Who says viewers won't tune in to a show about Washington politics? About 16.9 million of them did Wednesday night, making the debut of NBC's "The West Wing" the best so far for an official premiere of a new series this season.

"West Wing's" audience actually fell short of that sneak-peak audience of 19.6 million that CBS pulled off for "Judging Amy" last Sunday night in the "Touched by an Angel" time slot. But "Amy" tumbled to 13.5 million two nights later in its official debut in its regular 10 p.m. slot.

"The West Wing" has the advantage of starting right off the bat in its regular time period and survived a trial by fire against one of the toughest competitors CBS has to offer, the Country Music Awards. The 8-to-11 CMA broadcast won the night (including the "West Wing" 9 p.m. time slot) with an average audience of 20.4 million viewers. That's the best CBS has done on a Wednesday since March, when it broadcast the Grammy trophy show.

But in Washington itself, Martin Sheen as president of the United States was an even bigger draw than Shania Twain as Entertainer of the Year. In this market, the "West Wing" debut scored 327,000 homes--out of a market total of 1.9 million--while "CMA" averaged 230,000 homes. (Total viewership numbers were not available locally at press time.)

A lot of "West Wing's" viewers were older, age 55 years and up. This is a group that youth-seeking NBC doesn't much like to talk about. "The West Wing" snared 23 percent of the 55-plus set that was watching TV in the hour, but just 16 percent of the 18-to-49 crowd that NBC covets.

With a compatible lead-in at last, "Law & Order" soared to its biggest debut audience since it was unveiled in fall 1990--18.6 million viewers. That's 20 percent more viewers than tuned in to its season kickoff last fall.

NBC execs were giddy, though they forecast a smaller audience next week. "I can't think of any show that has not settled down to a lower number in its second week, including the biggest hits of all time," said NBC Entertainment President Garth Ancier. The only time it hasn't happened recently, said Ancier, former head of programming at WB, is when that fledgling network ran the second episode of "Dawson's Creek" against the barely watched 1998 State of the Union Address on ABC, CBS and NBC--"and that doesn't really count," joked Ancier.

The Lifetime network, in which Disney has a 50 percent share, will rerun each episode of the Disney-produced "Once and Again" just a few days after they air on the Disney-owned ABC network.

Lifetime will air the pilot episode tonight at 11; it originally aired on ABC Tuesday night. Lifetime plans to continue airing the Sela Ward chick drama in that time slot for now; it's airing Tuesdays on ABC for eight weeks and then has to make way for regular time-slot occupant "NYPD Blue."

ABC hasn't announced what it plans to do with the series after that.

The arrangement is similar to one that NBC has on its new Monday series "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit," which will air a few days later on cable's USA Network. But in that case, NBC isn't an owner of the cable network; USA is owned by the same company that produces "SVU" and parent series "Law & Order," and the the company made the rebroadcast arrangement a condition of NBC renewing ratings workhorse "Law & Order."

This past summer, ABC struck a new deal with its stations allowing it to "repurpose" all of its prime-time entertainment programming 180 days after first airing on the broadcast network or at the end of the TV season. Additionally--and here's where "Once and Again" comes in--the network gets to rerun up to 25 percent of its prime-time programming immediately, with no conditions.

ABC is adding a new feature to its hit show "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" It's called Stump the Viewer. Here's how it works:

First, bring the show back on Nov. 7 for 15 consecutive days. Nothing tricky here; that's a similar broadcast pattern to its first, 13-day run in August.

Now, expand the program from a 30-minute broadcast to a one-hour show, but only on Sundays, Mondays and Saturdays. Tuesday through Friday, it remains a half-hour show, as it was each night in August, except the very last night, Aug. 29, when it ran for one hour.

Still with me?

Now things get interesting. On Sundays, air the one-hour "Millionaire" from 9 to 10 p.m. But on Saturdays, run the show from 8 to 9 p.m. And Mondays, schedule it at 8 to 9 on the East Coast and at 10 p.m. on the West Coast, to accommodate "Monday Night Football."

And, for extra fun, on Tuesdays through Fridays, when "Millionaire" is half as long, start it at 8:30 p.m.

Don't read too much into "Good Morning America's" ratings hike last week. ABC was touting the "GMA" performance ratings-wise for its first week in new Times Square digs, compared with the previous week. "GMA" did gain 710,000 viewers from week to week, but CBS's "This Morning" was up almost as much--680,000 viewers. NBC's "Today" was up 420,000 viewers. Ratings surges had more to do with Hurricane Floyd than a new set.

Floyd coverage also proved a ratings plus for ABC's late-night "Nightline," which topped both "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno" and "Late Show With David Letterman" last week. Ted Koppel's program averaged 4.92 million viewers, to edge out Leno's 4.85 million; both soundly trounced Letterman's average audience of 3.64 million.

"This Week" executive producer Dorrance Smith has quit the program.

Smith had been executive producer on ABC's Sunday morning Beltway show since 1995, and it was his second stint. He was the original producer when it premiered with David Brinkley as moderator in 1981. Smith returned to ABC and "This Week" in '95 after a job in the Bush administration and work in the private sector. Announcing his resignation this week, Smith hinted he may jump back into politics, the Associated Press reported.

In the past two years, "This Week" has lost nearly a third of its viewers, many migrating to NBC's "Meet the Press." Last Sunday, the ABC show averaged 3 million viewers to 3.5 million for "Meet the Press."

"Dorrance has been doing this a long time," co-anchor Sam Donaldson told the AP. "It got to be a grind. I can sympathize with him."

In an effort to appeal to more viewers, "This Week" recently began producing the show earlier, at 9 a.m. It airs at that time in New York, jumping the gun on "Meet the Press," but many markets still broadcast the program on tape at 10:30.

Senior producer Virginia Mosely will fill in until a permanent replacement is named.

Candy Crowley has been named senior political correspondent at CNN. She will cover the 2000 presidential, congressional and gubernatorial campaigns, as well as major legislation on Capitol Hill. Crowley's title had been congressional correspondent at the news network.

And Kelly Wallace has rejoined CNN as White House correspondent. She'll be teamed with John King and Chris Black on the network's White House team, starting Oct. 11. Wallace fills the position opened up when Wolf Blitzer departed the White House beat to anchor CNN's "Late Edition."