It has been the winter of discontent in TV Land -- unless you happen to be part of the local Fox News team. In February, a sweeps month hit hard by the writers' strike, KMSP Ch. 9 placed second among households in the late-night news wars, a station high. WCCO, the local CBS affiliate, remained on top, a position it has held since November 2005 (with the exception of the February 2006 Olympics), while KARE, the NBC affiliate, slipped to third.

"It's been a gratifying month," said KMSP news director Bill Dallman. "I'm not pounding my chest about it, but quality wins. This is a trend, not an anomaly."

The results do require some analysis. Fox's second-place finish is for its 9 p.m. broadcast, which saw a 7 percent increase in weeklong viewership since last year. Its 10 p.m. broadcast stayed at the bottom of the list, although it did enjoy a 17 percent bump.

The rise of the prime-time, hourlong program reflects a growing interest among TV watchers to get their news earlier, as more Americans appear to be hitting the sack earlier and getting up earlier to compete with traffic. This also explains why morning news programs are among the hottest properties in TV.

But in looking at the February numbers, one must also consider the influence of the strike. With fewer fresh, scripted programs on the air, KMSP had less competition at the 9 p.m. hour.

The 10 p.m. programs at WCCO, KARE and KSTP, the local ABC affiliate, also suffered from not having meaty lead-in dramas, a critical key to success, according to KARE's general manager, John Remes.

"They're very important. That's where you get the baton," said Remes, who added that his station will finish on top across the board in the key demographic of 25- to 54-year-old viewers when those numbers are officially released in two weeks.

Dallman said proximity to strong programming is important, but noted that the juggernaut "American Idol" was only a direct lead-in to the 9 p.m. news hour three times in February and that there was only one fresh episode of "House" last month in its regular time slot. He also noted that Fox went without "24," a show he usually counts on for a huge spike.

"I challenge those people who are crying in their beer to explain how we did it without those programs," Dallman said. His answer: strong reporting, particularly on the Cottonwood, Minn., bus crash, and a top-notch weather team that was more relevant than ever in an unusually cold February.

Just how unusual were the results of the February sweeps? The numbers in May will let us know.

News & notes

A University of Minnesota.

Q Where will a student be discovered to compete on "Jeopardy!"? Producers for the long-running game show will be at the school's Coffman Memorial Union on Thursday to select an undergraduate who will advance to the show's college championship April 11 and 12 in Madison, Wis. Those interested should come by the union between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. to take a short quiz. (Only the first 1,000 people to show up will have a chance to compete.) Top scorers will be called back for more rounds of questions later in the day.

HBO's "In Treatment," a popular new show in which Gabriel Byrne plays a psychotherapist desperately in need of his own couch time, is based on a wildly popular Israeli drama. You can see five episodes of that original series, "Betipul," starting at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the St. Paul Jewish Community Center, 1375 St. Paul Av. Tickets are $8. For more information, call 651-698-0751. ... Karen Leigh, coanchor of WCCO's morning show for almost four years, better tune up her skis. She's just been named the lead anchor at the CBS affiliate in Denver. Leigh's last day at WCCO is Wednesday. • 612-673-7431