NEW YORK - Round one of the Great Television War goes to "Survivor II.''
The hit reality series on CBS attracted 29 million viewers Thursday night in the first of its heavily hyped matchups with "Friends.'' The NBC sitcom had 22.2 million viewers, Nielsen Media Research said yesterday.
CBS executives were ecstatic on yesterday, while NBC said "Survivor'' had done little to damage its most popular night of television.
"They have nothing to feel bad about,'' said CBS President Leslie Moonves. "It's just that we did great.''
The showdown is serious business for network television. By airing "Survivor II'' on Thursdays, CBS was hoping to make a dent on a night that NBC has dominated for nearly two decades. Since movies studios like to advertise on Thursdays, it's usually the most lucrative night of the week for networks.
NBC responded aggressively, adding 10 minutes to "super size'' "Friends'' each week this month and airing a special 20-minute "Saturday Night Live'' prime-time edition.
Although "Friends'' lost to "Survivor,'' the NBC sitcom actually beat its season average by more than a million viewers. Network TV as a whole was a winner: CBS, NBC and ABC had 30 percent more viewers Thursday than on a typical Thursday this season.
"I don't begrudge anybody else success as long as we have success,'' said Jeff Zucker, NBC entertainment president. "The institution of must-see TV survives. We still own Thursday night.''
For the entire evening, which includes NBC's top-rated "ER,'' NBC had the most viewers, he said.
"Trust me when I tell you this, the people at CBS are happier today than the people at NBC,'' Moonves said. "When was the last time we even showed up on Thursday night?''
Nielsen didn't have an immediate answer; "Survivor'' did better in its time slot than any CBS show since the advent of the "people meter'' measuring system in 1987.
The networks appeared to be having fun with the all the attention. Like two competitive politicians, Zucker and Moonves went over the numbers together on the phone Friday morning, congratulating each other.
During the "Saturday Night Live'' special, the show's opening credits were a dead knockoff of the "Survivor'' opening, saying it was "13 cast members, 20 minutes, one frightened network.''
Actor Chris Parnell, impersonating Tom Brokaw, narrated a "news break'' telling NBC viewers that the Kucha tribe had won the week's immunity challenge on "Survivor II'' - only seconds after it was broadcast on CBS.
Less noticed was the impressive performance of the CBS rookie drama, "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.'' Moved to Thursday nights for the first time, it drew just under 22 million viewers - beating NBC comedies "Will & Grace'' and "Just Shoot Me.''
That put ABC's "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,'' the game show that has dominated television for the past year and a half, in the unaccustomed position of third place.