Who can beat Superman? Wacky aliens and heavenly angels, that's who

Lois and Clark strolling down the aisle to tie the Super-knot should have been a ”very special” ratings bonanza. After all, it worked for Rhoda. Heck, it even worked for Joanie and Chachi. Instead, last week’s episode of ABC’s Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman landed the series in third place in its time slot. Again. Once the cobwebbed home of such geriatric fare as Murder, She Wrote, Sunday at 8 is suddenly one of the toughest of Nielsen battles, mainly because Lois & Clark, last season’s reigning champ in the slot, is weakening. But don’t blame Kryptonite. The Man of Steel is succumbing to more-powerful-than-a-locomotive challengers: NBC’s hit 3rd Rock From the Sun and CBS’ heaven-sent drama Touched by an Angel.

”In the past three seasons, people had been getting out of the way of Lois & Clark,” says the show’s exec producer Brad Buckner. ”Now they’re coming right at us.” Are they ever. While the show ended at No. 25 last season, its Sept. 22 premiere landed in 56th place for the week, well behind Angel (No. 15) and 3rd Rock (No. 10). And even though the Oct. 6 nuptials did help L&C pick up some ratings steam (to No. 28), things won’t get any easier when The Simpsons kick off Nov. 3, right after Fox wraps up its World Series coverage. ABC knows it’ll be an uphill battle. Says ABC Entertainment chairman Ted Harbert, ”It’s the main place I would like to improve.”

Obviously, it’s also the place the other networks thought they could improve. ”Moving Angel to that slot was one of our biggest gambles,” says CBS VP of scheduling Kelly Kahl, ”and I’m pleasantly surprised that it’s paid off.” Of course, having perennial ratings powerhouse 60 Minutes as Angel‘s lead-in didn’t hurt, since both shows go after the same older audience.

But the program ABC has to be really smarting about is 3rd Rock, a series originally developed by ABC. The alien comedy isn’t showing signs of a sophomore slump or jet lag after its move from Tuesday. ”We felt that there was a real opportunity,” says NBC Entertainment president Warren Littlefield. ”Our show goes after kids, adults of all ages, both men and women. And we own the alien population.”

Cutthroat competition isn’t the whole story. Pointing to a decline in L&C‘s quality, some say the lower ratings are mirroring general boredom with the show. ”If the ratings are like this after the wedding of a lifetime, how much further can you go?” asks media analyst David Marans, a senior partner at the ad agency J. Walter Thompson. And Marans believes things may only get tougher now that Dean Cain and Teri Hatcher play a married couple: ”Look at Moonlighting. As soon as the sexual tension was gone, something was lost. They might want to think about a new time slot.”

”Sure, we’re disappointed,” says L&C‘s Buckner. ”Last year we were the victors and this year we’re not, but there’s been no talk of moving time slots. It’s way too premature.” Of course, it’s not too early to call on a cavalcade of guest stars. Delta Burke has already shown up as a wedding-crashing baddie, and upcoming spots by Drew Carey and his sitcom costar Kathy Kinney might add luster. And since that whole wedding thing didn’t exactly turn into a ratings honeymoon, don’t be too surprised if the show tries to up the ”very special” stakes at season’s end: Word is out that next spring’s cliff-hanger will likely involve…Superbaby!

(Additional reporting by Casey Davidson and Jessica Shaw)