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A Network Drama Unfolds Over the Fate of ‘Twin Peaks’ : Programming: ABC must decide whether to put the series in its fall lineup after rave reviews and erratic ratings.

TIMES TELEVISION WRITER

The ABC dilemma has been a major one: To renew or not to renew “Twin Peaks,” one of the most talked-about television series in years.

In just 11 days, the network is scheduled to announce its fall lineup, and the erratic ratings of the Thursday series--tonight is the sixth episode--raise questions about the future of the cult soap opera.

After last week’s episode suddenly halted a ratings nose dive that set in after a spectacularly successful premiere, ABC officials breathed a sigh of relief--and hoped tonight’s show would also hold firm.

Although no decision on the show had been announced by the network by press time Wednesday, ABC Entertainment President Robert Iger seemed optimistic the day before, saying:

“ ‘Twin Peaks’ has performed beyond expectations, both from a ratings standpoint and the general attention it’s received and the positive effect it’s had on our network and on the business in general. All of that makes it a serious contender for next season.”

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Barring disastrous ratings for the next two episodes, ABC clearly wants to renew “Twin Peaks,” especially after extraordinary media accolades--and reports that Fox Broadcasting is ready to grab it if the network wavers.

The audience demographics are intriguing for a network that’s not only trying to be creative but also appeal to sponsors.

Who watches “Twin Peaks” most? Men? Women? What age? Which cities?

First of all, the show’s ratings are almost the same in big urban areas and with rural viewers. In its weekly episodes, “Twin Peaks” has averaged a 22% audience share in the major markets and 21% nationally.

Which city leads the pack? Seattle, of course--with 27% of its viewers tuning in “Twin Peaks.” The show is set in a logging town in the Northwest.

Right behind Seattle are New York and Chicago with 26% of the audience for “Twin Peaks,” Minneapolis with 25% and San Francisco with 24%. Folks in the Sacramento-Stockton areas don’t dig the show much--14% tune in, lowest of the top markets.

As for Los Angeles, a moderate 19% audience average. Maybe “Twin Peaks” just isn’t weird enough for L.A.

What’s the age and gender breakdown of the most devoted “Twin Peaks” viewers? Above all, older women (by sponsors’ standards)--35 to 49 years of age. And younger men--18 to 34. About 28% of women viewers between 35 and 49 have tuned in the show. For men 18 to 34, it’s 20%.

Why the special connection between these groups?

Barbara Cadow, a faculty member of the USC psychology department, says, “What I think is attractive to women about the show is that it has strong women. A woman is running the lumber mill. More important, the men are vulnerable. They’re not in stereotyped sexual roles. And I think that’s something the younger men appreciate--they’re sick of those roles. In my practice, I find a lot of older women hooking up with younger men.”

Women 35 to 49 have been the top viewers of “Twin Peaks” since the first weekly episode. But they’ve also dropped off more than women 18 to 34. What the demographics show clearly is that older viewers, especially those over 50, have given up on “Twin Peaks” in greater numbers than younger ones, perhaps impatient with the endless plot convolutions, which are far quirkier than those in traditional soap operas such as “Dallas.”

This would partly explain Fox’s reported interest in “Twin Peaks,” because the fledgling network’s principal audience from the start was men 18 to 34.

That “Twin Peaks” has hit a nerve is clear not only from the huge media attention but also such happenings as the weekly parties being held to watch the show, and heavy taping of the episodes--some of which, it is reported, are even Fed-Exed to friends around the nation who may have missed them. An ABC spokesman says that the tapings by viewers probably don’t diminish the show’s ratings much because, he believes, they are already factored in.

“Twin Peaks” has picked up support from other special friends. Radio station KROQ-FM (106.7), for instance, gives updates on the series. “We’re trying to get the Log Lady to come on,” says disc jockey Doc Britton, in reference to one of the show’s more bizarre characters, who always carries a log. “We’d like to give away the log on the air.”

The series got off to a roaring start with a two-hour Sunday special on April 8, but then was switched to Thursdays, where the tune-in plummeted sharply with each show. Despite all the praise, “Twin Peaks” had sunk from 33% of the national audience for its premiere to 27% for its second program, 21% for its third and 18% for its fourth.

But last Thursday, despite the head-on competition of the “Cheers” season finale--which might have delivered a knockout blow--"Twin Peaks” actually went up a tad, delivering 19% of the audience. Encouragingly to ABC, viewership also increased in the show’s second half hour, and the network hoped the series had stabilized.

“Even though we went up by just a whisker,” said ABC spokesman Bob Wright, “a whisker on Thursday night against NBC’s remarkable lineup (‘The Cosby Show,’ ‘Cheers,’ ‘L.A. Law’) is worthy of attention.”

After tonight, another episode of “Twin Peaks” will be broadcast next Thursday. And the eighth and final program of the season will be shown on a Wednesday, May 23, as ABC tests “Twin Peaks” away from the killer competition of “Cheers,” hoping to provide an event-style ending to the show’s introductory run.


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