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Laughing All the Way to the Top : Television: Seven of the Top 10 shows in the midseason ratings results are sitcoms, and stand-up has turned into a major-league farm system for TV stars.

TIMES TELEVISION WRITER

The public has spoken and the message it has delivered to the TV networks at midseason is that the laugh’s the thing.

Seven of the Top 10 shows as the second half of the formal ratings season gets under way in January are sitcoms: “Home Improvement,” “Roseanne,” “Seinfeld,” “Coach,” “Frasier,” “Grace Under Fire” and “Murphy Brown.”

Stand-up comedy has turned into a major-league farm system for TV stars. Four headliners among these sitcoms are stand-up performers: Tim Allen of “Home Improvement,” Roseanne Arnold of “Roseanne,” Jerry Seinfeld of “Seinfeld” and Brett Butler of “Grace Under Fire.”

The news for drama addicts, however, is not so upbeat. The only Top 10 drama--and it’s really just a lighthearted mystery--is the amazingly durable “Murder, She Wrote.” The durability comes from the loyalty of older viewers, because the ratings for the show fall off sharply for the younger audience.

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Two other old warhorses, “60 Minutes” and “Monday Night Football,” complete the list of Top 10 favorites.

Of the new fall series, four managed to crack the Top 20--not a bad percentage. They are ABC’s “Grace Under Fire” and the drama “NYPD Blue,” NBC’s “Frasier” and CBS’ “Dave’s World.” The negative flip side is that almost no other new network series, from the hundreds of concepts that boiled down to 38 freshman shows, had much impact.

As a matter of fact, all four new hits are linked to established successes. “NYPD Blue” follows the tandem of “Roseanne” and “Coach.” “Dave’s World” is sandwiched between “Evening Shade” and “Murphy Brown.” “Frasier” is paired with “Seinfeld.” And “Grace Under Fire” has “Home Improvement” as its lead-in.

Among the major new ratings disappointments are NBC’s “seaQuest DSV” and ABC’s “Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman,” both ambitious projects, but both shot down in total household tune-in by CBS’ “Murder, She Wrote,” their head-on competition.

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“Lois & Clark” ranks 51st among 102 series in the ratings season that began Sept. 20. And “seaQuest DSV” is 60th. “Murder, She Wrote” is No. 8.

The most notable drama disappointment in the ratings continues to be CBS’ highly promoted, critically praised, Emmy-winning “Picket Fences,” which is No. 70, averaging only 17% of the audience.

Despite its admitted lust for the 18-to-49-year-old audience that advertisers favor, ABC’s overall game plan seems to be working best this season. CBS is still the No. 1 network, but ABC--with the help of its two new hits, “Grace Under Fire” and “NYPD Blue"--has won the ratings race in seven of the season’s 14 weeks and now trails CBS by only three-tenths of a point.

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In addition, ABC has five of the Top 10 shows and nine of the Top 20, including “20/20,” “PrimeTime Live” and “Full House.” “PrimeTime Live,” 15th among all prime-time series, now has solidly established itself as the third most popular television newsmagazine, trailing only “60 Minutes” and “20/20.”

With an effectively balanced prime-time attack in the Top 20--five comedies, the drama “NYPD Blue,” the two newsmagazines and “Monday Night Football"--ABC looks good at the moment. The seasonal loss of “Monday Night Football,” however, will hurt, because the replacement weekly movies have their ups and downs--and opposing CBS series such as “Murphy Brown,” “Love & War” and “Northern Exposure” may benefit.

CBS expects to assert its dominance as the season wears on because its older viewers tend to be more dependably loyal over the long haul. But that can’t cover up the fact that CBS’ lack of creative, attractive new prime-time series is all too obvious. (Down the road this season, by the way, CBS says it plans to give Tom Arnold a shot at another sitcom, with the performer and his wife, Roseanne, as two of the executive producers.)

ABC, winning the ratings again last week, reported Tuesday that it now has “the most fourth-quarter wins for the network (seven) since 1979.”

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While weekly, one-hour drama series appear a dying breed--only “Murder, She Wrote,” “NYPD Blue,” “Northern Exposure” and “Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman” are in the Top 30--the fact is that the networks’ two-hour TV movies are doing well, indicating a continuing audience thirst for non-comedic storytelling.

The heavy pressure from the Clinton Administration and various organizations and viewers may turn the networks away from their unfortunate recent addiction to violence and sleazy movies. As things stand, however, five weekly movie series from CBS, ABC and NBC are ranked strongly among the top 31 series.

These include all three Sunday movies from CBS, ABC and NBC--a heavy viewing night. Together with the weekly one-hour dramas, the successful movie nights mean that eight of the Top 30 prime-time programs are in the storytelling mode.

Now it’s a matter of upgrading the material. The audience is clearly there.

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Some good news: The tacky video shows that once were so hot are dying. “America’s Funniest Home Videos” is down to 41st and “I Witness Video” is 86th. Videos are common currency nowadays, and audiences may also be turned off by the flood of reality programming in prime-time newsmagazines, tabloid-style shows and local news.

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And more good news: The cheap-to-produce television newsmagazines that distressingly replaced drama series--and rocketed to the top of the ratings during the rerun-dominated summer lull--now are sinking back to a more realistic lower level, except for the heavyweights such as “60 Minutes,” “20/20" and “PrimeTime Live.”

“48 Hours” is No. 42, although still a reasonable contender. “Dateline NBC,” trying to recover from its abhorrent staged crash of a General Motors truck, is No. 48. “Now With Tom Brokaw and Katie Couric” is No. 49. “Eye to Eye With Connie Chung” is No. 62. “Day One” is No. 64. And “Front Page” is No. 98.

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Networks still like the ratings results of most of these series, figuring dramas might do about the same, but cost twice as much--well over $1 million an episode for many.

Comedy, however, is still king. There are 16 sitcoms in the Top 30 prime-time shows, and the network that has most of them at the end of the season will have the last laugh.


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