Margulies' final episode wins night for NBC

NBC has said goodbye to another “ER” cast member and hello to the key sweeps race for younger viewers.

Thursday’s episode of the medical drama, the last featuring the character of Nurse Carol Hathaway (Julianna Margulies), capped a boffo night by the Peacock that has vaulted it back into the chase for the coveted adults 18-49 sweeps crown. Also key to the dominant night was “Frasier’s” best showing yet opposite ABC’s “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.”

“ER’s” 16.2/42 rating in the key demo is easily the top score of any program this May and the show’s second best of the season. Combined with another strong “Friends” outing and the top “Frasier” tally since December, NBC’s Thursday was big enough to shave ABC’s May sweeps lead in adults 18-49 from 0.8 ratings points to 0.2.

Based on prelim results from Nielsen for Friday and Saturday — both narrow NBC victories — that advantage remains at 0.2 (5.5 vs. 5.3) through 17 nights of the four-week sweeps period.

Locked up

ABC has virtually clinched the month’s crown in total viewers, leading NBC by about 2.8 million (15.2 vs. 12.4).

Big ratings are nothing new for “ER” and its character sendoffs. Thursday’s adults 18-49 rating and viewer tally (32.67 million) were its best marks since the Feb. 17 episode that marked the final episode for Kellie Martin’s character, who died after a stabbing the week earlier.

And that came about one year after George Clooney exited his role as Dr. Doug Ross to huge ratings. On Thursday, “ER” viewers were treated to a surprise appearance by Clooney, whose character appeared in the drama’s final scene to wrap Nurse Hathaway’s storyline.

NBC’s “Frasier,” which is headed for Tuesdays next fall, scored a knockout with its penultimate Thursday original, topping ABC’s “Millionaire” in the half-hour by a best-yet 82% in adults 18-49 (11.3/31 vs. 6.2/17). And a 9:30 repeat “Frasier” topped the quizzer by 34% (10.3/27 vs. 7.7/20) with NBC’s best demo score in the half-hour since last May.

The firstrun “Frasier” also topped “Millionaire” in total viewers (22.96 million vs. 19.86) for the first time. “Millionaire” topped the “Frasier” repeat (24.10 vs. 20.02).

Since the quizzer hit a ratings zenith with the May 10 seg that featured Rosie O’Donnell’s big win for charity, it has dropped in viewership with each of its five subsequent installments.

Intense competition

It’s being bombarded from all sides by intense sweeps competish. While “Frasier” dominated among young adults, the two-hour season finale of CBS’ “Diagnosis Murder” stole away some of the quizzer’s older viewers: The result was the least-watched (21.98 million) and second lowest demo rating (6.9) for any of “Millionaire’s” regularly skedded segs this season. Its 18 share matches its regular-edition low set two weeks earlier.

Thursday also saw the largest demo victory since Feb. 17 for “Friends” over ABC’s “Whose Line is it Anyway” (24 shares). And at 10, ABC’s “20/20 – Downtown” fell 32 shares behind “ER” after closing to within 16 shares a week ago behind a big boost from celebrity “Millionaire.”

ABC placed second on the night in young adults (4.8/13), with wrestling leading UPN (2.8) to third place. Fox and CBS tied for fourth (2.1).

The Eye was third in viewers, with the second hour of “Diagnosis” delivering the net’s largest audience in the 9 p.m. hour since Jan. 6 (“Chicago Hope,” pre-“Millionaire”).

Peacock takes Friday

NBC took Friday in viewers and demos behind the top score from “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” (prelim 13.6 million, 4.9/15 in A18-49) since Feb. 24.

ABC was a close second in adults 18-49 with its best Friday in the demo (3.9/13) in seven weeks. Final hour of pic “Romy & Michelle’s High School Reunion” topped NBC’s “Dateline” by 3 shares in young adults.

CBS couldn’t turn its Friday beat around, placing third with a Gloria Estefan spec (5.9 million, 2.1/8 in A18-49) and what’s likely the lowest-rated “Miss Universe Pageant” (prelim 6.1/12 in homes) to date.

Saturday was a close battle for the demo lead with NBC (3.4) edging ABC (3.3) and Fox (3.2), according to prelims. If the order holds up it would be NBC’s first Saturday demo victory since Feb. 5.

The two-hour season finale of NBC’s “The Pretender” delivered its best adults 18-49 rating (3.4/12) since Feb. 19.

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