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NBC Remains on Top, but Look at Who's in Second

Television: Ratings for premiere week find CBS as runner-up, while ABC and Fox have trouble early on with their fall schedules.

September 25, 1996|BRIAN LOWRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NBC picked up where it left off by easily winning the first week of the new TV season, while a rejuvenated CBS finished second, a noteworthy accomplishment compared to the network's dismal start last year.

ABC had to settle for third place in the Nielsen standings that were released Tuesday, with its overall rating down nearly 20% from the corresponding week a year ago. The network averaged just 17% of prime-time viewers, believed to represent its all-time low during a premiere week. NBC attracted 20% of the audience, with CBS at 18%.

Fox also appears to have early trouble with its schedule, drawing just 10% of viewers (versus 13% last year). The network responded Tuesday by making "Lush Life"--a new comedy starring Lori Petty and Karyn Parsons--the season's first cancellation after another poor performance in its third telecast Monday. The show's companion sitcom, "Party Girl," will also be pulled from the schedule after next Monday's telecast but will return early next year, Fox said.

The networks do have some room for optimism in that they were generally able to entice viewers to try new programs. High-profile series like "Suddenly Susan," "Cosby" and "Spin City" all captured strong ratings, and a number of other shows opened moderately well.

ABC, CBS and NBC combined to account for 55% of the prime-time audience, down only slightly from premiere week in 1995. With Fox included, the network share of viewing rises to 65%, although their total ratings did decline.

Even so, that performance is mildly encouraging for the networks after a summer in which their ratings slumped to historic lows and the audience for cable programming soared to record levels. The real test will be how many viewers who sampled network fare last week remain over the long haul.

At least initially, front-running NBC has only one real trouble night, Wednesday. Viewers fled from the network's attempt to establish another "Must See TV" comedy block around the well-traveled "Wings," "NewsRadio" and "The John Larroquette Show."

Otherwise, the news was mostly good at NBC, including a narrow win over longtime leader ABC in the nightly news race. On another key front, the Peacock network also got off to a solid start with its new Saturday programs, "Dark Skies" and "Profiler," as each finished second in its time period on a night on which NBC ranked fourth much of last season.

Although "Dateline NBC" remains no match for "60 Minutes," NBC's "3rd Rock From the Sun" also launched its season in impressive fashion by landing with a 13.8 rating (each point equals 970,000 homes) for its one-hour premiere at 8 p.m. Sunday. CBS' "Touched by an Angel" flew just slightly higher with a 14 rating in that hour--a combination that sapped the strength from ABC's "Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman," which plummeted 32% off last season's premiere.

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NBC performed impressively in its head-to-head matchup with ABC on Tuesday, as "Mad About You" became the first series ever to beat a "Roseanne" season premiere. ABC did win by a significant margin from 9 to 10 p.m. with "Home Improvement" and "Spin City," and the network should benefit in mid-October when "NYPD Blue" begins its fourth season.

ABC acknowledged Tuesday that the network has "problems to fix" but pointed out that a number of its shows haven't yet premiered and that it will take several weeks before the new season can accurately be evaluated. ABC did rank second behind NBC in terms of key demographics, which are paramount in determining advertising rates, though its ratings were also down significantly by that standard.

CBS' strategy of appealing to the older audience that the network alienated last season with shows like "Central Park West" and "American Gothic" mostly worked during premiere week. The network posted gains on six nights, compared to the same period in 1995 (the exception being Thursday), and its overall rating improved by 9%.

The highlight was "Cosby," which scored the highest rating for a new 8 p.m. comedy since Bill Cosby's last sitcom a dozen years ago on NBC and the biggest rating for any premiering program in that hour since "Matlock" in 1986.

CBS' other big news involved Wednesday, when "The Nanny" surpassed expectations by ranking first in its time period against "Ellen," "Wings" and "Beverly Hills, 90210." ABC rebounded to win the night thanks to strong ratings for "Grace Under Fire" and "The Drew Carey Show."

The networks had little to crow about concerning the Friday schedule, as ABC's sitcom version of "Clueless" attracted just 16% of viewers (although it did prove a big draw among teenagers), the same as CBS' new Scott Bakula spy series "Mr. & Mrs. Smith." The long-running comedy "Family Matters" was also down substantially from a year ago, which could bode ill for ABC's efforts to strengthen its Friday lineup.

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