There was no photo finish for first place in this year's February sweeps: Led by thoroughbreds like ER and Gulliver's Travels, NBC ran away with the race. Old gray mare CBS finished second, but its numbers were down more than 10 percent from last February. CBS entertainment president Leslie Moonves hesitates to declare the network in a mini-revival: ''We've stopped a bit of the bleeding, but let's not exaggerate.'' At ABC last season's champ there was also a double-digit stumble. As the network plunged to third, rumors swirled that entertainment president Ted Harbert may be kicked upstairs to make room for wunderkind Jamie McDermott, now on leave from NBC. ''Despite the recent controversy in the press over executive speculation, the mood here is quiet and businesslike,'' insists ABC senior VP Alan Sternfeld. Fox, meanwhile, finished second only to NBC in the key 18- to 34-year-old demographic, thanks to The X-Files and Party of Five. ''I'm thrilled,'' gushes Fox entertainment president John Matoian. ''It was our most competitive sweeps performance ever.''
As the network battle heats up this spring, here are a few lessons to be learned from the winter season:
1. LOOK BOTH WAYS BEFORE YOU CROSS OVER.
You'd need a scorecard to keep track of all the series stars popping up on other shows and audiences aren't always amused. An appearance by Friends' Phoebe (Lisa Kudrow) barely boosted the sagging Hope & Gloria. CBS fared better with its shameless gimmick of injecting Liz Taylor into all four of its Monday sitcoms. But the craftiest cross was by NBC's Law & Order and Homicide, which combined to weave a cohesive plot that netted both their best ratings in years. ''It worked because we took it very seriously,'' says Homicide executive producer Tom Fontana. ''It wasn't a goof.''
2. GOING AGAINST THE GRAIN CAN YIELD BIG GAINS.
In a TV landscape cluttered with Friends clones and aging staples like Murphy Brown, NBC scored big by unleashing two surprises: the alien sitcom 3rd Rock From the Sun and a four-hour adaptation of Gulliver's Travels. ''An enormous gamble,'' admits Peacock entertainment president Warren Littlefield of Gulliver. ''We were thinking about putting it against repeats in March or April. But we looked at the rough cut and said, 'We have a spark here and we're going to fan it.''' (The show drew an average of 30 million viewers over two nights, making it the month's top special.) 3rd Rock has also caught fire, winning its Tuesday slot every week since its January debut.
3. TAKING ON MEDICAL SHOWS CAN BE MURDER.
Isn't there a law against double jeopardy? First, the critically lauded Murder One faced ER on Thursday and was promptly pummeled. Then, ABC moved it to Monday, only to watch it get whacked by CBS' doctor drama, Chicago Hope. But the network holds out, uh, hope for Murder on Monday. ''The design was to have Second Noah, High Incident, and Murder One on the same night,'' says ABC's Sternfeld. ''I'll reserve judgment until we've had a chance to look at the three together.''