Why so many Americans are watching 'The Winds of War'
New York — More people are probably watching ''The Winds of War'' on ABC-TV than any miniseries in the history of American television. George Keramidas, vice-president for research at ABC, says his network's previous top-audience show was ''Roots,'' which was watched by 135 million people. Now, based on the apparent viewing patterns observed so far, it is estimated that more than 150 million people will have watched all or part of ''The Winds of War'' by the time this 18-hour, seven-evening series ends Sunday night.
* The series has received mixed reviews from newspaper critics across the country, many judging it a kind of international soap opera. The critic of Variety, the entertainment trade paper, slammed it on almost every count.
* To watch the whole miniseries, it would be necessary for a viewer to put aside almost all other prime-time (8-11 p.m.) activities for a whole week. But the growing use of videocassette recorders makes it possible for many viewers to tape the shows and look at them at more convenient times.
* A survey of New York viewers, where the miniseries seems to be having its greatest success, indicated that most people queried felt that it was amusingly bad but somehow compelling. Over at rival CBS, the consensus was that the show was being watched because ''it is the campiest show since 'Batman.' '' In other areas of the country, however, the miniseries seems to be taken quite seriously as a wide-ranging World War II drama.
* Public-relations specialists within the broadcasting industry seem to agree , however, that the prebroadcast promotional and public-relations campaign for ''Winds'' was probably one of the best ever - reaching into schools and special-interest organizations, as well as regular TV viewers.
* TV programming executives are reexamining their attitudes toward ''presold'' programming, based upon best-seller books. ABC, which has already filmed ''The Thorn Birds,'' is hurriedly scheduling it for airing in March. And Herman Wouk's sequel to ''Winds,'' ''War and Remembrance,'' has suddenly become a hot property.
* A survey of sociologists reveals that they attribute much of the success of the show to the American public's yearning for some kind of consensus, and mass viewing of a well-promoted series answers that need comparatively easily. In addition, according to one scientist, World War II represents to many people, America's last ''good war,'' a time when there was general agreement on national goals.
Prof. David Riesman, an emeritus professor of social science at Harvard University and the author of the 1950 classic study in behavioral science, ''The Lonely Crowd,'' says: ''There are now few unifying symbols in America which don't require active participation. There's the Superbowl which is, of course, available on TV. And there's regular television programming.
''We are a comparatively late nation state and have a need for unifying symbols. You can get those by fighting an enemy for the local community as in athletic events, in nationwide consensus television, or in international wars. I think it is not irrelevant that 'The Winds of War' is about World War II, the last 'good' war. I can't imagine a drama of this appeal being put on, let alone bought in the first place, if it concerned the Vietnam war, or the recent Lebanon war.
''In any event, there is a tremendous desire in this country for consensus. If there is anything about which large masses of people can rally, they will rally. Everybody is talking about 'The Winds of War,' and people do not want to feel left out.''
From W. Phillips Davison, a professor of sociology and journalism at Columbia University, come the following comments: ''The phenomenon of the tremendous audience for a TV show occurs because of the desire to be part of the group. I would be surprised if more than half of the audience was tuned in because of the subject matter. They tune in because other people are tuning in and they do not want to appear to be ignorant. There has been research done on what happens to people when their access to TV is cut off - their greatest complaint is the lack of something to talk about with their friends.
''Publicity is all important because one of the curious aspects of the phenomenon is the fact that it is self-propelling. Once it starts - and the function of advertising and promotion is to get it started - the interest and the viewership builds by itself.
''Certainly the fact that World War II is in vogue at this time helps. But the enormous audience for 'The Winds of War' stems mostly from the desire of people to be able to take part, to know something about the show when it comes up in conversation.''
Professor Davison, who admits that he has not yet been able to watch any part of ''Winds,'' says: ''Now, I'm certainly going to tune in the first opportunity I get.''