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'Murphy Brown' to Dan Quayle: Read Our Ratings : Television: The series' response to the vice president draws 70 million viewers, keying a big Monday night for CBS.

The New Season

September 23, 1992|RICK DU BROW

Vice President Dan Quayle, in an odd way one of the best friends "Murphy Brown" ever had, predictably turned the sitcom's season debut into a smash-hit national event in the ratings as the CBS series slammed back at his criticism of its values.

According to the A. C. Nielsen research firm, about 41% of the people watching TV Monday night tuned to the special one-hour fall premiere of "Murphy Brown" as it rebutted Quayle's disapproval that the lead character, a TV newswoman played by Candice Bergen, had a baby out of wedlock.

That translated to about 70 million people, CBS estimated Tuesday. It was the highest-rated series episode since an installment of "Cheers" on Nov. 8, 1990, the network said.

If the episode wasn't brilliantly funny, it was at least amusing enough, even when it got a bit self-important toward the end in rebuking Quayle's view of family values and preaching about the importance of "commitment, caring and love." Do you sometimes get the feeling these days that television sitcoms are getting more adept at delivering messages and less adept at just being plain, flat-out funny?

Ah, but this was a special case, brought on by Quayle's reaction and capitalized on brilliantly by "Murphy Brown" creator Diane English and a phalanx of CBS publicists who made the most of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to generate added interest in a show that already had won wide admiration for its topicality.

What's more, what started as a kind of joke--with Quayle suddenly the target of every comedian in sight--unquestionably developed into one of the few national debates to personally engage the minds and hearts of millions of Americans. The issues of what constituted family values--and Hollywood's part in shaping them--suddenly had vivid symbols of each side in entertaining combat: Quayle and Murphy Brown.

The fact that Brown is fictional made the whole confrontation a bit surreal--especially when Hollywood overreacted with its endless, humorless retaliation against Quayle on the Emmy Awards telecast. Yet the basic confrontation made perfect sense, as it did again in Monday's episode, because of TV's influence on viewers and the power of even fictional characters to project attitudes into national dialogue.

Of course, the real confrontation was between Quayle and English, who in the past guided the flow of the dialogue and situations of "Murphy Brown." But what made Murphy Brown the perfect vehicle for such blunt opinions was the setup of the series, which bases her in Washington, where her constant references to public figures and guest shots by real journalists add a certain pithiness that takes the entertainment beyond the often brain-dead humor of most sitcoms.

We are, by the way, in receipt of certain information that may come as a surprise to some of those involved in the Quayle-Murphy Brown brouhaha. If you watched Monday's episode, you will recall that it ended with a truckload of potatoes being dumped at Quayle's abode--a hardly subtle reference to his now-famous misspelling of potato . But did you know, our colleague informs us, that the word murphy is listed in Webster's dictionary as a slang expression for potato ? It's true. You could look it up.

So much for education. On with the ratings--and the message is loud and clear: Whether you are of the view that the new TV season began last week, when many series arrived, or on Monday--which is Nielsen's start date--CBS, the top-ranked network, is off to a mighty fine beginning in defense of its title.

Let's consider Nielsen's start date of this week first. Propelled by the rocketing ratings of "Murphy Brown," CBS left the opposition in the dust on Monday. The network was nothing less than awesome. Leading off was "Evening Shade," which earned 26% of the audience. "Hearts Afire," a new sitcom with John Ritter and Markie Post as political aides to a senator in Washington, weighed in with a heavy 29% audience share in its second outing.

Then came "Murphy Brown" with its 41%. And that was followed by the special one-hour premiere of another English sitcom, "Love & War," which drew 28% of viewers with its New York tale centering on the relationship between the elegant owner of a neighborhood bar (Susan Dey) and a sharp-tongued newspaper columnist (Jay Thomas).

A moment here to put the 41% share of "Murphy Brown" in perspective. Considering that the Big Three networks now only command slightly more than 60% of the TV audience, the tune-in Monday meant that two out of every three network viewers were watching "Murphy Brown"--which is the equivalent of what a 66% share was when the Big Three commanded 90% of the audience.

Last week was another triumph for CBS, the only network that is attempting to program for viewers of all ages rather than those primarily in the 18-to-49 bracket that advertisers covet for their impulsive buying of products shown on TV.

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