When Fox Broadcasting Co. debuted 10 years ago on KTTV-Channel 11, some observers predicted it would be a matter of decades, if ever, before the station would become a serious challenger to the Big Three networks.

So much for predictions.

Channel 11, once known more for "I Love Lucy" reruns than ratings, is now L.A.'s most watched station on weeknights a first in its 48-year history and the third most popular channel overall.

According to Nielsen Media Research, KTTV beat out L.A's seven other VHS TV stations in all key demographic categories on weeknights during the crucial May sweeps period.

Nielsen conducts four sweeps each year in February, May, July and November. The May sweeps are by far the most important because TV networks and local stations use their ratings from that period to set advertising rates for the new fall season. As a result, May is when stations air their best and most expensive progamming.

KTTV General Manager Diana L. Vargas describes the station's showing during the May sweeps as "huge, absolutely huge."

KTTV, which is run by the Fox Television Stations Group, has long gone after the younger crowd by showcasing risqu & #233; comedies, popular syndicated programs and sports.

Vargas, who took over as general manager last January, after joining Channel 11 nine years ago, credits the station's surprising popularity to its ability to draw and keep youthful viewers, even as they age.

"We targeted a young audience and that audience has grown up," explains Vargas. "They've stayed with us because we're much broader based."

That move to a broader base is reflected in Fox's expansion from initially airing only youth-oriented progams to its current list of popular shows that include "The X-Files," and "New York Undercover."

KTTV's ratings for the May sweeps period, from sign-on to sign-off, ranked behind only KNBC-TV Channel 4 and KABC-TV Channel 7. KCBS-TV Channel 2 brought up the rear, coming in fourth.

Mitch Stern, president and chief operating officer of Fox Television Stations Group, who oversees Fox's 22 stations nationwide, said the L.A. station is a bellwether for other markets. KTTV is also the highest-rated of Fox's 22 stations.

"When it comes to TV, the L.A. audience is by far the most sophisticated. If you put on something good, they stay. If you put on something bad, they run away," says Stern. "This is Hollywood. You have to satisfy them to a very high degree. If it works here we go to New York, Chicago all over the place."

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