24 premiere racks up record numbers

Jack Bauer's latest marathon workday got off to a good start Sunday, ratings-wise.

The Fox drama 24 notched its most-watched episode ever with its fifth-season premiere as the first of two back-to-back episodes got a boost from a prime-time overrun (in East Coast and Midwestern markets) of the NFL's NFC divisional playoff game between the Carolina Panthers and Chicago Bears.

Airing from about 8:13-9:11 p.m. EST, the first episode of 24 averaged 17 million viewers and a 7.3 rating in the adults 18-49 demographic (demographic share data for Sunday were not available Monday because of the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday), according to preliminary estimates from Nielsen Media Research. The second hour of 24, which ended at about 10:13 p.m. EST, held on to the majority of its lead-in to finish out with 15.5 million viewers and a 6.7 rating in adults 18-49.

According to Fox, Sunday's episodes marked the two most-watched installments of the Emmy-winning real-time drama series since the clock began ticking on 24 in fall 2001. Last year, Fox shifted the series to a January premiere date in part to allow the show to run original episodes in its regular Monday 9 p.m. slot through the end of the season without taking any weeks off for repeats.

The first hour of Sunday's season opener improved on last year's 24 premiere episode (which also had a special Sunday kickoff) by 16 percent in adults 18-49 and 11 percent in total viewers. ABC's 9 p.m. dynamo Desperate Housewives (22.5 million, 9.5/20) held on to its number one ranking by a comfortable margin, though the presence of 24 probably helped drive the soap to its lowest marks of the season to date for an original episode. At 10 p.m., ABC's Grey's Anatomy (19.1 million, 8.6/20) hung tough and registered its best-ever retention of an original Housewiveslead-in.

But the combination of the NFL overrun and double dose of 24 gave Fox the clear victory for the night (22 million viewers, 9.2 in adults 18-49) and its highest-rated Sunday since last year's Super Bowl telecast on February 6.

In other weekend ratings news, ABC had a good turnout Friday for the second week of its Dancing With the Stars Results Show (13.7 million, 3.4/11), which kept the network at number one in both key measures in the 8 p.m. hour, according to preliminary estimates from Nielsen. The news was not so good on Friday for NBC's limited-run 10 p.m. drama The Book of Daniel (7 million, 2.2/6), which lost Nielsen ground from the previous week's underwhelming two-hour premiere. CBS wound up taking Friday honors overall on the strength of the 10 p.m. drama Numbers (12.8 million, 3.8/11).

On Thursday, NBC's new comedy lineup, anchored by 9-10 p.m.'s My Name Is Earl (12.5 million, 5.9/14) and The Office (10.3 million, 5.1/12), made hay in the adults 18-49 demo derby against a repeat of CBS' CSI: Crime Scene Investigation (17.8 million, 5.4/13). A good showing from NBC's 10 p.m. stalwart ER (15.4 million, 6.7/17) gave NBC the nightly win in adults 18-49 (5.6/14) and its highest-rated Thursday since May.

ABC was a player from 8-9:30 p.m. with the second week of its 90-minute performance edition of Dancing With the Stars (17.4 million, 4.6/12). The network's momentum ebbed at 9:30 p.m., however, with the debut of the sitcom Crumbs (11.8 million, 3.6/9).

WB Network also had some good news Thursday with the 9 p.m. second-season premiere of Beauty and the Geek (5 million, 2.3/6). On the heels of a solid showing from 8 p.m.'s Smallville (5.5 million, 2.4/6), Geek delivered WB's best numbers of the season in the time period in all key measures, particularly women 18-34 (3.2/8), female teens (4.0/12), and male teens (3.1/10).

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