Fox was armed with Evan "Eating My Brains Out" Marriott and Simon Cowell. ABC was outfitted with a full night of Michael Jackson meltdown. But CBS had Ray Romano, Bob Barker, Marg Helgenberger and Saddam Hussein, and emerged victorious for the first full week of the February sweeps.
Here's a look at the week's reality and fantasy:
"Living With Michael Jackson." The British documentary on the King of Plastic Surgery drew ABC's largest Thursday night non-sports audience (and its first Thursday February sweeps win) in well over a decade. Still, its average audience of more than 27 million can't touch the nearly 49 million who caught Barbara Walters's sit-down with Monica Lewinsky nearly four years ago.
"Joe Millionaire." Who says lying doesn't pay? Fox's deceptive dating derby clocked nearly 21 million viewers -- its biggest audience to date.
"American Idol." The first eight wannabe pop stars sang and, despite the totally icky addition of their parents to the backstage mix, the show bagged 95 percent more viewers than the same episode had during the show's original summer run -- 20.1 million vs. 10.3 million.
"Friends." It went mano a mano with Michael Jackson, but the NBC Thursday sitcom featuring a guest appearance by Jon Lovitz (zzzz . . .) nonetheless managed to score the week's biggest haul of 18-to-49-year-olds.
NBA All-Star Game. The most watched basketball game telecast in cable history averaged more than 10 million viewers on TNT Sunday night. Of course it helped that the telecast included a farewell salute to Michael Jordan.
Bob Barker. Wednesday night's special prime-time "Price Is Right" scored more viewers than CBS's Saddam Hussein "interview"; on Friday, host Barker won his 8 p.m. hour among total viewers.
"The Pulse." While ABC's Michael Jackson docu didn't hurt NBC's or CBS's lineup too badly, Fox's schedule got creamed, especially "The Pulse," which in its second broadcast lost nearly half its viewers.
"Meet My Folks." NBC's skanky dating derby is no match for Fox's skanky dating derby. The return of "MMF" on Jan. 20 clocked nearly 14 million viewers; a second broadcast the next night fell to about 11 million; by that Saturday a third broadcast was down to about 8 million. This past Saturday the next episode plunged to under 6 million.
The week's 10 most watched programs, in order: ABC's "20/20" special broadcast of "Living With Michael Jackson"; CBS's Thursday "CSI"; NBC's "Friends"; ABC's "PrimeTime Thursday" post-"Michael Jackson" broadcast; NBC's "Friends" Thursday 8:30 p.m. rerun; NBC's "ER"; Fox's "Joe Millionaire"; CBS's "Everybody Loves Raymond"; Fox's Tuesday and Wednesday "American Idol."
-- Lisa de Moraes