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Handicapping Ratings Race

January 16, 1986|JAY SHARBUTT | Times Staff Writer

The news from the CBS front: The network thinks it can overtake NBC in prime-time ratings and win this season; the return of CBS News' new "West 57th" series might be delayed until the ratings race ends in April, and the era of prime-time soap operas may be ending.

All this and word of four new series coming to CBS, "probably in March," came Tuesday from CBS Entertainment President B. Donald Grant as out-of-town TV writers began the last round of their winter press sessions with network stars and executives.

Emulating talk-show star Phil Donahue, Grant held a microphone and wandered amid the visitors at a CBS-hosted dinner at Jimmy's restaurant in Beverly Hills, alternately needling and joshing both them and CBS' chief rival, NBC.

He was asked about the suggestion by his NBC counterpart, Brandon Tartikoff, that a spate of TV movies indicates that a network is in trouble. Grant, who recently added a Sunday movie night to the two other movie nights on CBS' schedule, grinned and said:

"I think he is probably flushed by his nouveau success. I forgive him for it."

But when asked if CBS can realistically think it can overtake front-running NBC by season's end, Grant said, in all seriousness, "Yeah. I think the answer to that is 'Yeah.' I think we can."

CBS has won the prime-time race for six straight seasons. Although it trails NBC in season-to-date ratings by a narrow margin, it has won the last two weeks. Last week's victory was made possible in large part by CBS' lead-off Sunday TV movie, "Rockabye," which was the fourth most-watched program of the week.

So far this season, NBC is averaging a 17.6 rating in prime time, compared to CBS' 16.9 and ABC's 15.2. Each rating point represents 859,000 households. The better the average, the more revenue the network is likely to be generating from advertisers.

Noting that the season is only half over, Grant predictably expressed confidence in CBS' lineup, including four new prospects that he said "are going to perform very well for the balance of the season."

The new entries, whose premiere dates still are pending, are three sitcoms and "Bridges to Cross," a one-hour series in which Suzanne Pleshette and Nicholas Surovy star as a divorced couple who write for the same magazine.

The comedies are "Fast Times at Ridgemont High," based on the hit teen movie of the same name; "Tough Cookies," starring Robbie Benson as a cop pounding a beat in his old neighborhood, and an as-yet untitled series starring Harvey Korman and Valerie Perrine as a Beverly Hills couple who have a daughter.

Grant also said that development is under way for a next-season sitcom starring James Garner, late of NBC's "Rockford Files." The new program, produced by Orion, has no concept and no title yet, the CBS executive added.

During his press session, he was asked about CBS' "West 57th" news magazine series, which got a trial run on the network last summer. With 13 new programs planned, "West 57th" had been expected to return to the lineup in March, even though prime-time news programs tend to score lower in the ratings than entertainment offerings and thus reduce a network's ratings averages.

Grant, although vowing that the series' remaining shows would air "come hell or high water," expressed doubt that "West 57th" would resume in March if CBS appeared to be gaining on NBC after the key February ratings "sweeps."

If "it appeared that we were gathering some momentum," he said, "we would have to seriously consider delaying" "West 57th" for four weeks "to get them out of the season (competition). That's not for sure, but that's my hunch."

On the subject of prime-time soap operas, or "serials," as they are called, Grant said that their era may be ending, even though the three on CBS--"Dallas," "Knots Landing" and "Falcon Crest"--are, respectively, doing "pretty good," "great" and "fine" in the ratings and by no means are candidates for the ax.

But television tends to be cyclical, he added, and generally speaking, "the serial form is something that I think has slipped." He noted that CBS had no prime-time soaps in development last year and has none under study this year.

"So I think that we have to say that that form, at least for the moment, is probably on the way out," Grant said.

CBS' meet-the-press sessions are scheduled to end on Friday night, when the visiting writers will dine at Chasen's restaurant here and talk with Forrest Sawyer and Maria Shriver, co-anchors of the third-in-ratings "CBS Morning News."

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