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Pundits who predicted a Peacock pluck this season may now eat their crow.

Many observers had expected NBC to stumble last fall, particularly with young demos against Fox, which entered the year with the World Series, Super Bowl and strong buzz.

It didn’t happen.

Instead, the Peacock quickly regained its composure — particularly in the second half of the season as it rode a wave fueled by “Friends,” “Fear Factor” and the “Law & Order” franchise.

The Winter Olympics gave NBC strong insurance to finish the 2001-’02 season in the plus category.

But it was a ratings resurgence among several of its signature series, coupled with declines at rivals ABC and Fox, that gave NBC its largest-ever margin over second-place Fox among adults 18-49.

Tight race fails to happen

According to the net, that 33% advantage over No. 2 Fox is the largest in the history of Nielsen’s people meter measurement system.

“We were expecting a very tight race between us and Fox, even with the Olympics being there,” said NBC West Coast prexy Scott Sassa. “To have a 33% margin is a real big surprise, and we couldn’t be happier about it.”

Even CBS prexy/CEO Leslie Moonves took a moment to congratulate NBC while extolling CBS’ virtues.

“They beat us in viewers and adults 18-49 — but we also had a terrific season,” he said, pointing out that CBS won the total viewers crown this season if the Olympics are excluded.

The extent of NBC’s strength was even more pronounced during this month’s May sweeps contest, which ends tonight. Peacock will win the month among both adults 18-49 (projected at 5.5/15) and total viewers (13.7 million).

“We just finished a great week, a great month and a great season,” said NBC Entertainment prexy Jeff Zucker.

Emulating the entire year, the month-long derby turned into a contest between network “haves” (NBC, CBS) and “have-nots” (Fox, ABC). As much as NBC’s solid 35% adults 18-49 advantage over second place (the net’s biggest May win in four years) was news, even more striking was the identity of that No. 2 web: CBS.

Eye feels young again

The once-geriatric Eye pulled ahead of ABC and Fox to capture the sweeps’ silver medal in the 18-49 demo for the first time in the people meter era.

“We’ve gotten more urban and more upscale,” said Moonves, whose net will likely finish with a 4.1/11 among adults 18-49 and 13 million viewers.

ABC will end May sweeps in third place with viewers and fourth among adults 18-49, while Fox will swap those two positions. In the weblet wars, the WB eked out wins over UPN in viewers and 18-49 (although UPN was tops in the season-long contest).

The eighth season finale of NBC’s “Friends” posted May’s top-rated telecast, scoring 34.9 million viewers and attracting a strong 17.0/44 with adults 18-49. That also made it the season’s top-rated entertainment telecast in the demo.

Peacock locked up its eighth straight May sweeps victory in adults 18-49 by winning Monday through Friday nights. And according to the net, NBC stuck to more regular programming than its counterparts.

Even with a slew of 75th anniversary-themed programming, NBC relied on entertainment specials for only 15% of its May sked, compared to 22% at CBS, 24% at ABC and 29% at Fox.

Well-positioned

Meanwhile, both NBC and CBS are already positioning themselves for next season. According to NBC, 56% of its series returning next fall were up this May vs. a year ago, the most of any net. CBS, meanwhile, pointed out that its returning fall series averaged 13.4 million viewers this season — higher than any other web.

But even as CBS and NBC celebrate while Fox and ABC lick their wounds, Moonves said there was still reason for all of broadcasting to celebrate in May. He pointed to Sunday night, which saw all four nets post decent results for their mix of season finales, series farewells and special events.

“It was maybe the most competitive night this entire season,” Moonves said of the competition, which included the “Survivor: Marquesas” and “The Practice” finales, “The X-Files’ ” end and a special “Cosby Show” retrospective.

“Everyone had something to be proud of,” he said.

Fox’s consolation

Fox execs took solace in the fact that the net still finished the year tops with teens and persons 12-34. Over at ABC, net hopes to capitalize on building blocks such as “Alias.”

Nielsen will crown the 2001-2002 winner on Thursday. With just two days left to go this year, NBC is averaging a 5.3 rating and 14 share with the 18-49 demo — up 10% from last year, followed by Fox (4.0/11, down 11%), CBS (3.9/10, down 3%), ABC (3.6/10, down 18%), UPN (1.8/5, up 13%) and WB (1.6/4, flat) .

(Rick Kissell contributed to this report.)