'Apprentice' wins for Peacock

“The Apprentice” is down but not out.

Although off sharply in ratings vs. its first-edition finale in April, NBC’s business-themed reality skein ended its second season a winner on Thursday — delivering the net’s best demos on the night since premiere week.

According to Nielsen estimates, the three-hour conclusion to “The Apprentice 2″ averaged a 7.8 rating/21 share in adults 18-49 and 16.94 million viewers overall, winning each half-hour in 18-49 as well as persons 12-34. It peaked in the 9:30 half-hour with a 9.3/23 in 18-49 and 19.9 million viewers overall.

This makes it the highest-rated finale to an unscripted series in 18-49 since Fox’s “American Idol 3″ in May (12.0/32 for its final night), topping last week’s “Survivor: Vanuatu” wrapup on CBS (7.5/16). And “Apprentice” also rates as the fall’s No. 1 unscripted skein in both 18-49 and 18-34.

Still, after coming out of the gate a boffo success last winter — helped in large part by airing in the hour after “Friends” — NBC was hopeful that season two of “The Apprentice” and new laffer “Joey” could keep the Peacock on top for the important night of Thursday.

That hasn’t happened. “Joey” is averaging less than half the rating of “Friends” and overall ratings for “The Apprentice 2″ were down about 20% from its first edition earlier this year. And compared with its first finale (two hours in April opposite firstrun CBS programming), the Donald Trump-hosted series was off more than 40% (13.6/34 in 18-49).

Meanwhile, CBS, after winning Thursday last season in total viewers and adults 25-54, has emerged the clear young-adult leader on the night.

The Eye went with an all-repeat lineup Thursday and was a respectable No. 2 in most categories (5.1/14 in 18-49, 16.4 million viewers overall), led by an episode of “CSI” at 9 that beat “Apprentice” head-to-head in total viewers.

UPN also hung in there pretty well with the finale of its $1 million Tough Enough contest on “WWE Smackdown” (1.9/5 in 18-49, 5.32m), which lifted the net to No. 2 for the night in males 12-34 (3.2/10).

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