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'Desperate Housewives' proves that sex sells in television ratings war

Desperate housewives, the US satire of sex and the suburbs which has annoyed the American right, became the most successful new drama on Channel 4 since the launch of the mega-hit ER, viewing figures showed yesterday.

The first night of the show attracted a peak audience of 4.8 million, higher than for the launches of Sex and the City or Friends, which became Channel 4 staples.

The average audience for the launch was 4.6 million, taking nearly a quarter of Wednesday night's viewers.

Only the medical drama ER did better, with 5 million viewers at its British TV premiere nine years ago.

Despite some reservations from critics, Desperate Housewives eclipsed ITV's new sitcom, Dead Man Weds, which stars Johnny Vegas in a story of life on a sleepy local newspaper. It attracted 3.4 million viewers, about 16 per cent of the audience.

However, the continuing coverage of the Asian tsunami disaster continued to grab a bigger share of the public attention, with 5.1 million people tuning in for BBC1's Ten O'Clock News - though that was much higher than the documentary which preceded the news, Paparazzi, which averaged 2.5 million.

A Channel 4 spokesman said: "We are delighted to start the year on such a high note. Desperate Housewives has been warmly received by critics and audiences alike, and confirms our reputation for continuing to bring the best of US drama and comedy to UK audiences."

The much-hyped show features five glamorous women who live in a suburbia so picture-perfect as to immediately imply it is being mocked. It begins with the housewife Mary Alice Young starting an ordinary day of family chores before blowing her brains out with a gun. She narrates the rest of the series from beyond the grave.

Its stars include Teri Hatcher, previously best known as Lois Lane in The New Adventures of Superman in the 1990s, who plays a love-starved divorcee hoping to start an affair with her sexy new neighbour.

Other characters include a domestic goddess who drives her family mad by being a control freak and a former model who has sex with the gardener behind her husband's back.

The series attracted more than 20 million viewers in America, filling the gap left by the end of Sex and the City. But successful lobbying persuaded some advertisers to shun it because the storylines allegedly posed a threat to family values.