SWEEPS-STAKES

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Ratings in this February's sweeps period will be watched more closely than usual by the Big 3 TV networks. And they should be.

As NBC, CBS and ABC begin to slug it out with hype and the usual waves of star-studded programming, they'll be looking over their shoulders at some recent audience numbers that show how television's new prime-time alternatives are taking share from the major nets.

Granted, the numbers are small; in their debuts, Warner Bros.' fledgling WB network earned a 3 share in prime time, and the Universal Paramount Network settled into a 5 rating after a healthy leadoff with a "Star Trek" film. But those numbers came right out of the major nets' hides.

No doubt the recent shuffling of station lineups in several markets, due to Fox's success in luring some former network affiliates away, caused some viewer erosion. But viewer restlessness is evident.

Rupert Murdoch's Fox network pioneered the radical notion that there could be more than three broadcast network choices for the viewer each night. Now cable, with all its offerings, is in six of 10 households, VCRs provide movies and time-shifting, and home computers can provide almost as much entertainment as the TV set. So the idea of surfing for new shows is much less radical today.

What CBS, NBC and ABC-as well as advertisers and agencies-must ponder is whether those samplers will return regularly to the new TV offerings. For the fledglings, it will be tough going this month, where they face the Big 3 networks' big-bucks specials and movies, plus extra hype for their regular series. There's also an added factor this month: the Big 3 nets' expensive coverage of the O.J. Simpson murder trial.

But if the newcomers hold on, and grow as the season continues, advertisers and agencies will need to ask themselves this: Should we let those budget-busting sweeps programs set the rates for the rest of the season? If they are anomalies, won't local station competitors point out their strengths in non-sweeps periods?

With the continued slicing of the home entertainment pie into smaller and smaller pieces, traditional sweeps months could become less and less relevant to the time-buying community. That means this February's numbers will tell a lot about TV's future, and the future of TV advertising as well.

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