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WAS THERE A SHOW on television last season more passionately reviled than Saturday Night Live? Journalists devoted endless column inches to skewering SNL's puerile sketches as viewers with little else to watch tuned in compulsively to see just how low this once cherished institution could go--to marvel, for example, at how many unendurable minutes a skit about vomiting policemen could actually last. SNL was so hated it was strangely hot.

That there has been little to loathe outright on SNL this season has proved a mixed blessing. The revamped SNL that premiered in September with six new cast members is significantly better than it was last year, and the mood among staff members has brightened. As one writer puts it, "You don't have to walk down the street anymore and overhear people talking about how horrible the show is." But there is an unfortunate flip side to that truth: people don't seem to be talking about Saturday Night Live very much at all. Animosity has turned to apathy. The show's audience has been shrinking steadily for years--ratings dropped from 8.7 Nielsen points in 1992-93 to 6.9 last year--but this season ratings fell off even more dramatically, to a measly 5.5, a 25% decline from a year ago.

Part of the problem is that SNL now has to contend with serious network competition each week in the form of Mad TV, Fox's one-hour sketch comedy show based on the hit-or-miss satire of Mad magazine. Though there has rarely been a show that sounded less auspicious on paper, Mad TV has turned out to be a formidable opponent. It has yet to beat SNL in ratings, but it is gaining an edge among twenty-and thirtysomething males, a group perennially coveted by advertisers. It has also developed a following among teenagers who can be readily found on the Internet proclaiming its superiority with appropriately jejune postings like "Mad TV blows SNL away." Notes Steven Klein, media director at the ad agency Kirshenbaum & Bond: "Mad TV is seen [among advertisers] as something with a lot of potential."

From its MTV-ish opening-credit sequence to its no-frills dorm-lounge set, Mad TV has an edginess that Lorne Michaels' once revolutionary show has long lacked--it is Spin to SNL's Rolling Stone. Mad TV is produced by 10 writers as opposed to SNL's 19. There is no guest host or regular musical act, and surely part of the appeal for teenagers lies in the assurance that they can tune in and never be confronted with the image of 1970s star (and eternal guest host) Chevy Chase in a mock game show or a Paul Simon--Edie Brickell duet. Significantly, Mad TV boasts a more balanced cast than its competitor. Among the group of eight there are three women and three black cast members. SNL's larger troupe of 11 features three women and only one black cast member, Tim Meadows.

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