As expected, NBC handily won February's ratings "sweeps" race, audience estimates showed Thursday. As expected, CBS, buoyed by ratings for its hit "Lonesome Dove" miniseries, was a respectable second.
As wasn't expected, ABC was a distant third, its ratings down a whopping 32% from the same period in 1988.
That was bad news for ABC, great news for CBS. Once generally thought to be headed for a second season as third in the prime-time ratings race, CBS has caught up with ABC and now stands a chance of passing it.
The network's research chief, David Poltrack, told reporters here Thursday that he thinks CBS has shaken off the problems it had early this season because of the 22-week writers' strike, and now is on the rebound.
The CBS story in prime time, he said, is "one of recovery, one of momentum, one of growth. . . ."
According to NBC figures, which lacked only those ratings for the last day of the Feb. 2-March 1 sweeps--one of four times a year when viewership in all 226 TV markets in the country is surveyed--NBC averaged a 16.3 rating in prime time, CBS a 14.7 and ABC a 12.4. Each rating point represents 904,000 homes.
ABC's plunge had executives of both that network and CBS' Poltrack saying that it now will be a close race for the No. 2 position this season, regardless of which of two measurements is used.
One is the traditional September-to-April season used by NBC, which started its season with the Summer Olympics and wasn't as affected as its competitors by the Writers Guild of America strike last summer. The second, which CBS and ABC are using, doesn't begin the season until late October, when they began introducing new episodes of most of their series.
"Clearly, we had a disappointing sweeps; I don't think there's any question about it," ABC research vice president Alan Wurtzel told a news conference.
He said most of ABC's woes were due to hourlong series programs that didn't perform as expected. Another reason was that ABC had to air the first chapters of its miniseries "War and Remembrance" last fall, rather than in February as originally planned, due to the shortage of regular programming caused by the writers' strike.
But another major factor in the 32% decline from the year before was that ABC didn't have this time what it had in February, 1988: 16 nights of Winter Olympics telecasts that helped it win the sweeps race that month.
The results of the ratings sweeps don't affect the networks themselves, since they get ratings every day of the year, but they are required to pay them heed because the outcome is crucial to their affiliates in establishing advertising prices for local commercial spots.
NBC, which in had its hit "The Cosby Show" and 12 other series in the Nielsen top 20 during the February sweeps, is on its way to winning its fourth consecutive season in the prime-time ratings.
Earlier this month, after the unexpected big ratings for "Lonesome Dove," CBS' Poltrack said in an interview that, while CBS was closing the gap with ABC in the battle for second, he thought his network ultimately would wind up third.
On Thursday, in claiming ratings progress for 16 of 22 regular CBS shows, Poltrack was asked again which network would be No. 2 at season's end.
He smiled and invoked what he called "the great cop-out in the sky: It's too close to call."
"I know you guys love races," he added, but said that he considers the matter irrelevant. (So does Madison Avenue. The overall season standings are mainly a matter of bragging rights for the winning network, although the averages generally reflect which is able to command the highest advertising rates.)
"We're very pleased about what's happened since January, and if it means we squeak out second place, that's great," Poltrack explained. But CBS is going to be experimenting with new shows on its schedule in the 8-9 p.m. time period between now and April 16, when this season ends, he added.
"And that's not a ratings-maximization strategy," he said. "So we're not playing to finish in second place. We're playing for next year."
Meanwhile, both Poltrack and his NBC counterpart, Gerald Jaffe, in a separate news conference, took pains Thursday to claim that the network audience erosion due to cable and independent stations isn't as damaging to the networks as some might believe.
Each readily conceded that the three networks' total share of the audience is declining. Their share of the national audience peaked at 90% in 1980 and is expected to drop to the low 60s in the next decade.
Citing Nielsen figures, Poltrack presented a chart that showed that the networks' combined ratings in January and February rose by 4% compared to the same period last year, while those for cable rose only 3% and those for independent stations and pay cable services remained flat.