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Fox hits top with ‘Middle’

Family comedy saves the night

After a disastrous fall, Fox may have finally found a ratings savior: “Malcolm in the Middle.” The new family comedy bowed Sunday to Fox’s largest premiere audience in a decade — 22.44 million viewers, according to preliminary Nielsens for the night.

That total makes the first “Malcolm” the second most-watched series premiere in Fox history, trailing only the 24.53 million viewers who tuned in for the first episode of “The Simpsons” on Jan. 14, 1990.

“Malcolm” also grabbed Sunday’s strongest adults 18-49 rating, an 11.1, putting it 16% ahead of the night’s other big success story: the return of ABC’s “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,” which averaged a 9.6 rating in the key demo at 9 p.m.

Gamer gold

In its Sunday return, the Regis Philbin-hosted gameshow picked up right where it left off in November, rejoining the ABC sked with the skein’s second-biggest total audience (28.22 million) and adults 18-49 rating to date.

Meanwhile, NBC unveiled its entry in the gameshow gold rush, “Twenty-One,” Sunday at 8 p.m. and counted up satisfactory demo totals. Reincarnated quizzer averaged a 5.1 rating/11 share in adults 18-49 — a gain of 6% over the 4.8 rating slot predecessor “Third Watch” averaged there with firstrun episodes last fall.

The gamers are starting to skew noticeably older, though, with “Twenty-One’s” 11 share in adults 18-49 landing well below the show’s 19 with adults 50-plus.

Young and rich

“Millionaire” doesn’t skew as old, earning a 20 in adults 18-49 and a 26 among adults 50-plus, but that generation gap is widening — with its November debut, “Millionaire” averaged a 19 in adults 18-49 and a 22 in adults 50-plus.

Still, last Sunday’s seg outscored a firstrun “X-Files” (a prelim 15.60 million, 8.6/18 in adults 18-49) head to head in adults 18-49 for the first time.

“Millionaire” snubbed the rest of its slot competition as well — CBS’ “People’s Choice Awards” (a prelim 16.06 million and 6.1/15 in adults 8-49 from 9:30-11 p.m.), which will likely end up with its lowest households rating to date, and NBC’s “The David Cassidy Story” (a prelim 9.21 million, 4.5/10 in adults 18-49).

“Twenty-One’s” older skew threatens to accelerate an unwanted aging trend at NBC, with fewer sitcoms and more “Datelines” and dramas steadily adding to the median age of Peacock’s audience (Daily Variety, Dec. 12).

Demo delight

By contrast, Fox has hit the demo bull’s eye with the heavily promoted debut of “Malcolm in the Middle,” which built by 23% on its 18-49 lead-in from “The Simpsons” (a prelim 17.96 million, 9.0/20 in adults 18-49).

That’s a fraction better than the 18-49 build achieved last March 28 by the arrival of “Futurama” in that slot, giving Sunday’s “Malcolm” the largest-ever post-“Simpsons” build by any sitcom besides another “Simpsons” (if these prelim figures stand).

“Malcolm’s” prelim numbers also make it the top-rated network telecast for the Jan. 3-9 week among teens and No. 2 (behind only “ER”) in adults 18-49. Those rankings are, however, subject to change. Anticipation of “Malcolm” also bolstered “The Simpsons,” which rallied to its highest regular-slot 18-49 rating in a year.

“Millionaire” seemed to energize its skedmates as well. A rerun of “George of the Jungle” (a prelim 17.01 million, 5.8/13 in adults 18-49) swung to the third-best “Wonderful World of Disney” numbers this season, while “The Practice” (a prelim 19.25 million, 7.3/18) negotiated a series-record total-viewer tally.

That big Sunday wrapped a strong week for ABC that included Tuesday’s college-football title game and the closing “Monday Night Football” gridcast of the season.

Easy as 1-2-3

Thus ABC will win the week by a solid margin when Nielsen issues official Jan. 3-9 averages today. Based on weekend prelim results, ABC is expected to average a 5.7 or 5.8 rating in adults 18-49, good enough to beat Fox’s 5.3 or 5.4 and NBC’s 5.2 or 5.3, with CBS’ 4.1 trailing.

In homes, projected averages are ABC, a 9.5 rating; NBC, 9.1; CBS, 8.7; Fox, 7.5.

Each adults 18-49 rating point reps 1.24 million viewers, 1% of the U.S. total. The share is also a percentage, but measured against only viewers watching TV during the slot involved.