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Fall TV: Prime-Time Profile

TIMES STAFF WRITER

CBS breathed a sigh of relief Tuesday as its “Big Comedy Monday” largely lived up to that billing in the ratings, with “Cosby” leading the way.

The premiere of Bill Cosby’s ninth television series and first sitcom since “The Cosby Show” attracted 27% of the available audience at 8 p.m. Monday, according to Nielsen Media Research.

“Cosby” delivered the best rating for a prime-time comedy series making its debut at 8--and thus without the benefit of an established program leading into it--since NBC’s “The Cosby Show” a dozen years ago. Comfortably winning its time period, the new sitcom improved by nearly 30% on CBS’ rating the corresponding week last season with “The Nanny” in that half-hour.

CBS also scored solid ratings with the first telecast of “Pearl"--the Rhea Perlman comedy added to Monday’s lineup at the last minute due to production problems on Ted Danson’s new series “Ink"--and with the returning shows “Murphy Brown,” “Cybill” and “Chicago Hope.”

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CBS has gambled on recognizable stars such as Cosby, Danson and Perlman, hoping they will bring viewers back to the network, which ranked third in household ratings last season and fourth (trailing Fox) in the younger demographics sought by most advertisers.

If nothing else, Monday’s performance represents an encouraging sign for CBS compared to last year, when its most-discussed new program, “Central Park West,” premiered by attracting just 12% of available viewers and declined from there.

“Cosby” seemed to provide a small lift as well to CBS’ other Monday night comedies. “Murphy Brown” and “Cybill” captured 23% and 21% of the audience, respectively, although the 10 p.m. drama “Chicago Hope” lagged 7% behind last season’s premiere rating.

“Pearl,” which retained an impressive 97% of “Cosby’s” rating, airs again tonight in its regular time period after “The Nanny.”

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The other networks were anticipating “Cosby’s” opening and are hoping a sizable portion of the 24.7 million viewers who tuned in Monday have satisfied their curiosity and won’t come back. The ultimate challenge will be how much of that audience the program retains as new offerings roll out over the next few weeks.

NBC will premiere its heavily promoted “The Jeff Foxworthy Show” next week, while ABC will present its series adaptation of the movie “Dangerous Minds,” starring Annie Potts, on Sept. 30. (“Cosby” is on against “Monday Night Football” on Channel 7 locally but will face “Dangerous Minds” in the Eastern, Central and Mountain time zones, regions that account for more than 80% of the U.S. population.)

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Tonight’s Highlights: ABC’s “Grace Under Fire” is seen as the night’s strongest returning show, but the real fear among broadcasters is that the 16 sitcoms scheduled by ABC, CBS, NBC and the WB network from 8 to 10 p.m. will ultimately drive viewers to cable. CBS offers an alternative tonight, at least, by airing its latest “The Rockford Files” movie at 9 p.m.

Although two more new sitcoms premiere, the focus tonight will be on the 8 p.m. shootout involving time-period incumbent “Ellen” on ABC, “The Nanny” on CBS and “Wings,” which has amassed plenty of frequent-flier mileage around NBC’s schedule in its six-year run.

Pundits anticipate a close race and mediocre results all around, though “Ellen” could benefit initially from recent publicity regarding its lead character’s sexuality.


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