'Murphy Brown' to Dan Quayle: Read Our Ratings : Television: The series' response to the vice president draws 70 million viewers, keying a big Monday night for CBS.

Vice President Dan Quayle, in an odd way one of the best friends "Murphy Brown" ever had, predictably turned the sitcom's season debut into a smash-hit national event in the ratings as the CBS series slammed back at his criticism of its values.

According to the A. C. Nielsen research firm, about 41% of the people watching TV Monday night tuned to the special one-hour fall premiere of "Murphy Brown" as it rebutted Quayle's disapproval that the lead character, a TV newswoman played by Candice Bergen, had a baby out of wedlock.

That translated to about 70 million people, CBS estimated Tuesday. It was the highest-rated series episode since an installment of "Cheers" on Nov. 8, 1990, the network said.

If the episode wasn't brilliantly funny, it was at least amusing enough, even when it got a bit self-important toward the end in rebuking Quayle's view of family values and preaching about the importance of "commitment, caring and love." Do you sometimes get the feeling these days that television sitcoms are getting more adept at delivering messages and less adept at just being plain, flat-out funny?

Ah, but this was a special case, brought on by Quayle's reaction and capitalized on brilliantly by "Murphy Brown" creator Diane English and a phalanx of CBS publicists who made the most of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to generate added interest in a show that already had won wide admiration for its topicality.

What's more, what started as a kind of joke--with Quayle suddenly the target of every comedian in sight--unquestionably developed into one of the few national debates to personally engage the minds and hearts of millions of Americans. The issues of what constituted family values--and Hollywood's part in shaping them--suddenly had vivid symbols of each side in entertaining combat: Quayle and Murphy Brown.

The fact that Brown is fictional made the whole confrontation a bit surreal--especially when Hollywood overreacted with its endless, humorless retaliation against Quayle on the Emmy Awards telecast. Yet the basic confrontation made perfect sense, as it did again in Monday's episode, because of TV's influence on viewers and the power of even fictional characters to project attitudes into national dialogue.

Of course, the real confrontation was between Quayle and English, who in the past guided the flow of the dialogue and situations of "Murphy Brown." But what made Murphy Brown the perfect vehicle for such blunt opinions was the setup of the series, which bases her in Washington, where her constant references to public figures and guest shots by real journalists add a certain pithiness that takes the entertainment beyond the often brain-dead humor of most sitcoms.

We are, by the way, in receipt of certain information that may come as a surprise to some of those involved in the Quayle-Murphy Brown brouhaha. If you watched Monday's episode, you will recall that it ended with a truckload of potatoes being dumped at Quayle's abode--a hardly subtle reference to his now-famous misspelling of potato . But did you know, our colleague informs us, that the word murphy is listed in Webster's dictionary as a slang expression for potato ? It's true. You could look it up.

So much for education. On with the ratings--and the message is loud and clear: Whether you are of the view that the new TV season began last week, when many series arrived, or on Monday--which is Nielsen's start date--CBS, the top-ranked network, is off to a mighty fine beginning in defense of its title.

Let's consider Nielsen's start date of this week first. Propelled by the rocketing ratings of "Murphy Brown," CBS left the opposition in the dust on Monday. The network was nothing less than awesome. Leading off was "Evening Shade," which earned 26% of the audience. "Hearts Afire," a new sitcom with John Ritter and Markie Post as political aides to a senator in Washington, weighed in with a heavy 29% audience share in its second outing.

Then came "Murphy Brown" with its 41%. And that was followed by the special one-hour premiere of another English sitcom, "Love & War," which drew 28% of viewers with its New York tale centering on the relationship between the elegant owner of a neighborhood bar (Susan Dey) and a sharp-tongued newspaper columnist (Jay Thomas).

A moment here to put the 41% share of "Murphy Brown" in perspective. Considering that the Big Three networks now only command slightly more than 60% of the TV audience, the tune-in Monday meant that two out of every three network viewers were watching "Murphy Brown"--which is the equivalent of what a 66% share was when the Big Three commanded 90% of the audience.

Last week was another triumph for CBS, the only network that is attempting to program for viewers of all ages rather than those primarily in the 18-to-49 bracket that advertisers covet for their impulsive buying of products shown on TV.

Led by its bread-and-butter series--"Murphy Brown," "60 Minutes" and "Murder, She Wrote"--CBS took last week with an average 12.8 rating and 22% of the audience. (Each ratings point represents 931,000 homes.)

ABC, powered by the season debut of TV's top hit, "Roseanne," which was paired with Delta Burke's new sitcom, "Delta"--the No. 1 and 2 shows of the week--came in second with an 11.9 rating and 20 share. Once-dominant NBC, failing to place a series in the Top 10, was last with a 10.5 and 18% of viewers.

CBS' victory was all the more impressive for two reasons: First, "Roseanne's" huge 39% share in its fall debut made "Delta"--in which Burke plays an aspiring country singer--look like a possible, sudden monster hit. But when "Delta" played in its regular Thursday slot later in the week, it fell off sharply to only 18% of the audience and tied for 45th place among the week's 89 prime-time network shows.

ABC, however, had another blockbuster showing in store--with "Home Improvement" walloping NBC's "Seinfeld" in their heralded matchup and coming in No. 4 for the week.

But as last week's game plan rolled on, CBS' strategy delivered in many areas, making it clear that the network may be tough to dethrone. There were, for instance, the other prime-time news magazines besides "60 Minutes" as CBS' "48 Hours," continuing hot, ranked No. 17 and "Street Stories" came in 30th.

It was no particular surprise that last week's two rerun episodes of "Murphy Brown," setting up the season premiere, both placed in the Top 10. But CBS' big gamble was on Fridays, where it has been virtually invisible and where it is trying a dramatic turnaround by loading up in hopes of creating another strong night like its Mondays. And here's what happened:

CBS' "Golden Palace," with the old "Golden Girls" cast--except for Bea Arthur, who left--had a solid 25 share with its new setting in which the principals run a Miami hotel. In addition, CBS' new Bob Newhart series, "Bob," pulled a good 22% share. And the premiere of a new drama series, "Picket Fences," set in a small Wisconsin town, drew 24%.

That was all good news for CBS and gave the network its first Friday night victory with regular series since February, 1989. This week, two successful CBS sitcoms that formerly appeared on Mondays--"Designing Women" and "Major Dad"--will also join the Friday lineup in potential other boosts.

The payoff last week was that CBS not only won Sunday and Monday, as it usually does, but Friday as well.

As the 1992-93 season got under way, CBS, at least for the moment, looked like a hot potato.

* REVISITING THE RIOTS: Prime-time series are working the L.A. unrest into their story lines. F6

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