Peacock pressing; likely to go down to wire

NBC has used strong Nielsen finishes on Tuesday and Wednesday to keep the heat on ABC in the key February sweeps races after the first week of the ratings period.

Buoyed by its highest nightlong adults 18-49 rating on a Tuesday with regular series since March and another Wednesday adults 18-49 victory — the net’s fourth straight on the night when airing all original episodes — the Peacock web has pulled to within two-tenths of a rating point of ABC for the adults 18-49 lead. ABC enjoys more comfortable cushions over NBC in both total viewers and households.

If the first week is any indication, the races figure to go down to the wire, with the month’s winners likely to be decided by the remainder of the sweep’s big events and just how many additional episodes of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” find their way onto the ABC schedule.

ABC holds lead

Through Wednesday, the seven-night sweeps averages in adults 18-49 are: ABC, a 6.0 rating, 16 share (up 22% vs. a year ago); NBC, 5.8/15 (down 13%); Fox, 4.4/12 (down 20%); CBS, 3.5/10 (down 8%); UPN, 1.6; and WB, 1.5.

In households, it’s ABC, 10.2/17 (up 28%); NBC, 9.3/15 (down 11%); CBS, 8.8/14 (down 8%); Fox, 6.0/10 (down 17%); UPN, 2.9; and WB, 2.8.

NBC’s “Twenty One” and “West Wing” produced victories in total viewers from 8-10 p.m., but it was with “Law & Order” (18.38 million, 7.7/21 in adults 18-49), at 10 p.m., that the web really slammed down the Nielsen gavel on its competitors. “Law” drew the eighth-largest audience for a regular Wednesday broadcast in the show’s history and topped ABC’s “20/20″ by 9 shares in adults 18-49.

NBC edged ABC for the night in adults 18-49 (5.6/15 vs. 5.4/15).

Laffers set pace

ABC’s close second-place standing was paced by slot-winning perfs from each of its 8-10 p.m. comedies, including the most-watched episode of “Two Guys and a Girl” (11.81 million, 5.2/15 in adults 18-49) since Nov. 17.

On UPN, a special appearance by the World Wrestling Federation’s “The Rock” helped “Star Trek: Voyager” (6.6 household rating, 10 share in overnights) to pin down its best numbers since last February.

ABC won Tuesday night in both total viewers and adults 18-49, with “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” (30.73 million, 10.3/28 in adults 18-49) getting the net off to its usual awesome start. The 28 share in adults 18-49 was the Tuesday installment’s second-best this season and helped push the combined six-broadcast network share in that category to 71 from 8-9 p.m.

NBC withstood “Millionaire’s” lead-in the rest of the night, however. At 9 p.m., ABC’s “Dharma & Greg” (7.4/19) edged NBC’s “Will & Grace” (7.3/18) in adults 18-49, but at 9:30 p.m., a repeat “Will” (7.9/20) easily handled ABC’s “Sports Night” (5.1/13). A highly promoted episode of “Dateline” (15 million viewers, 7.0/19 in adults 18-49) capped the night for NBC by posting its best adults 18-49 score since last March and beating ABC’s “NYPD Blue” (13.85 million, 6.2/17 in adults 18-49) for the first time this season.

Dramas score for CBS

CBS received strong Nielsens from its dramas, as the 100th episode of the Paramount drama “JAG” notched that series’ best adults 18-49 rating of the season (4.8/13) on Tuesday, up 20% vs. last week. And at 10 p.m., “Judging Amy” (14.58 million, 4.3 in adults 18-49) topped “NYPD Blue” in total viewers for the first time.

On Wednesday, CBS’ “City of Angels” (3.0/9) continues to reap demo gains for the Eye net, this week topping by 25% the adults 18-49 average that CBS had been logging for firstrun episodes of its Wednesday comedies earlier this season (2.4/7).

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more