'Dexter' kills in primetime ratings

NBC rode nostalgia to pay dirt Sunday night as its two-hour “Knight Rider” movie revved up some nifty Nielsens and made its case to return in series form next fall.

The retelling of the Peacock hit from the 1980s featuring a crime-fighting, wise-talking car, was easily the night’s top draw among young adults and racked up the best demo score for a movie on television in nearly three years.

Sunday also saw CBS score decent numbers for its initial broadcast of Showtime series “Dexter,” with its preem drawing about eight times what it was pulling in on the pay cabler.

Overall, it was a busy Sunday of original programming, although the long holiday meant viewing levels were down; as a result, every firstrun series was below average. Also a factor was TNT’s coverage of the NBA All-Star Game, although preliminary numbers won’t be issued until today.

As for “Knight Rider,” Nielsen prelims show it averaged a strong 5.0 rating/12 share in adults 18-49 and 12.7 million viewers overall from 9 to 11 p.m., building gradually from start to finish. No movie on television — telepic, theatrical or multipart original — has fared better in the demo since ABC’s “Their Eyes Were Watching God” in March 2005.

“Knight Rider,” from Universal Media Studios and Dutch Oven Prods. and starring Justin Bruening, Deanna Russo, Sydney Tamiia Poitier and Bruce Davison, appealed to a broad aud. It won its 9-11 p.m. timeslot in the 18-49, 25-54 and 12-34 demos, and fared best among men 18-49 (5.6/14) and 25-54 (6.4/14).

“Knight” has to be considered a strong candidate to return in some form next season, with NBC announcing its 2008-09 series selections in May.

Of course, recognizable and nostalgic titles often get auds to show up for a premiere, but that doesn’t always mean they’ll stick around for the series.

NBC opened “Bionic Woman” to big numbers in the fall, but that redux quickly tumbled and is considered a long shot to return. Net fared better with its January preem of “American Gladiators,” which opened strong and then held up well enough in subsequent airings to earn a second-season pickup.

In its season finale Sunday, where it served as the lead-in to “Knight Rider,” “Gladiators” averaged a 3.0/8 in 18-49 and 7.3 million viewers overall. It outperformed everything else NBC has aired in the 7-9 p.m. timeslot since football ended in December.

As for “Dexter,” it bowed on CBS with a third-place finish among the broadcast nets (prelim 2.3/6 in 18-49, 8.1 million), but it gave the net its best perf in the 10 o’clock timeslot since December.

In its first season on Showtime, the serial-killer drama averaged 733,000 viewers. “Dexter” will continue to air Sundays on CBS, and its third season bows on Showtime later this year.

ABC, second to NBC on the night in demos and first in total viewers, was paced by a two-hour “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” (prelim 4.6/11 in 18-49, 13.5 million).

In other ratings news of note, CBS latenight entry “Late, Late Show With Craig Ferguson” achieved a milestone during the week of Feb. 4-8, beating original episodes of NBC’s “Late Night With Conan O’Brien” in total viewers for the first time (1.85 million to 1.82 million).

The victory comes with an asterisk, though, as CBS coded out its Tuesday episode as a “special” due to Super Tuesday coverage that may have disrupted viewing patterns. As a result, its weekly average includes only four nights (and excluded what’s typically its lowest-rated night), while the NBC show counted all five nights.

O’Brien would have won if both shows counted all five nights, but it would have been close, as Ferguson has gained ground of late. O’Brien continues to lead rather comfortably among the 18-49 crowd, while Ferguson is neck and neck with its NBC rival it in adults 25-54.

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