RATINGS HORSE-RACE

'FRASIER' NIPPING AT 'HOME IMPROVEMENT' IN HOT SEASON

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ABC's Tuesday night suddenly has a lot of room for improvement.

Eleven weeks into the new prime-time season, ABC ratings champ "Home Improvement" is slipping from the top spot, falling precariously close in audience share to NBC's dark horse contender "Frasier."

Curiously, this slide for "Home Improvement" comes as star Tim Allen has found new fame as the nation's hottest holiday box office draw in the comedy "The Santa Clause" and as a best-selling author with "Don't Stand Too Close to a Naked Man" .

Although the two 9 p.m. (ET) TV comedies started with a 12-share-point gap between them, "Home Improvement's" lead in the past three weeks has narrowed to 4 share points or less.

If the current trend continues, "Frasier" could overtake "Home Improvement," something neither ABC nor NBC anticipated.

The battle is one of several key ratings duels making the 1994-95 season one of the hottest contests ever and one in which all four broadcast networks have bragging rights after the November sweeps.

The 10 p.m. Thursday hospital drama battle between CBS and NBC produced the season's biggest hit-NBC's "ER." And the big surprise: CBS' "The Nanny" has won a pitched battle at 8 p.m. Monday, where it faced competition from ABC's "Coach," NBC's "Fresh Prince of Bel Air" and Fox's "Melrose Place."

"They all have something to crow about," said Paul Schulman, president of Wells Rich Greene BDDP's Paul Schulman Co. media buying unit. "ABC is No. 1 in adults 18 to 49. NBC is right on their heels. CBS has held their own and is close to tying ABC in households. And Fox has shown the greatest growth of anybody. The big stories are Fox and NBC. They're showing the most momentum."

Season-to-date through Nov. 27: ABC leads with a 12.2 average prime-time Nielsen rating, down 5% from the same period last season; CBS averages a 12.1, down 8%; NBC averages an 11.6, up 2%; and Fox averages a 7.8, up 7%.

While the momentum of Fox and NBC is coming at the expense of ABC and CBS, Mr. Schulman said the damage isn't critical. It also is making for a healthier overall network prime-time schedule, one proving to be the most competitive ever.

Normally, a tight ratings race would benefit advertisers that could pick and choose from comparably performing shows on different networks. But increased demand and the CBS ratings shortfall, requiring make-goods to advertisers, have eaten up prime-time ad inventory and made remaining units pricey.

CBS and Fox are believed to be sold out for the first quarter prime-time scatter marketplace and NBC has only limited inventory. ABC has more commercial units, but since it's virtually the only game in town, overall pricing remains high.

Currently, prime-time commercial rates are believed to be aver-aging high double-digit increases-more than 50% for shows most in demand-over what advertisers paid in last summer's upfront marketplace.

That means a 30-second spot on NBC's top-dollar "Seinfeld," which fetched $390,000 in the up-front, could get as much as $600,000 in the current scatter marketplace. A show like "Frasier," which began the season averaging $230,000 per :30, can now command nearly $350,000. That's if units are available.

Even shows that have lost some momentum, like ABC's "Home Improvement," still command significant rate increases because demand is high and inventory is tight.

Season-to-date, "Home Improvement" still is the top-rated show, averaging a 20.6 rating and a 30 share, compared with a 15.1 rating and 22 share for "Frasier."

But in recent weeks it has slipped from No. 1 largely because of competition from "Frasier" and Fox's "Fox Night at the Movies."

"Home Improvement's" younger sister lead-out, "Grace Under Fire," has been dominating the ratings race in recent weeks. That suggests head-to-head competition with "Frasier" is hurting "Home Improvement," the show that raised the marquee value of Mr. Allen, also star of the hit movie "The Santa Clause."

"*`Frasier' is showing some marginal improvement in some demographic groups," said Henry Schafer, exec VP of Marketing Evaluations, the Port Washington, N.Y.-based research company that produces the TVQ ratings.

It's unclear, he said, whether that sampling will translate into increased "appeal" for "Frasier," a key determinant of long-term momentum and one dominated by "Home Improvement."

"'Home Improvement' is still the top Q-rated show in prime time. No other show even comes close," Mr. Schafer said. "Basically, `Home Improvement' and `Frasier' continue to have the same relationship they had at the start of the season. `Home Improvement' has a 58% advantage over `Frasier.' Whether that will change remains to be seen."

But "Home Improvement's" ratings could rally this week when NBC substitutes its dormant "Something Wilder" series as a lead-in to "Frasier."

"The gap between `Home Improvement' and `Frasier' could widen again, because the repeats of excellent shows like `Mad About You' and `Friends' and `Wings' and `Frasier' that NBC has been running there have been doing far better than the originals of unexcellent shows like `Something Wilder,'" Mr. Schulman said. "What NBC ought to do is replace `Something Wilder' with something better."

Other key matches have also produced startling results.

Given "E.R.'s" success, CBS is expected to move "Chicago Hope" to "Northern Exposure's" coveted 10 p.m. Monday slot, bumping "Northern Exposure" to 10 p.m. Wednesday.

But CBS clearly has been a loser on Sunday nights, where its venerable "60 Minutes" is down 14% to an 18.1 season-to-date rating, due to the loss of its NFL football lead-in to Fox and unexpected competition from NBC's new "Earth 2."

Jeff Houze contributed to this story.

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