Three-hour AMA show averaged 16.02 million viewers

Wednesday’s telecast of the 29th annual “American Music Awards” — which featured Michael Jackson receiving a special award but not performing — delivered impressive ratings for ABC.

Perhaps boosted by the recent headline-grabbing tug-of-war between the kudocast and the Grammys over exclusive performances at each event, the three-hour show averaged 16.02 million viewers and a 7.3 rating/18 share in adults 18-49, according to Nielsen Media Research. These are ABC’s strongest Wednesday scores since the Orange Bowl college football game in January 2001.

The “AMAs” have held steady at the same demo rating the past three years — an impressive feat for any annual event in these days of ratings erosion. And this year’s 18 share is the best in four years, reflective of how well the kudocast held up in its first Wednesday try opposite another music spec on CBS (a repeat of November’s high-rated Michael Jackson concert) and NBC’s strong drama lineup.

ABC won the night in adults 18-49, adults 18-34 (7.9/20) and teens (5.9/20), with the “AMAs” doing especially well among young women. NBC moved ahead by slight margins in adults 25-54 (7.2/17) and total viewers (16.11 million), with its “Law & Order” prevailing at 10 against both music specs in adults 18-49 (7.2/18) and viewers (19.95m).

CBS, with its two-hour Jacko spec (11.51m, 4.4/11 in 18-49), finished third — but with its second-best Wednesday scores of the season.

Sharp Spears

Another winner on Wednesday night was Britney Spears: Her performance on the “AMAs” produced the highest-rated half-hour on that show (18.18m, 8.2/20 in 18-49 from 9 to 9:30), while her never-before-aired duet with Michael Jackson delivered the biggest crowd for the repeat CBS spec (13.10m, 5.3/13 from 10 to 10:30).

A tape of Jackson performing “Man in the Mirror” was skedded to air during the “AMAs,” but reps for the singer reportedly demanded show producers pull it late Wednesday. Insiders believe Jackson’s camp feared airing the tape would have hurt his chances of performing at the Grammys next month on CBS.

Last month, “AMAs” producer Dick Clark sued National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences topper Michael Greene for preventing artists — including Jackson — from performing at the “AMAs” for fear of being banned from the Grammys.

Jackson had told AMA producers he’d be there to perform at the kudocast but backed out a few weeks later, citing Grammy politics as the reason.

Champagne for New Year’s

In addition to the strong “AMA” numbers, Clark also had reason to smile Thursday about just-released ratings for his annual “New Year’s Rockin’ Eve” special on ABC.

According to Nielsen, the 2002 edition of “Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve — Part I” (11:35 p.m.-12:28 a.m.) drew its largest audience among adults 18-49 (11.84 million) in 12 years.

Spec also drew its second-largest aud overall (at least since 1987, when such records were first kept). Its average of 21.91 million viewers was even higher than every primetime series and college bowl game to air last week.

The late segment of “Rockin’ Eve” (1:05-2:02 a.m.) also did well, generating its largest audience ever for that hour (6.54 million), up 6% year-to-year.

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