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updated 11/20/1995 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/20/1995 AT 01:00 AM EST

IT WAS SUPPOSED TO BE PRIME TIME'S clash of the titans: ER vs. Murder One, skins against suits, NBC's visceral medical show going head-to-head on Thursday nights with ABC's provocative new legal drama. Instead of a battle, though, this hotly debated confrontation has turned into a rout, the Nielsen equivalent of Hulk Hogan body-slamming Don Knotts. How badly is Murder One doing? It is now finishing last in its time period, behind CBS's 48 Hours. In fact, ABC's swanky mystery was ranked No. 78 out of 108 shows last week (ER, of course, was No. 1). How dominant is the ER juggernaut? You have to go back to 1989, when The Cosby Show and Roseanne were both consistently grabbing over 40 percent of the TV audience, to find a hit series of this magnitude. ABC gave Murder One two weeks in NYPD Blue's Tuesday niche to allow the newcomer to build an audience before taking on ER directly. Since they have faced off on Thursday nights, the audience gulf between the two dramas is actually growing with each outing, from more than 15 million homes between them to more than 16.8 million.

So did ABC blunder in positioning this promising, critically acclaimed show directly opposite NBC's powerhouse? Absolutely not, says Jeff Bader, an ABC programming executive. "We'd do the same thing all over again. This is the only show we felt stood a chance against ER. Going into a very, very tough time period, you simply have to use your biggest guns. And Murder One was unquestionably our strongest drama." Of course, gloating would be unseemly when you're slaughtering the competition the way NBC is. So rejoicing in the victor's camp has been restrained. Says NBC's entertainment chief Warren Littlefield diplomatically, "They have a good show. We have a great show."

What happens now? Well, ABC has steadfastly maintained that part of the problem is weak lead-ins and has publicly vowed to keep the program in the same time slot until the end of the calendar year. The network wants to see how the program fares now that Charlie Grace and The Monroes have been canceled and replaced on Thursdays by ice-skating specials, Columbo reruns and the like. Still, Murder One will have missed two airings in the space of a month—once supplanted by the World Series and again on Thanksgiving night by the conclusion of The Beatles Anthology (see review below). These preemptions make it even more difficult for this program, with its dense, serialized narrative, to hold on to its dwindling audience. Many programming experts assume that ABC will simply bite the bullet and keep the show where it is. But ABC is keeping its options open. "If a month from now," states Bader, "we're still seeing the same numbers, we'll have to start reevaluating our position." Jessica Reif, a media analyst for Merrill Lynch, is more blunt: "If the ratings don't pick up, they're going to have to cancel it." Now that would be murder.

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