Peacock struts, WWF carries UPN

Rolling out the big hitters for the May sweeps paid off handsomely for NBC and UPN.

Boosted by the first of three guest perfs by Bruce Willis on “Friends,” the Peacock has taken the early May lead. Its Thursday lineup withstood increased competition to draw even more viewers than a year ago and its Friday sked won each half-hour in all key ratings categories.

UPN also started out well in sweeps, with the return of wrestler Stone Cold Steve Austin lifting “WWF Smackdown!” to its largest audience yet.

According to final Nielsen results from Thursday and preliminary data from Friday and Saturday, NBC leads after three days of the sweep period by 2.8 ratings points (10.0 vs. 7.2) over ABC in homes and by 2.2 ratings points (5.9 vs. 3.7) in adults 18-49.

Strong perfs by vets “Friends,” “Frasier” and “ER” helped NBC get off to its usually strong start, but the net held up surprisingly well vs. its May 1999 opener. Despite facing ABC quizzer “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” this year, the Peacock web gained viewers vs. the first Thursday last May (21.99 million vs. 21.73) and finished just off the pace in adults 18-49 (10.9 vs. last year’s 11.2).

The Willis-juiced “Friends” (20.63 million, 10.8/32 in adults 18-49) managed its best score among young adults since Feb. 24 (11.3). The laffer topped the combined adults 18-49 rating of the other three major nets (8.3).

At 9 p.m., “Frasier” defeated “Millionaire” by a season-best 60% in adults 18-49 (10.4 vs. 6.5), and at 9:30 a “Frasier” repeat easily won in the demo (9.1 vs. 7.9). This marks the first time in 14 tries that an NBC comedy has bested the quizzer in young adults in the 9:30 half-hour.

“Millionaire” still easily won the hour in total viewers (23.99 million vs. 19.22), although it was its least-watched Thursday seg since it became a series regular in January. ABC placed a strong second for the night in total viewers (15.14 million) and adults 18-49 (5.2/14), up 115% and 108% respectively from last year’s May opening Thursday.

UPN also started out well in sweeps thanks to the record numbers (8.70 million) for “WWF Smackdown.” The program also earned the netlet its best Thursday ratings ever and the best teen (8.6/29) and male teen (11.9/38) ratings in its history. In total viewers, it was the netlet’s largest nightly aud since running two episodes of “Star Trek: Voyager” on Sept. 3, 1997.

NBC rolled on Friday, winning by an estimated 7 shares in homes and by 4 shares in adults 18-49. “Providence” (prelim 13.2 million, 3.6/16 in A18-49) topped Fox’s “World’s Wildest Police Videos” by 5 shares in adults 18-49, although the second-year drama posted its lowest rating in the demo this season for an original episode.

At 10 p.m., “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” (prelim 12.9 million, 4.5/14 in A18-49) drew its best numbers since Feb. 25 and was the top show of the night in the key demo.

“Cosby” (prelim 7.6 million viewers) ended its four-year CBS run with its largest audience since Jan. 28.

Saturday was a closely contested night, with CBS and Fox battling in homes and total viewers and ABC not much farther back. Fox was a rather easy winner in adults 18-49, topping ABC and NBC by 4 shares.

The premiere of “The Peacemaker” on ABC gained viewers throughout its three-hour broadcast, winning its final half-hour in adults 18-49 after placing fourth from 8 to 8:30.

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