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The Big 3 networks are coming precariously close to a prime-time meltdown if the most recent two weeks of the 1994-95 season are any indication.

The ratings being scored by new prime-time alternatives are coming directly from ABC, CBS and NBC, not other sources such as Fox, cable TV or independents, an Advertising Age analysis of Nielsen Media Research data shows.

The Jan. 16 premiere of United Paramount Network, featuring a 2-hour "Star Trek: Voyager" episode, was No. 1 for the night with a 14.7 rating in Nielsen's metered markets. Fox placed second, averaging a 13.6, while CBS was third with a 13, followed by NBC at 10 and ABC at 9.7.

And the 3 prime-time share points mustered by the Jan. 11 launch of Warner Bros.' WB network came purely from ABC, CBS and NBC.

"During 8 p.m. to 10 p.m. [ET] when WB was on the air, the prime-time share for the three networks fell 3 share points from the week before WB launched," said Rob Frydlewicz, VP-director of media research at the Media Edge, New York.

Fox had its highest ratings average ever-a 9.1-for the week ended Jan. 15 due to its National Football Conference championship game, which had a 35.9 rating for the game's 39-minute prime-time overrun.

Ratings that week for basic cable and independent TV stations also were up 2% and 1%, respectively, while pay TV was flat and public TV was down 1%.

National ratings for UPN's Jan. 16 launch won't be available until Jan. 24.

UPN's second night and an unexpected surge from Fox also gave the Big 3 trouble on Jan. 17. In the Nielsen metered markets, ABC ranked No. 1 with a 14.2 average, followed by Fox's 13.5, NBC's 11.3, CBS' 7.7 and UPN's 5.

On Jan. 18, WB placed fifth with a 4 rating in Nielsen's metered markets, compared with a 12.1 for ABC, a 10.6 for NBC, a 10.2 for Fox and an 8.8 for CBS.

"At a quick glance, it looks like [the networks' midseason] replacement programming is not doing that well," said Brian Fiori, VP-research of UPN.

Mr. Frydlewicz noted nearly 20% of the Big 3's lineup recently has been repeat programming. Still, he said, "This is a very odd period.

"There are a lot of things to juggle, and the networks are in a pre-sweeps lull."

In an extreme example, the Big 3 are now trailing prime-time syndicated shows in one top market-Phoenix, where King World's syndicated "Wheel of Fortune" and "Jeopardy!" moved from Fox affiliate KSAZ to independent KTVK.

With an average 11.7 rating for the week of Jan. 9 to Jan. 13, the King World block bested NBC affiliate KPNX, CBS' KPHO, ABC's KNXV and KSAZ.

"I think this would happen in any market if we were carried in prime time," said Paul Power, VP-research at King World. "These are the two most popular programs in syndication."

Mr. Power said he believed the Big 3 have been hurt most by UPN and WB for one simple reason: "They have the most to lose."

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