Eye's NCAA hoops down after strong start

Strong numbers for “The Practice” and the first “classic TV” episode of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” powered ABC to victory Sunday, giving the net some much-needed momentum as it heads into a key part of its season.

“Millionaire,” which put celebs Melissa Gilbert, Florence Henderson and Valerie Bertinelli in the “hot seat,” delivered its best ratings on the night since a rock star edition last month and second best on a Sunday since a celeb edition in November.

According to Nielsen, “Millionaire” won its hour with an estimated 21.2 million viewers and a 6.4/14 rating in adults 18-49, while “The Practice” (prelim 19.8m, 7.2/18) dominated its hour with a firstrun episode, again building nicely in demos on “Millionaire.”

ABC won the night in both viewers and 18-49 for just the second time since November, helping to tilt the week in its favor in total viewers. When Nielsen issues ratings today for the week of March 12-18, ABC is projected to win by about 1 million viewers over second-place CBS.

The four major nets figure to be within a couple ticks of each other in the adults 18-49 race, with NBC out in front at 4.0 or 4.1.

ABC is hopeful that an out-of-sweeps week of celebrity “Millionaire” can boost its circulation among young adults heading into a key 10-day stretch of the season.

The net, which is down vs. a year ago by nearly 20% in key demos, will air the Oscars on Sunday and then premiere what it considers to be two promising comedies a few days later — Joan Cusack starrer “What About Joan” next Tuesday and Damon Wayans laffer “My Wife and Kids” next Wednesday.

ABC, which has not had a new comedy hit in several years, is in dire need of one. Events such as the highly rated Oscars and celebrity “Millionaire” will certainly help promote the net’s latest offerings to a much larger aud than the Alphabet’s been attracting in recent months.

The first ABC midseason comedy to premiere, Denis Leary laffer “The Job,” bowed to strong ratings and reviews on Wednesday. Its second episode airs this week.

Elsewhere Sunday, ABC’s “Wonderful World of Disney” made-for “Bailey’s Mistake” drew the largest aud for any movie on the night (prelim 13.0 million), with NBC’s repeat of “Face/Off” the top draw in 18-49 (prelim 4.5/11).

Fox, with repeats of its comedies and the final Sunday outing for “The Lone Gunmen,” was second on the night in adults 18-49. CBS was second in viewers but struggled with telepic “For Love of Olivia,” which was third from 9 to 11 in viewers (prelim 9.7m) and 12 shares out of the 25-54 lead.

Meanwhile, after a strong start, CBS is down year-to-year with its coverage of the NCAA men’s basketball tourney. According to Nielsen numbers, the net’s opening four-day weekend of action averaged a 5.2/13 household rating in all dayparts, down 9% from last year’s 5.7/14.

CBS is faring better in primetime, where its two-day average of 8.51 million viewers is 1% behind last year (8.6 million) and its 3.6/11 rating in adults 18-49 a 6% improvement vs. a year ago (3.4/10). Tournament continues Thursday in primetime.

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