Gary Susman
March 03, 2004 AT 05:00 AM EST

For its rare victory in the weekly Nielsen ratings race, ABC can thank Frodo and Meredith. As expected, the Academy Awards, featuring the coronation of ”The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King,” was the week’s most-watched show, drawing 43.5 million viewers. (Even the red carpet pre-show drew 27.7 million to become the week’s No. 3 show.) And the finale of ”The Bachelorette,” while failing to reach the heights of last year’s Trista-and-Ryan edition, still scored a solid 13.5 million viewers, tying at No. 19 with Barbara Walters’ Oscar interview special. Overall, the network averaged 14.4 million viewers, easily beating second-place CBS (12.3 million), NBC (11.1 million), Fox (10.1 million), UPN (4 million), and the WB (3.9 million).

Still, CBS and NBC also had reason to crow this week. Buoyed by their Thursday lineups, both networks claimed victory over the February sweeps period. CBS averaged the most viewers overall for the month (14.1 million), while NBC had the highest ratings among the coveted 18-to-49 demographic. ABC, thanks to specials like the Oscars and last week’s run of ”Super Millionaire,” held firm with 10.3 million viewers. Fox (9.3 million) struggled with specials and short-run shows (”My Big Fat Obnoxious Fiancé” and ”The Littlest Groom” didn’t measure up to last winter’s ”Joe Millionaire,” though the ”Fiancé” finale did draw 21 million gawkers this week for a No. 9 finish), but ”American Idol” is still a steamroller, finishing among the top three shows every week. Even netlet UPN can claim a share of sweeps glory with the ever-growing success of ”America’s Next Top Model” (7.6 million viewers this week), which has now replaced ”WWE Smackdown!” as the channel’s signature show. Let’s hope that trend doesn’t reverse itself now that host Tyra Banks is showing off her singing skills on the show.

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