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Each network hopes to clean up in sweeps month


The winter sweeps ratings period starts tonight, which means prime time television is going to be very intense for the next few weeks -- intensely good and intensely bad.

Because the viewing audience is the largest of the year during the cold month of February, the networks really crank up the special programming.

No single theme or pattern can ever hope to encompass the grab bag of specials, movies, stunts and weird ploys used to hype ratings, but there is one storyline viewers are going to see a lot: Women-in-conflict.

The big story on CBS will be the Olympics starting Feb. 12, and the biggest prime-time coverage will go to women's figure skating, which begins Feb. 23.

The tale of Tonya and Nancy is, of course, the mother of all women-in-conflict storylines. At the press tour last month in Los Angeles, CBS executives couldn't stop talking about all the Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding coverage they were going to provide -- like it was a public service or something.

The CBS overkill starts Saturday night at 9 with a prime-time special, "Nancy and Friends," which will feature Kerrigan's first public skating performance since the attack, as well as performances by other figure skaters. Harding is not scheduled to appear, according to the producers.

CBS Sports, by the way, wants it to be known that it is not paying Kerrigan for this special. It is paying her agents, who are producing the special for CBS. If you don't see the difference, welcome to the club.

Even if Harding is not allowed to compete, because of criminal charges or a decision by U.S. Olympic officials to drop her from the team, rest assured CBS Sports will do its best to find some other skater to heat up the ice as Kerrigan's nemesis.

ABC will be counterprogramming Saturday night with a two-hour special, "Skates of Gold," which starts at 8. This one will feature performances by Peggy Fleming and Kristi Yamaguchi.

Women-in-conflict is also the big draw on Fox this month, as next week's cover of TV Guide announces with the headline, "Melrose Face Off. Amanada and Alison: A New Dynasty Dukes It Out." TV Guide is talking about "Melrose Place" and Courtney Thorne-Smith as Alison and Heather Locklear as Amanda.

In the enlightened language of TV Guide, "they are the hottest cats ever to scratch and snarl on the sun-scorched roof of Melrose Place."

The story places them on the same hallowed ground as Krystle (Linda Evans) and Alexis (Joan Collins) of "Dynasty," as it celebrates women in a "cat fight" as great TV entertainment.

Locklear, in a recent Sun interview, promised she would make "even bigger trouble for Alison this month." (We cover all the news when it comes to TV.)

There's more women-in-conflict on Fox Sunday, when "Living Single" features its main characters competing for "Mr. Right."

Fox is promoting the episode, which features a new hunk moving into the building, as "The Fight for Mr. Right." Viewers will be given 900-phone numbers to call and vote for which woman should get Mr. Right. Fox is so proud of the concept it will use it next week as well.

The other big theme of the month, because of Valentine's Day, is what the networks call romance. What they really mean, though, is sex. When it comes to how regular series raise the sex quotient during sweeps, it's almost too silly to discuss. But, of course, we must.

Tonight, on "Mad About You," the "ultimate sexual fantasy comes true -- Paul with Christie Brinkley and Helen with Andre Agassi!" the NBC ads say.

The episode has something to do with virtual-reality, but never mind. What's important is that it allows the producers to get Christie and Alex on the show.

And, how about more sexual fantasy on Fox tonight?

"This Playboy Playmate is every man's fantasy . . . and tonight she's Herman's date!" the Fox ads promise. Tonight's episode of "Herman's Head" features Peggy McIntaggart, Miss February.

Did I mention that Pamela Anderson, of "Baywatch," is going to be popping up on Fox from Hawaii between shows throughout the month? Her role is that of prime-time hostess-in-a-bikini. I am not making this up, you'll see.

As for specials, you won't want to miss "Fabio Plays Cupid" airing Valentine's night on cable channel TNT. Fabio is merely the host of an evening of reruns of romantic movies, but how many movie hosts do it bare-chested?

It's being able to report such news that makes me proud to be a TV critic. But there are also some programs worth going out of your way to see this month:

* If Bill Cosby didn't blow you away Monday night in his NBC mystery, give him another look on CBS tonight at 8 in "I Spy Returns." Cosby is re-teamed with Robert Culp in an easy-going made-for-TV movie that has its moments.

* James Garner and Joanne Woodward are only terrific in "Breathing Lessons." The Hallmark Hall of Fame presentation, based on Anne Tyler's novel, airs at 9 Sunday night on CBS.

* For some revisionist fun, there's Jimmy Smits and Cheech Marin in "The Cisco Kid" on TNT Sunday night.

* "Witness to The Execution" is a made-for-TV movie about a pay-per-view channel televising an execution to hype its ratings. The film, which stars Sean Young and Tim Daly, ends with the electrocution of Daly's character. NBC says there's nothing exploitative about the film. In fact, the network says it's doing the film to enlighten us about the issue of TV violence. Right. Airs Feb. 13.

* "John Jakes' Heaven and Hell: North and South, Part III" starts Feb. 27 on ABC. Leslie-Ann Down and Philip Casnoff star in this six-hour miniseries. It's not yet available for preview, but it deserves mention for having the longest title of any show this month.

* On Feb. 22, NBC presents "The Jackson Family Honors." This is a pure sweeps concoction dreamed up by Jermaine Jackson and NBC. It involves the Jackson family's honoring someone for his or her "contributions to humanity." But it's really about show biz.

While it promises to be the kind of thing I'd usually beg viewers to stay away from, who can resist seeing if Jermaine can make good on his pledge to get "the whole family" -- yes, Michael and La Toya, plus mom and pop and all the others -- onstage for the show?

* For a more thoughtful Michael-Jackson fix, try "Tabloid Truth: The Michael Jackson Scandal" Feb. 15 on PBS. "Frontline" uses XTC recent coverage of allegations of sexual relations between Jackson and a 10-year-old boy to look at what producers call "tabloidization of the news." Richard Ben Cramer is the correspondent.

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