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This season is shaping up as one of the tightest races ever for ABC, CBS and NBC, with just 0.3 points separating the first- and third-place networks after three weeks.

The tightness of the ratings should play to advertisers' advantage in ad rate negotiations.

Powered by its new hospital drama "ER," NBC has finished a strong second each week, strong enough to emerge as the No. 1 network in prime time for the three weeks ended Oct. 9. NBC, which ended the 1993-94 season in third place, has an average 12.1 rating, up from 11 at this time a year ago.

"Who would have thought?" said Rob Frydlewicz, VP-director of media research at the Media Edge, New York, of NBC's feat.

Despite winning the first two weeks, ABC is off on a season-to-date basis, with an average 11.9 compared with 12.7 last season. Fox is averaging a 7.5 vs. 7.1 a year ago.

The combined Big 3 prime-time rating for the first three weeks was 35.8, off slightly from the combined 36.9 a year earlier.

Fall season launches have bounced up and down for the past several years, and one factor this year may have been the Public Broadcasting Service's "Baseball" miniseries, the only place to see the national pastime last month. But the drop is primarily due to a slow start by CBS, which ended the last three seasons in first place.

While CBS won the third week, its season-to-date average is 11.8, down from 13.2 a year ago.

So far, "ER" is the only clear new hit of the season. The Thursday hospital drama has been building audience share each week since it premiered and finished the third week with a 19.2 rating and a 33 share, the highest share of any program that week.

"It's somewhat unusual for a new show to develop that rapidly," said Steve Sternberg, senior VP-director of broadcast research of BJK&E Media Group. "It's gone from a 27 share to a 30 share and now a 33 share. And now that it's going up against two news magazines, it may even do better."

Originally, CBS scheduled its similar freshman hospital drama "Chicago Hope" opposite the 10 p.m. (ET) NBC show, but has since moved it to 9 p.m. Thursday, where it has been performing moderately better.

Other than "ER," agency media executives see no major new-season hit. Even NBC's "Madman of the People," the second most successful new show of the season with a 15.9 rating average and a 25 share, doesn't constitute a hit because it loses about 5 share points from its "Seinfeld" lead-in.

BJK&E's Mr. Sternberg said there are some "moderate successes" of the new season, including CBS' "Due South," averaging a 12.2 rating and a 20 share for the season's first three weeks.

Overall losers include early cancellations: NBC's "The Martin Short Show" and Fox's "Fortune Hunter" and "Wild Oats." ABC's "McKenna" is on hiatus.

Mr. Sternberg also termed ABC's highly touted "My So-Called Life" a "disappointment."

But the biggest winner of the new prime-time season, may be advertisers. With the Big 3 in virtual parity, marketplace leverage in prime-time negotiations should shift to the buying side.

"When one network is so far ahead of everybody else they do have leverage in moving the marketplace, but when they are in parity, it's easier for a buyer to pick and choose," he said.

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