24 million tune in for lead actor's departure

William Petersen’s farewell episode of “CSI” attracted a whopping 24.25 million viewers on Thursday, making it the season’s most-watched scripted program.

Airing at 9:15 p.m. in most of the country due to President Bush’s brief address to the nation, “CSI” drew its largest audience since its eighth-season premiere in September 2007. It also logged its best scores in both adults 18-49 (6.6/16) and 25-54 (8.7/19) since its season premiere last October, according to Nielsen.

CBS has counted on “CSI” as its anchor on the key Thursday night for the past eight years, and the show’s ratings no doubt will be closely scrutinized for the rest of the season. Now in its ninth season, it remains TV’s most-watched scripted series while ranking among the top five scripted programs in key demos.

Most observers expect “CSI” to do just fine post-Petersen, as the show relies heavily on procedural elements. Still, Petersen and Marg Helgenberger have been front and center since its 2000 premiere.

Laurence Fishburne is assuming the lead actor role on the show, first appearing last month.

Other ensemble skeins, including NBC’s “ER,” have withstood the departures of lead actors. George Clooney’s farewell from the then-No. 1 show on television in February 1999 drew 35.7 million viewers, while Julianna Margulies’ exit in May 2000 drew 32.7 million.

The medical drama remained a top-five Nielsen fixture for a few more years before starting to peter out.

In cable on Thursday, A&E’s premiere of Patrick Swayze drama “The Beast” averaged a 0.8/2 in 18-49 and 2.4 million viewers overall. The total-viewer number isn’t bad, but the demo delivery was lower than the 1.0/3 for Benjamin Bratt starrer “The Cleaner” last July.

And of note on Friday, NBC’s third-season premiere of “Friday Night Lights” averaged a 1.6/5 in 18-49 and 4.5 million viewers in Nielsen prelims. Though by no means great numbers, it tied with ABC’s “Supernanny” for second place in 18-49 during the 9 o’clock hour, behind CBS’ “Flashpoint” (2.3/7), and gave NBC its best 18-49 performance in the timeslot since October.

Last season, “Friday Night Lights” saw its ratings pick up by about 20% when all same-week DVR playback was included. Its second-season finale on NBC nearly one year ago averaged a 1.7/5 in 18-49 and 5.19 million viewers overall in the “live plus same day” numbers.

This season of “Friday Night Lights” had previously run on DirecTV as part of an innovative deal that helped keep the drama in production for a third year. The 13 episodes on DirecTV averaged roughly 500,000 viewers.

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