‘Millionaire’ gets a celebrity lifeline

'Files,' 'Hemings' give Fox, CBS boosts

Fox and CBS, the two networks on the outside looking in for the early part of the February sweeps, had something to smile about after surveying preliminary Nielsens for Sunday night.

Fox’s two-hour comedy block combined with the “X-Files” to lift the net to a nightlong victory in adults 18-49, while the Eye network rallied for its biggest night of the sweep to date, winning in both households and total viewers behind the best ratings for “60 Minutes” since March and a strong start for mini “Sally Hemings.”

ABC’s “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,” the gameshow that hardly needs its own lifeline, got a ratings boost Sunday from a highly publicized “phone-a-friend” segment featuring Rosie O’Donnell. “Millionaire” drew its largest audience yet for a Sunday episode (prelim 30.3 million viewers, 11.0 rating/23 share in adults 18-49) and attracted the most eyeballs to ABC in the hour (excluding sports) since the 1993 telepic “The Amy Fisher Story.”

The contestant took O’Donnell’s advice on a $32,000 question concerning Princess Diana and answered correctly. It marked the first time that a celebrity had been used as a “phone-a-friend.”

Peacock’s demo lead

NBC placed fourth Sunday in total viewers and adults 18-49 with the NBA All-Star Game and a “Homicide” reunion telepic, but was close enough to the pack to maintain a slim lead in adults 18-49 (roughly two-10ths of a ratings point) over ABC through 11 days of the sweep.

For the night in adults 18-49, Fox led with an estimated 7.2 rating, 17 share, followed by ABC (6.7/16), CBS (5.4/13) and NBC (4.9/12).

Based on preliminary Nielsens for the entire weekend, NBC appears headed for a narrow weeklong victory in adults 18-49 — its first in five weeks — while ABC will take the week in households and total viewers.

Estimated averages for the week in adults 18-49: NBC (5.7); ABC (5.5); Fox (4.7); and CBS (3.8).

Estimated averages for the week in households: ABC (9.9); NBC (9.3); CBS (8.9); and Fox (6.4).

Fox’s Sunday victory was highlighted by “The Simpsons” (prelim 18.3 million, 9.0/22 in adults 18-49), which trailed only “Millionaire” on the night among adults 18-49. At 8:30 p.m., Fox’s “Malcolm in the Middle” (17.9 million, 8.4/19 in adults 18-49) failed to build on its “Simpsons” lead-in for the first time in its five original episodes, but still towered over the adults 18-49 competition, topping second-place “Touched by an Angel” on CBS by 8 shares in adults 18-49.

“The X-Files” (prelim 15.3 million, 8.3/17 in adults 18-49) capped off the night for Fox by placing second to “Millionaire” from 9-10 p.m. in adults 18-49.

Clock watchers

“60 Minutes” (prelim 21.9 million, 4.8 in adults 18-49) clocked in with its largest audience since March 7, and also won the hour in adults 18-49.

The first part of the four-hour mini “Sally Hemings: An American Scandal” (19.5 million, 5.8/13) bested its movie competition on NBC in both total viewers and adults 18-49. The conclusion airs Wednesday.

The Sunday telepics taking aim at “Millionaire” next week are “Flowers for Algernon” on CBS and a Little Richard biopic on NBC.

On the last Sunday of the sweep (Feb. 27), “Millionaire” airs one hour earlier, creating a three-way mini war on the Big 3 nets from 9-11 p.m., with ABC’s “The Beach Boys” taking on NBC’s “The 10th Kingdom” and CBS’ “Perfect Murder, Perfect Town.”

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