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CH. 4 NARROWS RATINGS GAP; O.J. ON CNN BEATS CH. 2 NEWS

Wonder of wonders. Buoyed by a lengthy Wonderbra story on an 11 p.m. newscast and waving money at 5 p.m. viewers, Channel 4 made significant viewer gains in February.

Channel 7 still can shout, "We're No. 1" at 6 a.m., noon, 5 p.m, 6 p.m. and 11 p.m. But the margin over Channel 4 in some cases is getting thinner than Dennis Franz's hairline on "NYPD Blue."

The O.J. Simpson case gave third-place Channel 2 even more bad news than usual.

In very late-night, Tom Snyder on CBS is destroying NBC's Conan O'Brien, who previously just destroyed himself.

Those are among the big stories in the local Nielsen ratings for February.

Channel 4, which gave away $1,000 a day to get viewers to sample its 5 p.m. news (Jacquie Walker, Rich Newberg) may have started a cash-war during the May sweeps.

The strategy, criticized here as a sign of desperation that crosses the line of ethical standards, appears to have worked.

Channel 7 (Keith Radford, Kathleen Leighton) still wins the battle at 5 p.m. by 4,000 households but Channel 4 tightened the margin from 24,000 last book. On the other hand, Channel 4 just has crawled back to where it was a year ago.

And Channel 2 (Rich Kellman and Carol Kaplan)? Well, it has fallen to fourth place at 5 p.m., drawing fewer viewers than CNN's afternoon coverage of the Simpson trial. The only station not to have sent someone to Los Angeles, Channel 2 doesn't even receive a double-digit share at 6 p.m. (Marty Aarons, Laurie Lisowski).

Overall, it was an outstanding book for Channel 4, which is expected to become a CBS- owned-and-operated station. According to News Director Kirk Varner, Channel 4 is the highest-rated CBS affiliate at 11 p.m. in the Top 50 television markets.

Its noon newscast (Carol Jasen and Don Postles) is in a virtual statistical tie with Channel 7 (Susan Banks); its 6 p.m. newscast (Jasen, Postles) has substantially reduced Irv Weinstein's lead to only 17,000 households; and its 11 p.m. news (Newberg, Walker) is within 3,000 households of Channel 7 (Radford, Leighton) after being behind by 35,000 in November.

Channel 4's 11 p.m. performance is more remarkable because CBS finished in last place in the February sweeps and the station had the Winter Olympics as a lead-in a year ago.

Given an opportunity to gloat, Varner credited Channel 4's success to "the simple fact that for the first time for quite some time we have a stable environment. The specter of another anchor change isn't here anymore."

Varner also felt that the school bus series by Craig Nigrelli and the gang series by Al Vaughters were compelling to viewers. And then there was Channel 4's secret weapon: The Wonderbra story by Sue Serio, a laughable flimsy piece that aired on the night that Channel 4 had its highest rating. Draw your own conclusions.

Channel 7 News Director Chuck Samuels downplayed Channel 4's success. "They typically do well in February," said Samuels. "This is only our second win in the late news in February in seven years."

Many of the the news results should come with an asterisk since the Simpson trial changed viewing patterns. Now, let's look at the other February ratings stories:

"Seinfeld" Is No. 1: NBC's Thursday hit is No. 1 locally with 212,000 households, 23,000 more than No. 2 "ER," which is setting national records almost weekly. With "Mad About You," "Friends" and "Frasier," NBC and Channel 2 have five of the market's top 10 prime time shows.

Channel 7 and ABC have four -- "Grace Under Fire," "Home Improvement," "NYPD Blue" and "2 0/2 0." CBS and Channel 4 have only one -- "Murder, She Wrote."

Letterman No. 1 Here: He slipped nationally, but David Letterman is as strong as ever in Buffalo. He only lost 1,000 households from a year ago, when the Winter Olympics gave him a great springboard. He more than doubles the audience for NBC's Jay Leno, who had gained on him here in November.

Snyder Is Late-Night Winner: Tom Snyder's new late-night entry after Letterman enters 10,000 homes to 4,000 for Conan. Of course, Snyder has the benefit of Letterman's lead-in. He more than doubled Channel 4's numbers from November.

Wake Up! A Hit for Channel 4: Though Channel 7's "Good Morning, Western New York" still holds a 2-1 lead at 6 a.m, the new Channel 4 show co-anchored by Serio and Ray Collins gained 9,000 households since its first ratings book and is Channel 4's most-watched morning show until 11 a.m.

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