Eye on preem beam; NBC, Fox frosh falter

Cable siphoning auds from Big Four

With one week on the books for the 1998-99 primetime Nielsens season, the bulk of the good news is landing in the CBS column. ABC is also starting strong, while NBC and Fox have been slow out of the gate and are coping with problems within their freshmen classes.

CBS grabbed first place in homes, its first premiere-week triumph in five years, since the last time the Eye had NFL football on its side. NBC maintained a comfortable though shrinking 4-share lead over ABC in adults 18-49, the demographic that most closely reflects advertiser revenue.

Most important, CBS maintained its year-ago 18-49 average, while everyone else declined in a lackluster week that saw the Big Four equal their largest combined year-to-year falloff in households (7%) for a premiere week in nine years. Basic cable competition contributed to the falloff, posting a 15% increase with the combined rating of the nearly 200 basic services measured by Nielsen.

NBC, as expected, suffered big dropoffs vs. the year-ago week, when its numbers were inflated by the live “ER” telecast and successful premiere-week stunts for “Mad About You,” “Caroline in the City” and others.

Once the anomalies of premiere week and upcoming baseball subside, NBC is likely to fare better in year-to-year comparisons, but the Peacock may still be in for a fight with CBS for the seasonlong households crown.

CBS did benefit last week from the atypical boosts of Wednesday’s Country Music Assn. Awards and the Sunday pic “Forever Love.”

ABC’s season start shows a lot of promise, but the web’s overall losses for the week might signal some trouble, since they come with an extra hour of “Monday Night Football” added into the averages.

Fox has rolled snake eyes so far with its first-year shows, and is down every night of the week except Monday and Tuesday. But upcoming season premieres for “The X-Files” and “Millennium” and a more formidable midseason rookie crop may brighten the picture there considerably.

Among first-year series to premiere so far, the most promising are ABC’s “The Hughleys” and “Two of a Kind,” CBS’ “King of Queens” and NBC’s “Will & Grace.”

The next tier, shows that are displaying more limited promise, are ABC’s “Sports Night,” “Brother’s Keeper” and “Fantasy Island,” CBS’ “L.A. Doctors,” “Buddy Faro” and “Martial Law” and Fox’s “That ’70s Show.”

Weak starts are being turned in by ABC’s “Cupid,” NBC’s “Conrad Bloom” and “Encore! Encore!,” Fox’s “Costello” and the WB’s “Hyperion Bay” and “The Army Show.” The most disastrous numbers are coming from CBS’ “Brian Benben Show” and Fox’s “Living in Captivity.”

Last week’s adults 18-49 averages were: NBC, a 6.5 rating, 18 share (down 16% in rating vs. results for premiere week last year); ABC, 5.2/14 (down 4%); CBS, 4.7/13 (even); Fox, 4.3/12 (down 7%); WB, 1.3/4 (down 13% with some reruns); UPN, 0.9/2 (down 50% with all reruns); Pax TV, a 0.2 rating. It’s the first time CBS has beaten Fox for a week in adults 18-49 since last March.

The Eye also snuck ahead of ABC for second in adults 25-54, the CBS target demo, and was the only net to show a 25-54 gain (2%).

National primetime 18-49 averages for the top cable services last week were: HBO, a 1.0 rating, 3 share (even); ESPN, 1.0/3 (up 67%); TNT, 0.7/2 (down 30%); USA, 0.7/2 (down 13%); TBS, 0.7/2 (up 17%). Early season NFL football has switched in the past year from TNT to ESPN. The Weather Channel’s (0.3/1) tripled its year-ago score with a boost from Hurricane Georges.

Recently launched Pax TV remained at a 0.5/1 in households last week, half its target 1.0. Its top-rated series was “Touched by an Angel” (0.6/1).

MONDAY

On the season’s second Monday, Sept. 28, week-earlier trends were generally reinforced. CBS’ “Brian Benben” (6.9 rating, 10 share in homes, 3.1/7 in adults 18-49, down 34% from its lead-in) is in serious trouble, and NBC’s “Conrad Bloom” (6.7/10 in homes, 4.1/11 in adults 18-49, down 15% from lead-in) remains a disappointment.

Meanwhile, CBS’ “King of Queens” (9.1/14 in homes, 4.5/11 in adults 18-49, up 25% over lead-in) and NBC’s “Will & Grace” (8.1/12 in homes, 5.5/13 in adults 18-49, up 10% over lead-in) are hot.

The biggest falloff vs. last Monday came with CBS’ 10 p.m. drama “L.A. Doctors” (7.6/12 in homes, 3.6/9 in adults 18-49, down 25% from its promising premiere 18-49 rating). A tougher “Dateline” (10.7/18 in homes, 5.8/15 in adults 18-49) that hour didn’t help.

Fox pulled an 8-10 p.m. upset, with its first-ever victory over “Monday Night Football” (11.1/18 in homes, second lowest rating ever, and 6.6/18 in adults 18-49) for those two hours in adults 18-49. Football limped ahead in 8-11 p.m. averages.

Stiff baseball and wrestling competition, a weak Tampa Bay-Detroit matchup and a one-sided game sacked the ABC gridcast. After four weeks, “MNF” is down 15% from last year and 25% from two years ago, and that’s despite a more than doubling of ABC’s license fee this season.

Monday’s ESPN telecast of the Cubs-Giants playoff earned the second-highest baseball rating ever on ESPN, an 8.1 in the ESPN universe (related story, page 1).

Fox’s “Ally McBeal” (10.6/16 in homes, 8.4/20) was up a sizzling 71% over its year-ago rating to keep Fox far ahead of last year’s Monday pace.

