Bart and the rest of "The Simpsons" overachieved even their own network's expectations Thursday night. The Fox Television program finished in a virtual tie with NBC's top-rated "The Cosby Show" in the first head-to-head showdown of the two, according to national ratings from A. C. Nielsen.
Furthermore, "The Simpsons" beat "Cosby" in many of the nation's largest cities, such as New York and Los Angeles.
"Are we surprised? Absolutely," said Brad Turell, a senior vice president at Fox. "We did not anticipate being this close, let alone beating them [in several large cities]. It's a great performance."
"The Simpsons" earned an 18.4 rating and a 29 share; "Cosby" had an 18.5 rating and a 29 share. With each ratings point equal to about 931,000 homes with television, the audience for each show was about 17.25 million homes. The share represents the percentage of the houses watching television during the time period.
"Honestly, I didn't think we could win at first," said Mike Schroeder, programming director at WBFF-TV (Channel 45), Baltimore's Fox affiliate. Since Baltimore is not a metered market, overnight ratings are not available. Mr. Schroeder said local ad sales for the show, though, "have been great."
Preston Beckman, NBC vice president for audience research, said that "The Simpsons' " strong performance was anticipated because of heavy press coverage of the show's return and heavy promotion by Fox.
NBC executives pointed out, however, that "The Simpsons" did not take viewers away from "Cosby," but rather brought additional viewers to the networks on Thursday night. ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox were watched in 84 percent of all homes using television from 8 p.m.-8:30 p.m. Their normal audience share is about 65 percent. What's more, "Cosby's" rating was down only 4 percent from the previous week, when it trounced a "Simpsons" rerun.
Thursday's results were a big victory for Fox in an otherwise disappointing season. The network had been second-guessed in many quarters since announcing its plans last spring to move "The Simpsons" from Sundays to Thursdays where it would take on Bill Cosby and the highest rated show of the last seven television seasons. NBC officials had predicted a ratings whipping for the animated program in its new time slot.
But the numbers told a different story.
What makes "The Simpsons" performance even more impressive is that the Fox network has only 133 affiliates reaching about 90 percent of the nation's television sets, while NBC has 218 affiliates reaching 99 percent.
"I think [the competition] is going to make for a very interesting Thursday night of television," said Curt Block, an NBC vice president.