Ratings champ ABC has best early returns

ABC, despite assertions that the network would be hard-pressed to defend its primetime ratings crown, appears to have an even more balanced team as the 1995-96 season gets under way but still faces a major challenge thanks to NBC’s superstar Thursday lineup.

Thus far, ABC’s biggest programming gambit – shifting “Roseanne” and “Ellen” to the leadoff positions on Tuesday and Wednesday – appears to be paying off handsomely, and there are other bright spots for the web that provide room for encouragement.

By contrast, CBS has come out of the blocks looking like the network that couldn’t shoot straight, while Fox Broadcasting has room for cautious optimism on certain fronts.

As for NBC, it’s too soon to analyze the viability of most of its moves, other than to note its Thursday lineup seems likely to be even more powerful this year, based on staggering numbers for “Friends,” “Seinfeld” and “ER” in their premiere-week debuts.

While it’s still early to handicap a number of nights and key programming shifts, since many series have yet to premiere, results during the Sept. 11-21 period (as new shows began to rollout in earnest) have already handed CBS numerous set-backs and ABC ample cause for high-fives.

After struggling for years from 8-9 p.m. Wednesday, and watching “Full House” get its foundation shaken last year by a head-to-head challenge from NBC’s “Wings,” ABC appears to have bolstered both hours by throwing more established adult-appeal sitcoms into the breach.

‘Roseanne’ weighs in

“Roseanne,” in particular, shook up Tuesday, scoring ABC’s highest share at 8 p.m. with anything other than “Home Improvement” since an episode of “Full House” back on Oct. 5,1993. For the timeslot, “Roseanne” also scored a 62% ratings gain within the key adults 18-49 sales demographic.

Wednesday’s “Ellen” and “Grace Under Fire” have proven to be formidable tentpoles, and the new shows following them, “The Drew Carey Show” and “The Naked Truth,” have performed well enough to produce solid net gains for the night.

The real surprise, however, could be Saturday – another spot where ABC has traditionally struggled – based on premiere results for “The Jeff Foxworthy Show.” Given little chance by pundits, the series scored an 8.4 rating, 17 share in its first Saturday airing – ABC’s best share that hour since an ice skating special 19 months ago. The challenge will be how well the sitcom holds up over time.

ABC spent much of last season touting its night-in, night-out balance as NBC bore down on the network in weekly household and particularly key-demographic standings behind the overwhelming power of its Thursday lineup. With Saturday gains, the Alphabet network could be even more balanced this year. ABC even got decent numbers from “The Marshal,” its new lead-in to “Monday Night Football,” in what’s become an unusually tough time period because of “Star Trek: Voyager” – the one series from the fledgling UPN and WB networks to have made a significant impact on Nielsen results.

NBC can claim its own victory Tuesday, in that its lineup held up under ABC’s initial barrage. On the down side, “seaQuest 2032,” in its shift to Wednesday, took on water immediately.

Of course, the good news for NBC came Thursday, and that night alone could be enough to allow the Peacock network to challenge for weekly dominance this season. “Friends” exploded as the web’s new lead-off show, and whatever hopes ABC is pinning on “Murder One” to slow the runaway train called “ER” should be tempered by the fact that NBC will have such a huge lead-in edge heading into that 10 p.m. matchup.

CBS malaise

CBS, meanwhile, has little to crow about and few options. While the web’s new Monday lineup looked OK, there are already serious concerns about its two biggest programming gambles – the move of “Cybill” to 8 p.m. Sunday and the revised “Central Park West”-led Wednesday lineup.

Fox got an early jump with pre-season premieres and has enjoyed mixed results. “Strange Luck” looks like it could be the right lead-in for “The X-Files” based on premiere numbers, but Fox has watched viewers sample shows in that time period before and then quickly disappear.

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