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FLUTIE-JOHNSON DUEL DRAWS <br> SUPER BOWL-LIKE RATINGS FOR GAME

This is what I'm thinking:

Soap operas may be in decline on network television, but the heavily hyped one revolving around quarterbacks Rob Johnson and Doug Flutie was a ratings bonanza locally on the order of the "Who Shot J.R.?" episode of "Dallas."

The super game had a Super Bowl-like local rating, about 30 to 50 percent higher than the rest of the Bills games this season.

According to Channel 4 researcher Bob Gallivan, the San Diego Chargers' 27-24 victory over the Bills had about a 40.2 overnight rating and 59 share here and was the highest-rated Bills game since meters started measuring audiences a year and a half ago. It averaged a 47.5 for the last 45 minutes and had a high of a 48.7 rating and 64 share in the last 15 minutes, just about the time CBS play-by-play man Craig Bolerjack was labeling it a "classic."

That means that 48.7 percent of the households in the area with television were tuned to the game at the end.

The grudge game obviously meant more in Buffalo than it did in San Diego, now known as Buffalo West because of all the ex-Bills there. The game had a 25.8 rating and 52 share in that California city.

The four Bills Super Bowl losses in the 1990s were played years before this market was metered so there is no way to compare them locally. But Super Bowls generally get ratings in the 40s nationally.

The Bills-Chargers game can be compared to the first two games of the World Series. Arizona's blowout victory over the Yankees in Game 1 had about a 9.4 rating on Channel 29 Saturday. Arizona's second-game shutout victory Sunday had about a 12.6 rating here.

CBS analyst Trevor Matich made several decent points during the game, but he and Bolerjack should have been more alert to all the key penalties being called during the Bills loss.

They seemed unaware of a key holding call against the Chargers that led to the touchdown that gave the Bills their final lead, 24-20. And they never told us that Bills punter Brian Moorman was called for taunting after making a touchdown-saving tackle on a kickoff return that gave the Chargers even better field position on their winning drive.

Matich talked way too much, obscuring what was going on at times. But he did a good job assessing the quarterback duel, concluding that the Bills and Chargers had both wound up with the right guy. It is an assessment that only the most ardent anti-Johnson fans could disagree with after his gallant performance.

While Flutie's statistics were close to Johnson's, Matich did note that Johnson's offensive tackles were so overmatched by Charger ends that the quarterback didn't have the same amount of time to find receivers as Flutie had.

Surprisingly, Matich didn't note that Flutie's winning touchdown scramble was the only big play he had to make in the second half. After taking a 10-0 first-quarter led, the Chargers scored one defensive touchdown and their other scoring drives for 10 points were only 13 yards each.

The Bills say the NFL's switch of Sunday's game with the 3-3 Colts from 4:15 p.m. to 1 p.m. enables them to sell more tickets regionally. But somehow, you have to believe the team's 1-5 start this season had something to do with it as well. The NFL also switched the start time of the Cleveland at Chicago game from 1 p.m. to 4:15 p.m., making the game involving two surprising, bigger market teams available for a second game of a CBS doubleheader. The switch means that CBS' No. 1 crew of Phil Simms and Greg Gumbel no longer is assigned the Bills-Colts game. Don Criqui and Steve Tasker, the Buffalo connection that worked the Colts victory over the Bills earlier in the season, have been switched over to this one as well.

The NFL undoubtedly jumped at the chance to switch to the more attractive game to help CBS achieve higher ratings. Advertising revenue is so soft that there is speculation that CBS, Fox and ABC are going to ask the league for some contract relief.

Cleveland (4-2) and Chicago (5-1) are among the biggest surprises of the season. Neither of them are on ABC's Monday Night Football schedule, which can't be readjusted each week. It's an annual problem for MNF, which for years has missed most of the year's surprise teams because the schedule is based on how well teams do the previous season. Cleveland doesn't even have an ESPN game this season.

Hard to believe that San Diego's television outlets agreed to Chargers General Manager John Butler's demand that they not share any footage of his interviews with Buffalo television affiliates. TV usually only allows itself to relinquish power like that in time of war. Oh, well, I guess this qualified. Besides, Butler never said anything that he had to worry about as the Buffalo Bills general manager in the years he did a show on the Empire Sports Network.

Heard Van Miller's radio call of the Bills-Chargers game in the first quarter while I was driving home on the Thruway after a weekend trip. He still has a great enthusiasm level and is sharp on most big plays, but he constantly had trouble determining what yard line the ball was on. It happened several times so it can't all be blamed on his spotters.

CBS ought to be ashamed of itself for running Sunday's promos about "The Agency," its new CIA series. It pats itself on the back for tastefully declining to carry the pilot earlier because it involved a terrorist plot. But now, several weeks after Sept. 11, it is promoting the timeliness of the plot line. That's tasteless.

On the other hand, ABC and Jason Alexander have turned to Jerry Seinfeld to promote Alexander's ailing series about a self-help guru, "Bob Patterson." It is nice of Seinfeld to help his former "Seinfeld" co-star. The truth is the series of promos are much funnier than recent episodes of Alexander's struggling show. A Seinfeld appearance might not even be able to save the show.

While we're talking promos, Fox has been running huge publicity photos of the stars of its entertainment series "Boston Public," "Ally McBeal" and "The Tick" behind home plate during the World Series. The so-called virtual backstop advertisements are terribly distracting to viewers, which I suppose is the point. They would also be distracting to pitchers, but the ads for Fox and its sponsors are computer-generated and allow viewers to see them and the pitchers cannot. While one understands the need to maximize advertising revenue, the virtual ads are really bush league.

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