 13.
Teasing this segment, fill-in anchor Claire Shipman needled the poor, besotted Mr. Gibson.
“Ahead this half-hour, are you interested in looking like those sultry Desperate Housewives?” she asked her co-anchor.
“No,” Mr. Gibson swore, “I’m not. I’m not.”
“I know you are, Charlie,” Ms. Shipman persisted. “Charlie, Charlie’s interested in looking at the sultry Desperate Housewives.”
“That’s true,” Mr. Gibson finally conceded. “That’s true.”
An episode in which one of the women went back to work prompted a segment called “Wives bringing home the bacon,” which anchor Robin Roberts introduced by saying, “In its season finale, we find out that one of the Desperate Housewives is about to become the bread-winner. It’s a case of fiction following fact, because more women are now making more money than their husbands.”
Mark Moses, who plays Paul Young on the series and who was interviewed by Robin Roberts on Dec. 20, told The Observer that interview spots seem to go to whichever character has done something scandalous on the show that week. “I went out there after I murdered Mrs. Huber,” he said. “Someone else went on when they were having kinky sex.”
His segment was pre-empted on the West Coast by a speech by President Bush, which was disappointing, he said. But he and Ms. Roberts talked about basketball. And he got to shake Mr. Gibson’s hand. “Good guy,” Mr. Moses said.
Desperate Housewives also occasionally comes up in less predictable places: in a May 7 interview with former President Bill Clinton, for example, or when View co-host Joy Behar came by, evidently just to chat about the show. In this segment, which aired on Jan. 10, Ms. Sawyer asked Ms. Behar who her favorite character was on the show. Bree Van De Kamp, she replied. After some analysis of this choice, Ms. Sawyer asked a follow-up question:
“So, who is your next-favorite character?”
“My next-favorite,” Ms. Behar replied, thinking. “Well, last night I enjoyed the nanny’s boobs scene. That was a good scene. That was great.”
On Monday, Sept. 12, Good Morning America kicked off its official Desperate Housewives premiere countdown with two—count ’em, two—interview segments with Eva Longoria in the first hour of the show, a time which is typically reserved for actual news and news-making celebrities like Jennifer Aniston. Though Ms. Longoria has a rare and fantastic tendency to go blue in interviews—discussing her predilection for a certain kind of vibrator, for example—this act of fall-season foreplay was gleefully transparent. It was followed up by a pair of segments from Hong Kong’s Disneyland. Guess which media conglomerate owns ABC.
Here’s an observation that might explain the “CBS anomaly”: Mr. Sherwood is the beneficiary of a unique overlap between news and entertainment, of which other network news executives can only dream.
Unlike CBS’s Survivor or NBC’s The Apprentice, which had somewhat less broad-based appeal, Housewives draws exactly the audience of women and young people on Sunday nights that Good Morning America would love to have stick around on Monday mornings.
And it runs deeper than demographics. Despite being fundamentally different shows—one based in fact, the other in fiction—Desperate Housewives and Good Morning America are remarkably similar in their outlines. Each is deliberately whiplash-fast in its pacing, moving from segment to segment before even a child watching could get bored. And both are consciously affirmative, plotting each commercial-to-commercial block so that it contains something satisfying and empowering for viewers—particularly female viewers, who make up more than half of both audiences—to see.
On Desperate Housewives, this means each housewife will achieve some triumph in every episode—moral, physical, psychological or otherwise. Writers call this a “little victory.” Sometimes it’s subtle, but it’s always there. Likewise, on Good Morning America, all news stories and feature segments are mined for optimism, so even the most downbeat pieces end with an appreciable uptick in tone. In a previous interview with The Observer, ABC News president David Westin explained this as giving viewers “a sense of hopefulness, of optimism, a smile on their face as they’re starting out their day.”
As of publication, there were 11 days left before the Desperate Housewives season premiere. If history is any indication, pretty soon the Good Morning America family will start getting twitchy. The last time he was made to wait for a new episode of the show, Mr. Gibson expressed the anguish of anticipation thusly:
It was March 18, and Ms. Sawyer had just introduced a Desperate Housewives gab session. “It’s a ‘water cooler’ this morning,” she said. “Desperate Housewives has been off the air for so long, we’re just starved.”
Mr. Gibson wholeheartedly concurred.
“I’m having withdrawal symptoms,” he said.
“I’m a—I’m an addict,” he declared two months later, on a Monday last May, right about the time Good Morning America crept perilously close to Today.
He was having breakfast at Tiffany’s with the actress Nicollette Sheridan, who plays Housewife Edie Britt, an adorably meretricious suburban bombshell. Ms. Sheridan wondered whether Mr. Gibson really watched the show, and that’s when he confessed.
That’s right, he said it: He is hopelessly addicted to Desperate Housewives. “I never miss it,” he said again on May 23. When White House correspondent Kate Snow said on Aug. 25 that she loved the show, Mr. Gibson assumed a dreamy look and replied, “So do I.”
And when, three days earlier, he was told on air that he would not be allowed to enter Good Morning America’s Desperate Housewives contest, in which the nation’s biggest Housewives fan will win an exclusive backstage tour of Wisteria Lane and the chance to meet several of the show’s stars, Mr. Gibson gave full vent to his disappointment. To Mr. Woodruff, he explained: “I am a—I am a big fan.”
Viewers will no doubt forgive Mr. Gibson the occasional stutter. Sometimes true love is a beautiful and breathless thing.
He’ll get another fix on Sept. 25. But as to what might happen to Good Morning America if Desperate Housewives ever goes off the air, here’s one possible scenario, from May 20, just two days before the last episode of the first season:
“Have we thought about what we’re going to do after the finale?” asked correspondent Bill Weir.
“Yeah, I know,” replied Tony Perkins.
“Like a support group?” Mr. Weir ventured. “Or cookie dough?”
“Cookie dough,” repeated Ms. Roberts.
“We’ll get together and”—Ms. Sawyer stuttered—“and relive old episodes privately, don’t you think?”