'Home' Leads Way as ABC Muscles Out Competition : Television: Network places six shows in Top 10, but NBC strengthens its lineup with its go-for-broke Tuesday strategy.

TIMES TELEVISION WRITER

ABC's "Home Improvement," seemingly impregnable, not only trounced NBC's "Frasier" in their highly touted first matchup but also remained the nation's most popular television series, according to ratings released Tuesday for the premiere week of the 1994-95 season.

In fact, two episodes of "Home Improvement," one of them a special outing, ranked in the top six shows. "Frasier," however, still finished a respectable 16th among 92 prime-time network programs.

In another closely watched matchup, NBC's "ER" walloped CBS' "Chicago Hope" in a battle of new medical dramas on Thursday. "ER" ranked 12th for the week in total TV homes in this confrontation, while "Chicago Hope" was 46th.

However, David E. Kelley, creator of "Chicago Hope," may finally be seeing light for his other CBS series, "Picket Fences," which apparently benefited from its recent, second consecutive Emmy Award as best drama series. It came in 42nd--attracting 21% of the television audience--compared to its 66th-place final ranking for last season.

A two-hour preview of "ER" on Monday came in seventh--but other than that, no new series made the Top 10. ABC's new sitcom, "Me and the Boys," about a widower with three young sons, ranked 11th.

For CBS, winner of the prime-time ratings race the last three seasons, it was ana inauspicious third-place start. Onrushing ABC, propelled by its Tuesday tandem of "Home Improvement" and "Grace Under Fire" and its Wednesday pairing of "Roseanne" and "Ellen," was No. 1, with six of the Top 10 series.

ABC averaged a 12.6 rating and 21% audience share. But longtime doormat NBC was a surprisingly strong No. 2 with a 12.3 rating and 20 share as it succeeded, at least in premiere week, with its attempt to build a new competitive night by switching "Frasier" and "Wings" to Tuesdays. (Each rating point represents 954,000 homes.)

NBC already fares well on Thursdays--and now may have added firepower on that night with "ER" in the 10-11 slot, where it replaced the canceled "L.A. Law." Another NBC Thursday entry, "Seinfeld," was the nation's No. 2 show.

CBS also tried to crow a little, saying all seven of its new series "exceeded the network's time period performance in the fourth quarter of 1993." But the hard fact was that CBS was No. 3, with an 11.6 rating and 19% viewer share. It was also down 14% over last season's premiere week rating--while all the other networks were up, mainly NBC, which jumped 11%.

In addition, CBS was last among the four networks--including Fox--in drawing viewers 18 to 49 years of age--the advertisers' favorite target. It also finished third in total viewers, and CBS confirmed it was the network's lowest-rated premiere week since at least 1962.

Fox, meanwhile, is getting audience response to what previously was a cult favorite, "The X-Files," in which two FBI agents investigate unsolved cases, many of which may involve the paranormal. It finished 59th but drew a reasonable 17% of viewers, compared with last season's final ranking in 111th place with 11% of the audience.

On the loss side, Fox went into the dumper with "Fortune Hunter," the early Sunday-night series it expected to cash in as the follow-up, in much of the country, to the network's new slate of National Football League games that it won away from CBS. "Fortune Hunter," an adventure series, was dead last among all of the week's shows.

In the first week, at least, NBC had much to brag about, mostly its gamble of going for broke on Tuesdays. Its two-hour comedy block on that night--"Wings," "The Martin Short Show," "Frasier" and "The John Larroquette Show"--all recorded substantial ratings gains over shows in the comparable time periods last season.

NBC also claimed nine of the Top 20 series: "Seinfeld," "ER," the Sunday- and Monday-night movies, "Mad About You," "Frasier," "Law & Order," "Friends"--a new entry about a group of young adults trying to succeed in Manhattan--and "Madman of the People," starring Dabney Coleman as an irascible columnist working for his daughter at a magazine.

However, "Madman of the People," despite getting the coveted post-"Seinfeld" time slot, lost a large amount of the audience it inherited. "Seinfeld" had a robust 33% audience share, while "Madman" dropped off to 24%.

While the networks were boasting about their premiere-week showings, another hard fact was that the Big Three--ABC, CBS and NBC--still totaled only 60% of the TV audience, which has found alternatives.

Among other new series, NBC's "The Cosby Mysteries," a drama with Bill Cosby as a crime-solver, did well, ranking 27th; ABC's "All-American Girl," a sitcom starring Margaret Cho as a young woman in a Korean-American family, was 52nd; and two other new Fox series, "M.A.N.T.I.S.," an adventure show, and "Wild Oats," about sex-obsessed twentysomethings, had the dubious honor of finishing near the bottom of the ratings with "Fortune Hunter."

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