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CBS Takes Early Lead in Ratings

TV: First-week results for the new season show fewer viewers overall for the networks.

September 30, 1998|BRIAN LOWRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CBS has won the new television season's opening week for the first time in five years, while NBC maintained a dominant if somewhat diminished position on Thursday as the network received a glimpse of life "A.S.": "After 'Seinfeld.' "

Though it's obviously premature to draw any broad conclusions, a preliminary assessment of last week's prime-time results, released Tuesday by Nielsen Media Research, supports predictions that top-rated NBC will be more vulnerable this year and that the sobering overall decline in network viewing will continue.

With remote controls in hand, viewers also demonstrated how principles like constructing nights on which audience flows from one show to the next appears increasingly outdated; instead, people essentially programmed their own prime-time lineups, sampling some new programs, dismissing others and hopping from channel to channel--watching "Everybody Loves Raymond" or "Home Improvement," for example, and then the last half-hour of "Ally McBeal" or "JAG."

That's a departure from what programmers consider the good old days, when series sandwiched between existing hits seemed guaranteed a measure of success by default. It also means that new programs, even those with advantageous time slots, will find the climb to establish a ratings toehold more arduous.

The week's most depressing news for the major networks saw combined viewing of CBS, NBC, ABC and Fox fall 7%--a loss of about 4 million viewers--compared to premiere week a year ago. All four experienced an audience drop, meaning that viewers are simply looking elsewhere.

Indeed, with erosion now seemingly inevitable as the WB, UPN, cable, the Internet and other time-consuming options eat away at the network audience, the real question is not so much whether viewers are lost as who fares best competitively, hanging on to those who seek out the networks as a first resort.

From that perspective, CBS can at least boast the smallest year-to-year decline, a few rays of hope with new programs like the comedy "King of Queens" and action show "Martial Law" and its first premiere-week victory since 1993, the last time the network opened a season with NFL football. CBS reclaimed that franchise this season from NBC, albeit at a staggering price.

The network even finished third (behind NBC and ABC) among adults ages 18 to 54, encompassing the broad demographic swath networks use to negotiate advertising rates and thus the best arbiter of financial success. CBS has consistently ranked fourth by that standard but surpassed Fox, which has stumbled out of the starting gate, thanks in part to televising the Country Music Assn. Awards, which gave the network a rare Wednesday-night win.

"We've got the blood flowing in some of those younger demographics," said CBS Television President Leslie Moonves. "It's one week, but there is room for some optimism here."

As for the season's most-watched scheduling move, NBC's "Must See TV" Thursday appears destined to remain prime time's premiere attraction, though not at the level previously enjoyed.

In its posh new surroundings, "Frasier" achieved the program's biggest audience since its first season, when the show followed "Seinfeld." Still, it fell more than 2 million people below "Seinfeld's" 1997 average in that slot (excluding its huge finale) and was down 25% compared to last year's "Seinfeld" premiere, when NBC's entire night was inflated by the live "ER" episode that kicked off the fall.

Realistically, a 10% to 15% drop from "Seinfeld's" plateau would look pretty good to NBC, especially if "ER" can race past that, as the program did last week, and help justify the massive sum the network pays for the medical drama. Even diminished, NBC's Thursday results still surpassed ABC, CBS and Fox's combined audience Thursday among adults under 50, and the network's lead from a demographic standpoint remains sizable.

"We expected 'Frasier' to do significantly better than it did on Tuesday night, but also considerably less than 'Seinfeld,' " said Peter Chrisanthopoulos, president of broadcast and programming at the ad agency Ogilvy & Mather.

As for the other end of the "Frasier" move, NBC may also have sacrificed some strength on Tuesday, with "Just Shoot Me" inheriting its old time slot. While performing well at 9 p.m., "Just Shoot Me" drew a smaller audience than ABC's "Spin City," which possessed an advantage thanks to ABC's victory with "Home Improvement" and "The Hughleys" in the 8 o'clock hour. The latter--a new comedy about a black family moving into a white neighborhood--not only out-rated its venerable lead-in but beat NBC's Nathan Lane vehicle "Encore! Encore!"

By contrast, Fox's "King of the Hill," which moved from behind "The Simpsons" to Tuesdays this summer, settled for fourth place in that night's 8 p.m. showdown, finishing well behind "Home Improvement," "Mad About You" and "JAG."

Despite its success with animated shows, Fox also remains frustrated when it comes to live-action comedies. This season's new entries in that genre--"That '70s Show," "Holding the Baby," "Costello" and "Living in Captivity"--are already struggling, after early premieres designed to hook viewers before the other networks rolled out their wares.

Among returning standouts, ABC's "Dharma & Greg" emerged as the clear winner in its new 8 p.m. Wednesday berth, while CBS' "Everybody Loves Raymond" drew more viewers than its principal time-period rival, Fox's "Ally McBeal."

In terms of new series exhibiting ratings promise, Chrisanthopoulos also cited "Two of a Kind," featuring the return of "Full House" twins Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen to ABC's "TGIF" Friday lineup; and NBC's "Jesse," the meat in NBC's "Friends"-"Frasier" sandwich. The real question, as always, is how many of those who sampled new fare come back for a second look.

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