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'War' Proves a Ratings Misfire

November 29, 1988|JAY SHARBUTT | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — Despite good reviews and heavy promotion, the first 18-hour installment of ABC's 32-hour "War and Remembrance" miniseries proved a ratings misfire, audience estimates showed Monday.

Aired on seven nights over 11 days, the $110-million sequel to ABC's 1983 blockbuster "Winds of War" averaged an 18.6 rating--1.6 ratings points below what ABC had promised advertisers.

The miniseries opened on Nov. 13 with a 21.8 rating, but then faltered in the Nielsens. Last Wednesday's closing episode got a 16.9. Each ratings point represents 904,000 homes.

Advertising executives said that as a result, ABC--which already expected to lose as much as $20 million on the project--may lose as much as an additional $3 million. The network will have to give sponsors "make-goods"--free or reduced-rate air time to compensate for the lower ratings.

What happened, ABC research director Larry Hyams said Monday, is that NBC succeeded with its youth-oriented counterprogramming ploys. Those included running such films as "Back to the Future," "The Karate Kid" and the made-for-TV "Goddess of Love," which featured Vanna White's acting debut and which nearly beat the somber, serious "War and Remembrance" episode on Nov. 20.

"NBC took away the younger audience, obviously," Hyams said, referring to viewers between 18 and 34. "But we were able to attract basically the other viewers. . . ."

The World War II setting of ABC's miniseries apparently didn't interest younger viewers, said Paul Isacsson, executive vice president of Young & Rubicam, a major New York advertising agency.

"The subject matter appeared not to be of great interest to young people. . . . I guess Vietnam is their big one," he said. "The younger people didn't seem to be watching."

Another factor may have been the sheer length of the program, said Richard J. Kostrya, executive vice president of the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency here. "Maybe people didn't feel like making an 18-hour commitment," he said.

Despite the lower-than-projected ratings, Isacsson praised ABC for its effort and the quality of its production. "I applaud ABC," he said. "I hope somebody puts that in the paper, because everybody's taking shots at them. I know it wasn't a deal they'd make today. But it was great television."

"War and Remembrance" originally was to start airing in February--until the writers' strike last summer dragged on for 22 weeks and didn't end until Aug. 6. ABC, in need of fresh programming for the important November ratings "sweeps" period, told executive producer Dan Curtis to hurry the opening chapters.

ABC, in a prepared statement, tried Monday to put the best possible face on its disappointment over the ratings for the miniseries.

While discreetly conceding that the size of the audience "may not have lived up to everyone's expectations," more than 75 million viewers saw the show, ABC said.

The network said it was "gratified that so many viewers" tuned in. It also said it was "pleased to have broadcast a television program of such extraordinary quality. . . ."

But the Nielsen returns boded ill for the prospects of the 14 "War and Remembrance" hours with which ABC will conclude television's most costly and ambitious miniseries in May.

Ad executive Kostrya, asked if what happened in November is a bad omen for ratings and sales of the May episodes, replied that "as much as I don't want to say it, I have to say yes.

"A lot of (advertising) people already are committed to the May segment. But those who are still contemplating it obviously have to address the most recent (ratings) track. And the most recent track is 18.6."

"I think it would probably either do the same or slightly higher," ABC's Hyams said when asked his forecast for the conclusion of "War and Remembrance" in the May ratings.

However, he said no May ratings projection has yet been made to advertisers for the closing episodes.

If ABC is forced to sell remaining time at rates lower than what it got this time around, its losses on the miniseries probably will climb. The network had said before the project hit the air that it might lose as much as $20 million, basically because there wasn't enough commercial time, even at premium rates, to offset the extraordinary production costs.

ABC's "Winds of War," aired in 1983, came at a time when the major networks were only beginning to face serious competition from cable, independent stations and videocassettes. The show got monster ratings.

It attracted a 38.6 rating and 53% of the audience over seven nights, and was seen in more than 32.3 million homes.

By contrast, the "War and Remembrance" sequel this month managed to lure only an average 29% of the available viewers, and the number of homes tuning in was 48% below what "Winds of War" drew.

Does this mean that big, lavish network miniseries have had their day, their potential audiences increasingly fragmented by the much-widened number of viewing alternatives?

Young & Rubicam's Isacsson thinks so.

"I think it's the last time we'll see anything like this," he said. Virtually everyone he knows, he added, knew when "War and Remembrance" was on, and said they taped it "but didn't have time to watch it. . . ."

Have network blockbusters of any kind had it, too?

"I hate to admit that, but you may be right," he said. "I just wouldn't want to be the one to say that. I want to believe that you can still put on big television shows and get a large audience."

Kostrya, his Madison Avenue counterpart, remains a believer.

"No, it's not impossible," he said of the possibility that a network show could still get huge ratings, even in this era of the fragmented, zapper-clutching television audience.

Seven years ago, he said, the industry "conceded the fact that we'll never again see huge series ratings, that those days were gone forever. Then along comes Bill Cosby's show, and he gets a 50% audience share."

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