Sunday's three-hour Fox premiere of "Phantom Menace" yielded the biggest audience for any movie in 18 months among viewers aged 18 to 49 -- the group most prized by advertisers -- with a preliminary rating of 7.9, 18 share. That lifted Fox to a rating of roughly 5.1 so far this month in the coveted young-adult demographic, compared with 5.0 for NBC.
A tie appears most likely when the November ratings period ends Wednesday, although the NBC could finish on top if Tuesday night's celebrity edition of "Fear Factor" clicks with audiences.
Looking to improve its hand opposite NBC's "Fear," Fox has replaced Tuesday night's episode of freshman comedy "Undeclared" (at 8:30) with a repeat of "That '70s Show."
Although the force was with Fox on Sunday, it's NBC that will take the week in adults 18-49 when Nielsen issues averages Tuesday for the Nov. 19-25 frame. Based on preliminary data for the long weekend, NBC will finish with a projected 4.8/13 share -- comfortably ahead of Fox (4.3/11) and CBS (either a 4.2 or 4.3/11).
CBS, which has already clinched the sweep's title in total viewers, will post its third straight weekly victory by that measure (13.2 million viewers.
Fox closed out the week with a victory in nearly every key ratings category behind "Phantom Menace," which gave the network its best Sunday without sports since January 2000 in adults 18-49 (prelim 7.9/18) and November 1998 in total viewers (prelim 17.6 million).
FORCE MEETS 'JESUS'
Compared with all movies on all networks, "Phantom Menace" earned the best 18-49 rating since part one of CBS miniseroes "Jesus" in May 2000 and the highest 18-34 score (prelim 7.3/20) since NBC's "Men in Black" in November 1999.
Still, it wasn't as big of a turnout as might have been expected for a movie that ranks as the No. 3 all-time box office grosser and that had not aired anywhere on TV prior to its Fox premiere. Three years ago, a similar television debut on Fox of "The Lost World: Jurassic Park" netted a 9.6/22 rating.
Last season, all-time, box-office champ "Titanic" sailed off with a 6.9/15 in adults 18-49 on NBC, but it had aired numerous times prior on HBO.
Elsewhere Sunday, movies on ABC and CBS also did well -- leaving the networks in a virtual second-place tie in total viewers (prelim 14.5 million).
ABC's repeat of "The Santa Clause" delivered the largest audience (prelim 15.9 million viewers) and highest 18-49 rating (5.5/13) for a "Wonderful World of Disney" picture since the Tim Allen starrer aired on the same Sunday a year ago. ABC, which was second on the night in 18-49 viewers, also received a first-place finish at 10 with "The Practice" (prelim 6.0/14, 16 million viewers).
CBS did pretty well with its premiere of "You've Got Mail" (prelim 13.2 million viewers, 4.1/9), which stumbled coming out of "60 Minutes" at 8:30 but then took off after that. It drew the biggest audience for a CBS movie this season.
NBC ran fourth on the night but its "Law & Order: CI" (prelim 14.0 million viewers, 4.6/10 in 18-49) continues to look solid at 9, topping drama foe "Alias" on ABC (projected 10.4 million viewers, 4.4/10).