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Plot Twists in an Unusual TV Season, 11.26.01 ...

Had the terrorists not struck, had war not broken out, you would probably be hearing all sorts of interesting tidbits about the annual television ratings contest. But they did, and it has, so you are probably not hearing much at all.

Yet the prime-time season has had enough plot twists and upsets to satisfy even the appetite for news about the entertainment industry before the attacks.

Exhibit A: Remember the fight over "Buffy the Vampire Slayer?" The action program, which has Sarah Michelle Gellar as its star, jumped from the WB network to UPN after a bidding war last spring. The move was considered a real blow to WB and a possible sign of things to come in the relationship between UPN and Fox, which produces "Buffy" and had just agreed to buy several UPN affiliates.

But so far this season, "Gilmore Girls," the WB program about a single mother and her daughter that moved into "Buffy's" old time slot, is doing as well with audiences at 8 p.m. on Tuesdays as is "Buffy," if not better. Both have been watched, on average, by about 6.1 million people.

Exhibit B: "24," on Fox, was hailed by critics. People throughout the industry predicted that it would become a major hit this season. But the action series has not yet lived up to expectations. The latest Nielsen Media Research weekly ratings place it 59th among prime-time entertainment programs. With an audience around 10.2 million, it is ranked behind "Family Law" on CBS and "According to Jim" on ABC. This figure does not include last Tuesday's episode, which was watched by 8.2 million people and could drag it down further.

Exhibit C: "JAG," the dramatic series on CBS about a team of military lawyers who investigate crimes and defend and prosecute the accused, finished last television season in 27th place, with an average audience around 13 million people. Benefiting from the war effort, it is now ranked in 10th place, with an audience of nearly 17 million and tied with "Becker," the CBS sitcom.

Exhibit D: Last season, professional wrestling was the best thing going for UPN. It finished the season with an average audience around 7.2 million people. But so far this season, it is being watched by about 6.4 million. And now the best performer on UPN is "Enterprise," the latest of the "Star Trek" series. It has been watched, on average, by nearly 9 million people each Wednesday.

Exhibit E: "Who Wants to be a Millionaire" on ABC was already experiencing audience erosion last year. But still, its Wednesday and Tuesday installments finished the television season ranked in third and fourth place, respectively, with audiences of 20.1 million and 18.8 million. So far this season, the leading installment of the program, on Thursdays, is ranked 42nd, with an average audience around 10.9 million.

This is in keeping with a general drop in viewers for reality programs.

In one sense, however, it seems as if television has returned to those days before reality programs swept the network schedules. The first- and second-most watched programs this season are two old favorites: "ER" and "Friends."

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