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Big stars. Big movies. Big budgets. Big hype.

What's the big deal? Two words: Sweeps month.To the average Joe or Flo, February is the shortest month or the coldest month, but to television people it's the first sweeps period of the year. That is, it's one of three months - May and and November are the others - in which the A.C. Nielsen Co. compiles the ratings numbers that determine advertising rates for the next few months.

The effect on programming is just about what you'd expect: A sweeps month spawns gimmicks and gambits the way a salmon spawns fry.

So far, February has brought us "Gulliver's Travels," the most expensive TV movie ever made, and such visiting luminaries as Scottie Pippen on "ER," Jennifer Aniston on "Partners" and the Columbia shuttle astronauts on "Home Improvement."

Still to come are 12 days of made-for-TV films; some eager, please-take-me-home-with-you specials like "The Wizard of Oz on Ice" and "The World's Funniest Hypnotist"; and, on the 26th, something called "Taylor-Made Monday," in which Her Violet-Eyed Elizabethan Majesty drops in on not one, not two, but all four of CBS's prime-time sitcoms. The mind reels.

NBC has been the big winner up to this point, reaping huge ratings for "Gulliver" and boosting some of its old reliables to dizzy heights with "stuntcasting," which is networkese for, say, putting Tom Selleck on "Friends" and stretching "Seinfeld" to an hour. Hardly a day has gone by without a press release boasting that NBC's Godzilla Thursday lineup had its best ratings in eight years - that was Feb. 8, the Selleck-"Seinfeld" night - or that the more modest "Law & Order" and "Homicide," thanks to a two-part "crossover" stunt that mixed both casts on Feb. 7 and 9, pulled in near-record audiences.

But Fox has swept up a tidy two weeks of its own, tying with ABC and besting CBS among 18-to-49-year-olds, the advertisers' darlings. For the Peacock, that would be pinfeathers, but for the fourth network it's pretty heady stuff.

"Sure I'll brag about it," says Fox spokesman Mark Kern. "We're pleased. We're thrilled. That two-hour `Melrose Place' (Feb. 5) was tremendous, and `Party of Five' (the Feb. 7 hour won the largest audience since the show's '94 premiere) is just doing phenomenally well."

The latter show is undoubtedly benefiting from the presence of Carroll O'Connor, who debuted Jan. 31 in the role of the Salinger kids' long-lost grandfather. But it could have gone the other way: A new or newly refurbished series can suffer when put up against all that sweeps hoopla.

ABC's "Second Noah," for instance, which premiered the first week of February, has gotten off to an unspectacular ratings start. The notice it garnered for its family focus and old-fashioned sweetness dropped off when attention turned to such high-profile specials as "Gulliver" and CBS's much-anticipated (and wretched) "The Thorn Birds: The Missing Years."

Alan Sternfeld, ABC's head of programming and scheduling, remains optimistic about "Noah," which he describes as a program that "needs patience and nurturing to find its audience." But, yes, he acknowledges, on a broader scale, the first half of this sweeps period has not been a happy one for the network.

"Certainly, we're disappointed," Sternfeld says. "We're not where we hoped to be."

One problem, according to Sternfeld, is that a miniseries planned for February, "Innocent Victims," proved disappointing in execution and was moved up to January, where it was "not huge" in the ratings, Sternfeld says.

Another factor, he says, is ABC's commitment to series over specials: "Our feeling is that to (disrupt) a series for three or four weeks just to get the numbers for that short period doesn't make a lot of sense."

Still, he says, "it's altogether likely that we'll approach (February) differently next year." He adds that the network has already planned a splashier spread in May - a month, he notes, that establishes ad rates not just for a fiscal quarter, as February and November do, but for a half-year.

Apart from the Night of the Eternal Liz, what's ahead for the month? Of the dozen-plus offerings I've seen, one of the best is on Sunday night at 9, directly opposite two very respectable alternatives. All three, surprisingly, are network movies in a season that ("Gulliver" aside) has produced little of worth in that genre, if you can use "genre" to talk about something with Tori Spelling in it.

Both CBS' "Rockford Files: Godfather Knows Best" and NBC's "87th Precinct: Ice" go down easily, the former with the James Garner series' usual sunny slant on murder, the latter adapted from an Ed McBain novel with darker tones.

But ABC's "A Case for Life" is something else again, an intelligent, evenhanded look at two sisters on opposite sides of the abortion battle. The dialogue rings true, Valerie Bertinelli is tremendous and even Mel Harris is less tiresome than usual. The drama sometimes gets too melo-, but I can't say I wasn't white-knuckled and red-eyed toward the end.