CBS’ big gamble on “Bette” has paid off — at least initially — as Wednesday’s premiere of the much-touted laffer delivered the net’s best comedy ratings on the night in more than five years.

Bette Midler starrer averaged 15.72 million viewers and a 5.5/16 in adults 18-49, combining with lead-out “Welcome to New York” (12.71m, 5.0/13) to help CBS win the Wednesday at 8 hour in adults 18-49 with comedies for the first time since 1995 (“Bless This House”/”Dave’s World”).

According to Nielsen, “Bette” topped ABC’s “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” in 18-49 (5.5/16 to 4.2/12) as well as in CBS’ target demo of adults 25-54 (6.7/18 to 5.1/14). At 8:30, though, the quizzer stormed back to top Christine Baranski/Jim Gaffigan laffer “Welcome to New York” in both 18-49 (5.8 to 4.8) and 25-54 (7.0 to 6.1).

As usual, though, “Millionaire” did win its hour in total viewers (20.57 million).

CBS Television prexy/CEO Leslie Moonves said he was “excited” by “Bette’s” opening night performance.

“I think those numbers are spectacular,” he said. “We were doing a 5 (household) rating in that time period. To more than double our year-ago average is great.”

Moonves shared the ratings news in a phone call with the Divine Ms. Midler on Thursday.

“Her big worry was ‘Millionaire,’ ” said Moonves, who gave Midler a quick primer in demos as he told her how “Bette” beat Regis among adults 18 to 49. “She was very relieved and very happy.”

“Welcome” held a solid 91% of its adults 18-49 lead-in from “Bette.” Most of its viewership losses came from adults 50-plus (to ABC) and from adults 18-34 (to the WB and NBC).

For the hour, then, CBS edged ABC in both 18-49 and 25-54 after losing to ABC comedies the first two weeks last season by an average of 8 and 7 shares, respectively. If CBS can even come close to the 25-54 lead in this hour when regular viewing habits settle in, it will likely consider the night a success. Net’s movie (9-11 p.m.) debuts next week.

“Titans” tumbles

“Bette’s” strong showing among adult women had a significant impact on NBC’s soap “Titans,” which lost 29% of its week-earlier premiere audience (8.20m vs. 11.60m) and 23% among adults 18-49 (3.7/10 vs. 4.8/13). Sudser is still performing better in 18-49 than the net’s first two scores with “Dateline” last fall (4.2 to 4.0).

In a surprise, the WB’s “Dawson’s Creek” moved ahead of “Titans” to win among women 18-34 (5.0/15 to 4.9/14). At 8, though, “Bette” actually beat all competish in the demo (4.8/15).

“Bette’s” 18-49 numbers don’t match those for the season’s top-rated new comedy (a 7.7/19 for ABC’s “Geena Davis Show”) but they represent a victory for CBS because of the network’s history of ineptness with comedies in Wednesday’s leadoff hour.

Net could have placed its “Bette” on Monday and attracted a much larger audience — surrounded by hits “King of Queens” and “Everybody Loves Raymond” — but opted instead to try to conquer new primetime territory on Wednesday.

New twinkle in Eye

And now, at least after one week, CBS appears to have comedy momentum on two nights for the first time in many years.

How dour of an hour has Wednesday at 8 been for CBS comedies? In the last 25 years, 20 Eye laffers have debuted in the hour and not one made it to a second season; in fact, half of them lasted less than three months. The net’s last real hit here was “Beverly Hillbillies” in the early ’60s.

Overall, “Bette” is the Eye’s highest-rated Wednesday 8 p.m. comedy premiere in 18-49 since March 1995 (“George Wendt Show”), while “Welcome” is the net’s best at 8:30 since March 1994 (“Tom”).

Baseball, pols strike out

Elsewhere Wednesday, the second presidential debate attracted a combined 37.6 million viewers on ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, Fox News Channel and MSNBC — down 20% from the first debate eight days earlier but more than the 36.3 million who tuned in for the second Clinton-Dole debate in 1996.

Although the debate does not count in the ratings, internal network numbers put ABC in the lead with 13.3 million viewers, while CNN again led the cablers (2.68 million).

Fox fell flat with coverage of the first game of baseball’s National League Championship Series. Game 1 of the Mets-Cardinals series averaged a 6.8/11 in homes and a 3.6/10 in adults 18-49 — well behind last year’s comparable ALCS opener on Fox (10.8/19, 5.5/16) and likely the lowest-rated LCS opener ever in primetime.

The WB’s “Felicity” appeared to benefit from the debate competition, matching its highest 18-49 rating (2.7/6) since its series premiere two years ago. Series also grew week-to-week in viewers by 43% (5 million from 3.5 million).

At UPN, season preem of “Seven Days” matched its year-ago 18-49 rating (1.5/5) despite drawing fewer viewers (3.5m vs. 3.9m).

Michael Schneider contributed to this report.