SUNDAY

CBS won the week’s highest-viewership night in homes and key adult demos, led by “Forever Love,” the Eye’s top-rated Sunday pic since last April 19 (Daily Variety, Sept. 29).

After a rough start over the summer, ABC’s 9-11 p.m. series may be clicking. Newsmag “20/20” earned the Alphabet’s best homes rating in that hour since Feb. 22 and “The Practice” built by 2% on “20/20’s” 18-49 rating.

Fox misses “King of the Hill” on Sundays, with “The Simpsons” down last week by 16% vs. its year-ago 18-49 rating. “That ’70s Show” fell off a respectable 10% from its 18-49 “Simpsons” lead-in, but that’s off from a year-ago 9% build for “King.” This 8-9 p.m. slippage contributed to a 24% slide for the 9 p.m. “X-Files” rerun.

The WB has something cooking with its 7-8 p.m. reruns of “7th Heaven,” which last week ascended to that netlet’s best rating there since last November.

SATURDAY

CBS fell 4% short of its year-ago premiere Saturday, but still took the night with its highest adults 25-54 average since Jan. 3 (Daily Variety, Sept. 28).

CBS rookie “Martial Law” ran 11% behind the Eye’s year-ago 25-54 average, but nevertheless kicked up a 13% increase in men 25-54. It was also CBS’ best regular-fare homes rating in that slot in nearly nine months.

That led to a muscular 18% adults 25-54 surge vs. last year for the sixth-season premiere of “Walker, Texas Ranger,” a series that’s waited the better part of a decade for a lead-in as compatible as “Martial’s.” “Walker” also matched its top 25-54 rating since April 26, 1997.

ABC may be turning around what had been its “black hole” night. “Fantasy Island” premiered with the network’s best regular-sked firstrun rating in that slot since March 15, 1997 and improved by 42% on the previous hour’s 18-49 rating, the best build for any new series vs. its lead-in.

FRIDAY

For one week, at least, ABC appears to have re-energized its “T.G.I.F.” lineup, with 18-49 improve-ments vs. year-ago results during all four half-hours (Daily Variety, Sept. 28).

Rookie “Two of a Kind” topped the comparable year-ago “Sabrina” figure in that slot by 8%. At 9:30, freshman “Brother’s Keeper” held a fair 86% of its 18-49 lead-in from “Sabrina” and earned ABC’s best homes rating in that slot since February.

That led ABC to a 3-share win for the night in adults 18-49, vs. a narrow loss to NBC a year earlier.

CBS newcomer “Buddy Faro” showed some promise, beating the Eye’s year-ago adults 25-54 results in that slot with week-earlier premieres by 19%.

Fox is hemorrhaging badly on Fridays, down 61% in adults 18-49 vs. the year-ago Friday (in part due to a rerun “Millennium”). “Living in Captivity” was shackled with Fox’s lowest firstrun rating ever in that slot.

THURSDAY

NBC still controls the night, but may be headed toward bigger-than-expected post-“Seinfeld” falloffs (Daily Variety, Sept. 28). “Frasier” trailed the year-ago “Seinfeld” premiere by 29% in adults 18-49 and couldn’t improve on its lead-in from the unspectacular rookie “Jesse.”

“Friends” tossed NBC a ratings bouquet — its highest 18-49 score since Feb. 1, 1995 — with the reso-lution of a marriage cliffhanger. ABC’s movie made the biggest Thursday move, topping the net’s year-ago 18-49 average by 62%. In two tries, ABC’s new Thursday pic has earned that net’s two best regular-sked Thursday homes ratings in the past year.

The WB has yet to establish a Thursday beachhead, with “Wayans Bros.” last week equaling its lowest rating since June 28, 1995.

WEDNESDAY

All six nets were down vs. last year, as CBS’ Country Music Assn. Awards took the night despite what was apparently its lowest-ever tally (Daily Variety, Sept. 25).

Sophomore sweethearts “Dharma & Greg” attracted ABC’s best homes rating in that Wednesday lead-off slot with regular fare since Dec. 4, 1996.

A Phil Hartman salute gave “NewsRadio” its strongest rating since Jan. 13, dropping slot rival “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” to a lowest-yet 73% retention of its 18-49 lead-in.

TUESDAY

NBC led Tuesday, but isn’t getting much support from its 8:30 and 9:30 “satellite” series (Daily Variety, Sept. 24). ABC got a promising start from “The Hughleys,” but still fell a steep 24% from its year-ago nightlong 18-49 score, and crashed to what’s apparently its lowest-rated Tuesday in homes ever with firstrun regular fare.

Fox’s “King of the Hill” got a dose of Tuesday reality, falling to its lowest firstrun rating ever and beating just three of “King’s” Sunday rerun telecasts. “King” was also fourth in the slot in adults 18-49, but Fox was still up a whopping 64% for the night vs. its year-ago 18-49 rating. CBS tied Fox for the night in that demo, as the growing “JAG” climbed 16% above its year-ago average.

Viewers weren’t interested in “Sex With Cindy Crawford,” which fell 35% below the comparable year-ago 18-49 score that hour.

MONDAY

Dallas-N.Y. Giants football led the season’s opening night, Sept. 21, as CBS got encouraging starts for two of its three new series (Daily Variety, Sept. 23).

Each household rating point represents an estimated 994,000 homes, or 1% of the country’s TV households. Each adults 18-49 rating point reps 1.239 million viewers, 1% of the U.S. total. A share is the same sort of percentage, except it measures only the homes or viewers watching TV during the timeslot involved.

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