The Dallas Cowboys teamed with Michael Jackson to attract the highest Super Bowl rating in six years, opening a big enough hole to allow NBC to plunge into the prime time Nielsens end zone and win the Jan. 25-31 week.

The potency of the Cowboys-Jackson one-two punch helped offset the third most-lopsided Super Bowl ever. While a closer contest probably would have netted still greater numbers, NBC nevertheless enjoyed the highest-rated prime time telecast of any type since the New York Giants-Denver Broncos Super Bowl Jan. 25 , 1987, and the 21st-highest-rated telecast in modern TV history (going back to July 1960).

Counting individual viewers, NBC set an all-time record Sunday, with 133.4 million people watching at least some of the Cowboys-Buffalo Bills game.

Viewership records are somewhat easier to set than ratings records, since ongoing population increases give the nets an ever-growing number of viewers to compete for, while ratings rep a percentage of viewership, independent of the total number of viewers available.

These massive Super Bowl numbers gave NBC its first weeklong Nielsen win and its highest rating since Aug. 3-9, during the Summer Olympics. NBC had done no better than tie for second in the last 19 weeks and hadn’t won a non-Olympics week in its last 29 tries.

NBC’s weeklong 24 share was a stunning 50% improvement over the previous week’s 16, the worst regular-season share for any of the three nets in modern TV history.

The inclusion of Michael Jackson in the Super Bowl halftime show undoubtedly helped boost the game’s final numbers, since the half-time half-hour was the game’s second highest-rated (a 45.5 rating, 65 share).

Normally, grid ratings falter during half-time. Last year, with Fox Broadcasting Co. counterprogramming a highly promoted live special against the Super Bowl’s half-time, the gridcast ratings plunged by 20% during the pre-half-time half-hour. This year the half-time rating was down just 1% compared to the previous half-hour.

The Cowboys’ popularity also apparently helped this year’s game achieve its 12% increase over last year, the biggest year-to-year ratings improvement in Super Bowl history. (The second Super Bowl in 1968 — which was the first year a single network covered the game — had a bigger increase over individual network scores from 1967, but compared to 1967’s combined score, 1968 was actually down.)

Bet on the Cowboys

Three of the six biggest Super Bowl year-to-year ratings increases have now come with the three games won by the Cowboys.

ABC held its Super Bowl losses to a minimum last week by starting things off with the powerful “American Music Awards,” the highest-rated entertainment spec of the season so far.

That left overall leader CBS, winner of the previous seven weeks in a row, alone in third place for the first time since Sept. 7-13. The week’s brightest spots for CBS were record ratings for “48 Hours” and “Street Stories.”

Last week’s averages among viewers 18-49 were: NBC, 11.0/27; ABC, 7.8/19; CBS , 6.0/15; Fox, 4.7/11.

Gaining ‘Exposure’

CBS is off on the right foot for the current week, having won Monday Feb. 1 with its strongest Monday rating since Oct. 2. “Northern Exposure” contributed a 17.5/29, the show’s best rating since its season premiere.

NBC took second for the night, led by the highest “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” numbers (17.1/26) ever for the show’s three-year run.

The Jan. 25-31 week wrapped Sunday with NBC’s huge Super Bowl numbers. That gridfest led to a solid premiere audience for “Homicide: Life on the Street,” the highest-rated post-Super Bowl premiering program since “Grand Slam” on CBS three years ago. The “Homicide” share topped all post-Super Bowl premieres since “The Wonder Years” in 1988.

Saturday remained in CBS’ column, although a 10 p.m. spec tied in with the current film “Alive” got eaten up by the competition, leaving CBS with its second lowest rating that hour in the last seven weeks.

The continuing strength of the hit “Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman” allowed CBS to win the night, its seventh Saturday in a row, as NBC nodded off to its worst share since August at 10 p.m. thanks to a “Later With Bob Costas” retrospective.

Friday went to ABC for a ninth straight week. NBC finished a competitive third with the world professional figure-skating championships, which were down by 3% from the previous week’s U.S. amateur finals on ABC but scored the Peacock’s strongest non-“Perry Mason” rating in that two-hour slot since the Olympics. Fox’s “Sightings” hit its highest rating since last Feb. 28 and “Likely Suspects” equaled its best rating ever.

Thursday remains ABC’s night in households and NBC’s among adults 18-49. ABC’s “Matlock” continues to boost household numbers but “Jack’s Place” already seems ready to shut down in the 9-10 p.m. hour. Last week “Jack” held just 54% of the “Matlock” lead-in rating.

CBS was a strong second for the night in both households and adults 18-49, thanks largely to a record “Street Stories” rating. Coverage of the war in Slovenia outslugged “Street’s” previous best mark, a 13.1/23 decision from the Mike Tyson interview last June 18.

NBC tried some rerun sitcoms in the 10 p.m. hour and did about what “L.A. Law” reruns do there, which is, unfortunately, not much.

Wednesday remains a near dead-heat in households and ABC’s night among the adults 18-49, the audience that matters most to advertisers. CBS won the households race last week, but it took a record “48 Hours” rating to do it — outscoring the 17.0/30 whipped up by last Aug. 26’s “Hurricane Andrew” report.

Outer ‘Space’

That barely made up for the evening’s earlier crash landing by “Space Rangers ,” which, just three weeks after its premiere promo push, fell to CBS’ worst share in that hour since Sept. 9. The show has been benched for February and will be replaced in March by “How’d They Do That?” (Daily Variety, Feb. 2).

Fox’s foundering Wednesday got back on course last week, with “Beverly Hills, 90210″ and “Melrose Place” both enjoying their best numbers since Nov. 11.

Tuesday was captured by CBS’ “Rescue 911″ and “Another 48 HRS.,” making it six Tuesdays in seven weeks that CBS has earned at least a share of the lead.

ABC’s lineup continues to suffer from multiple vulnerabilities. “Hangin’ With Mr. Cooper” has lost its slot seven of its last eight airings; “The Jackie Thomas Show” has leveled off at a 30%-32% fall-off from its “Roseanne” lead-in and must build to better results if it’s to survive over the long haul; and “Civil Wars” provides little improvement over “Going to Extremes” at 10 p.m.

The new Fox Tuesday players are also heading south. “Class of ’96” saw its grades drop by 15% in its second try and “Key West” sank by 20%.

Monday,Jan. 25, went to ABC big time, thanks to the “American Music Awards.” The highest AMA rating in six years earned ABC its best Monday rating since last March 30’s Academy Awards (Daily Variety, Jan. 27).

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