Strong bow for ‘Survivor’

'Friends' ekes out victory in hotly contested Thurs.

HOLLYWOOD — That sigh of relief you heard Friday was coming from CBS — and perhaps anybody else who has a stake in the future of unscripted programming.

Although the Eye net’s “Survivor: Africa” bowed Thursday with lower numbers than those of the franchise’s second edition that began last winter, it has clearly come out of the gate very well.

And — just maybe — unscripted programs aren’t dead after all.

CBS topper Leslie Moonves said that while “conditions were adverse to a total score on this,” he was nonetheless thrilled with the numbers for “Survivor: Africa.”

“This proves reality is alive and well and that the only thing dead is bad reality,” Moonves said. “We’re really pleased (by the ratings). We’re glad people came and found it.”

“Survivor: Africa” was seemingly at the intersection of two early-season trends — viewers flocking to favorite returning series but generally shunning reality entries — and industry watchers were very interested to see the ratings Friday morning.

According to Nielsen, “Survivor: Africa” averaged 23.84 million viewers and a 10.4 rating/23 share in adults 18-49, good enough for strong second-place finishes to NBC comedies “Friends” (29.20m, 14.8/33 in 18-49) and “Will & Grace” (19.64m, 10.5/23). Numbers rep a drop of 22% in viewers and 13% in the demo vs. “Survivor’s” first Thursday episode in February (which followed a big post-“Super Bowl” premiere).

Both “Friends” and “Survivor” — which will rank as the week’s two most-watched programs — began about 45 minutes late in most of the country due to President Bush’s news conference. That figured to help any show airing immediately afterward, as the nearly 65 million people who watched the president speak on seven national networks largely splintered off to NBC and CBS.

“Friends,” the No. 1 show this season and performing at its best level in six years, was actually up week to week in adults 18-49 rating (14.8 from 14.7). It easily got the better of “Survivor” in every ratings breakdown, although the reality series made the NBC/CBS battle much closer for the hour by topping “Will & Grace” by many measures.

“Friends” was Thursday’s top draw among young adults, but a broad aud helped “Survivor” nearly keep pace with NBC’s laffers in total viewers.

Wins demonstrable

For example, while “Friends” (16.5/39) and “Will & Grace” (11.4/27) combined for an easy victory over “Survivor” in adults 18-34 (13.9/33 vs. 9.2/22), the reality series won among all other groups: kids 2-11 (5.5/20 vs. 2.7/10); teens 12-17 (6.2/18 vs. 5.5/16); adults 35-49 (11.5/24 vs. 11.3/23); and adults 50-plus (8.8/15 vs. 7.5/13).

Head to head, “Friends” doubled “Survivor: Africa” in adults 18-34 (16.4 vs. 8.2) — a big boost over the 12% advantage it enjoyed in their first meeting in February (11.8 vs. 10.5).

Only two episodes of “Survivor” (the first two weeks in the summer of 2000) have earned a lower 18-34 rating than Thursday’s 9.2 — a sign of just how strong “Friends” is at this point. But this also means there is room for “Survivor” growth in weeks to come if the comedy slips from its red-hot pace.

CBS will look to recruit some of the young adults who didn’t tune in Thursday by rebroadcasting the first episode Wednesday at 10.

HUT levels hoisted

The combination of President Bush’s speech and interest in both “Friends” and “Survivor” boosted Thursday’s HUT levels (homes using television) to 67.0, according to Nielsen — the highest percentage during primetime since Sept. 11, when 69% of the country was watching television on the evening of the terrorist attacks.

An average of 64.81 million viewers watched Bush’s news conference on the four major nets and three cablers — 27% less than the 82.06 million who watched the president’s address to Congress on Sept. 20.

The news coverage aired without commercials and will not be included in the nightly or weekly averages.

Split decision

CBS, whose Thursday sked also included “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” (22.73m), won the night in total viewers, while NBC won rather easily in 18-49, with “ER” the night’s No. 2 show in the demo (11.1/28).

“CSI,” which aired from 9:49-10:50 p.m. in most of the country, overlapped with “ER” (10:20-11:22 p.m.), helping to send the medical drama to its smallest aud ever for a firstrun seg (21.68m). The Eye’s second-year crime drama matched its series high in 18-49 (9.3/21).

Elsewhere over the weekend, none of the struggling shows managed to improve their fortunes, although CBS’ “The Ellen Show” may have hit a Friday high in 18-49 (prelim 2.4/8).

Net’s Saturday drama “Citizen Baines” added some viewers this week (prelim 9.1 million) but remained deep in last place among the major nets in 18-49 (prelim 1.9/5) after its lead-in, “Touched by an Angel” (prelim 10 million, 2.6/8), placed first.

ABC’s “The Mole” (prelim 5.6m, 2.1/7) and “Once and Again” placed last among the majors in their Friday slots while net’s new drama “Thieves” ran third (prelim 6.7m, 2.5/7).

Friday standouts were again NBC’s “Law & Order: SVU,” which tied a series high in 18-49 (prelim 5.7/17), and Fox’s “Dark Angel,” which will again win its hour in key demos. Peacock easily won the night.

‘Most Wanted’ on target

Fox did well Friday with a special FBI-requested edition of “America’s Most Wanted,” dealing with wanted terrorists. Show, which replaced “Pasadena,” was second in key demos and produced more than 1,300 tips to the “AMW” hotline — about five times as many as a usual episode.

CBS won Saturday in viewers (prelim 10.5m) while ABC, with a repeat of “Apollo 13,” was tops in 18-49 (prelim 2.9/9).

NBC did well in latenight Saturday, as “Saturday Night Live” netted a 6.9/17 in overnights, a 19% gain vs. the same week a year ago.

(Josef Adalian contributed to this report.)

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