The Peacock Struts Its Stuff

It's rerun time. A decade ago, Bill Cosby led a woeful NBC Inc. to ratings nirvana. Today, instead of the family-friendly Cos, it's the endless stream of drug overdoses and accident victims being wheeled through ER that has hearts throbbing at NBC's parent, General Electric Co.

Before the Jan. 29 mega-ratings for the Super Bowl bolstered ABC's lead, NBC had mounted the kind of rally the San Diego Chargers couldn't muster. Third last season, the Peacock network has a powerhouse Thursday-night lineup of Seinfeld, Mad About You, and ER that has propelled it to three straight ratings victories in the 18-to-54 age group for the first time since 1992. And there's good a.m. news, too: Today regularly wins the morning-show race.

"REAL HORSE RACE." With its early season lead, ABC still expects to win the year's prime-time title. But even when counting the Super Blowout's 120 million viewers, ratings at the Capital Cities/ABC Inc. unit are down 3% from last year, according to Nielsen Media Research. That sets up 1995-96 "as a real horse race between ABC and NBC," says media buyer Paul Schulman.

So far, NBC's strength hangs mainly on one blockbuster night. Mixing upscale comedy and fast-forward medical action has attracted one of every three TV sets turned on during Thursday prime time.

Such success is a remarkable reversal from 1993, when NBC had lost a third of its viewers over three years. Gone was The Cosby Show, L.A. Law was fading, and Seinfeld had just a small audience on Wednesdays. Programming boss Warren Littlefield's job was on the line, and Don Ohlmeyer was brought in as entertainment chief to help turn things around.

And turn they did. NBC has added such hits as Frasier and Friends. And it signed Steven Spielberg to make ER. It also gambled mightily by sending Frasier to Tuesday night up against the top-ranked Home Improvement. To Madison Avenue's surprise, Frasier proved a stout competitor: Ranked 14th for the year, it has helped close the Tuesday-night gap. Securer in his job and emboldened by success, Littlefield may shift other Thursday-night standouts to weaker lineups.

BOWL HOPES. Beyond its programming, NBC is closing the prime-time gap thanks to gains by the Fox network, largely at the expense of ABC and CBS. The 20-something drama Melrose Place and the supernatural thriller X-Files have helped boost Fox's ratings 7% from last year.

But the champ isn't worried about being dethroned--yet. With Home Improvement, Roseanne, and Grace Under Fire, ABC is still the team to beat. But NBC has momentum--and it gets to air the Super Bowl next year. That could be the Hail Mary pass that gives the No.3 network a come-from-behind victory.

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