South Park reaps reward of public strife

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South Park returned on Wednesday, and Nielsen Media reports it was the highest-rated episode since 2004. Elsewhere, ABC's American Inventor did well against CBS's live NCAA basketball coverage.

The creators of the animated series South Park have been involved in a high-profile battle with Tom Cruise and Scientology over the past week, and the public feud appears to have helped ratings. The series returned for its 10th season Wednesday night and was watched by 3.5 million people. That's the highest-rated South Park episode since December of 2004, and it easily topped last season's average by one million viewers; more importantly, the episode was the highest-rated South Park season premiere since 2002 in the desirable 18-49 demographic.

On Thursday, March Madness put CBS in the lead, but American Inventor helped ABC conjure up second place for the night.

The Simon Cowell-produced series posted a 4.4 in the 18-49 demographic in its first half hour against CBS's broadcast of the LSU/Duke game. After the game ended at 9:30, the series rose to 5.7 in 18-49s. Overall, the show earned a 5.1 average in 18-49s, down slightly from the 5.4 it had earned in its first week. Next week, CSI returns to the schedule, and the real fireworks begin.

In the 8 p.m. hour, CBS shot and scored with an 8.5 overall rating for basketball coverage, followed by ABC's Extreme Makeover: Home Edition--After the Storm at 7.0. NBC was third with Will & Grace earning 6.0/10 and a My Name Is Earl repeat getting 5.5. Fox was fourth with That '70s Show and The Loop, and UPN landed fifth with Everybody Hates Chris at 2.5 and Love, Inc. at 1.6. A Smallville repeat on the WB came in sixth.

At 9 p.m., CBS continued to dominate the court with basketball earning 9.7. ABC remained in second place with American Inventor getting 8.0. NBC came in third with a new Earl snaring 6.8/10 and a repeat of The Office clocking in at 5.4. Fox was fourth with The O.C. earning 3.6, and the WB's Supernatural repeat tied with UPN's Eve and Cuts at 1.0.

At 10 p.m., NBC took the lead with ER at 9.1, ABC's Primetime scored a 7.0, and CBS's basketball coverage earned 6.4.

Overall, CBS won with an average 8.2, ABC finished second at 7.3, NBC was third at 7.0, Fox was a distant fourth at 3.4, the WB was at 2.0, and UPN brought up the rear with 1.8.

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