One thing you can say about the Bart-vs.-Bill tussle on Thursday nights, it's a lot more interesting than the Buster Douglas-Evander Holyfield heavyweight fight. After all, it's going into Round Four tomorrow night and neither show has come close to landing a knockout punch.
And that's just Round Four of the first-run fight between "The Cosby Show" and "The Simpsons." There were several heated preliminary skirmishes. The first one came last August when Fox initially moved "The Simpsons" to Thursday and the win clearly went to "The Cosby Show."
NBC put a popular clip-filled retrospective episode of its half-hour up against an oft-rerun episode of "The Simpsons" and walloped it in the Nielsens. That trend continued as long as "The Simpsons" was in reruns, indeed its audience diminished weekly. Many thought the fight was as good as over and that sooner rather than later Fox would take its cartoon and head back to Sunday night.
But then in mid-October the initial first-run episode of "The Simpsons' " second season showed up and proved Bart and Homer could hold their own with the Huxtables, who didn't exactly take the challenge lying down, choosing that week to introduce a new member of the extended family. The ratings were a virtual tie.
In the two weeks since then, "The Cosby Show" has lengthened its lead in the overall Nielsen ratings -- last week it was the No. 8 show, attracting an 18.0 rating, while "The Simpsons" fell significantly to 24th with a 15.7 rating. Each rating point represents one percent of the nation's television households, or just under one million homes.
There are a few reasons for that. For the last two weeks "The Simpsons" has not enjoyed the huge hype it received for that excellent first new episode. And its second outing, in which Homer grew hair and climbed the corporate ladder, was significantly weaker than the first episode, while last week's Halloween special was somewhat off-the-wall and perhaps not everybody's cup of tea.
Still, by one accounting, "The Simpsons" is winning the fight. That's if you don't judge it on total households, but on total viewers. "The Cosby Show" does much, much better with older viewers, but those are households with only one or two people watching the set. "The Simpsons" cleans up with younger viewers who live in houses where the parents and kids are watching together, giving the show four, five or six viewers.
So, more households are tuned to "The Cosby Show" but more people are watching "The Simpsons." So, who's winning depends on whose score card you're reading. In any case, tomorrow night is a significant new round because it's the first Thursday of November's sweep month.
"The Simpsons" will be coming back with a hilarious episode perfectly timed before the election as it skewers the media-crazed American way of politics.
After Bart catches a three-eyed fish in the stream below the nuclear power plant where his father works, and regulators begin cracking down on safety violations, Homer's boss decides to run for governor.
Of course, "The Cosby Show" knows this is a big night, too, so it's countering with an hourlong special episode in which Cliff discusses the facts of life after Pam gets some sexual heat from her boyfriend. All across America, parents may be tempted to sit their kids in front of the set for this one, figuring if they hear it from Dr. Huxtable they won't be coming to Mom and Dad with those tough questions.
When you consider the fact that Fox has about 100 fewer local affiliates than NBC, that most of those are UHF stations, and that it doesn't even reach 10 percent of the country, you've got to xTC give the nod to "The Simpsons" in this fight.
But, while Fox might be winning the battle, it's losing the war as less than half of "The Simpsons" viewers stick around for the show that follows, "Babes." The whole point of moving "The Simpsons" was to give Fox a credible Thursday night and that's not happening. So, the next move in the battle might be for "Parker Lewis Can't Lose" to come in on the Fox card, taking the place of "Babes" at 8:30.