Friends has more friends than ever.

Last night's ninth and presumably final season premiere was the most-watched episode ever of NBC's Emmy-winning sitcom. The potential untangling of the Ross, Rachel, Joey triangle--which, of course, still contains several (k)nots--snagged 33.3 million viewers, according to preliminary Nielsen numbers.

That gave the "Must-See" sitcom its biggest win over its toughest Thursday night competitor, CBS' Survivor. More than 21.7 million tuned in to see 27-year-old social worker Tanya Vance booted from Thailand back to Tennessee. While the Eye's not-so-friendly unscripted show was handily trounced by the NBC stalwart in the 8 p.m. slot, Survivor: Thailand rallied at 8:30, gaining a 25 percent bigger audience against the second season premiere of Scrubs. Ultimately, though, the reality show couldn't climb out of the also-ran category.

Thursday night is arguably the most competitive on TV, with NBC and CBS battling for dominance.

Indeed, CBS landed on top at 9 p.m. with the third season premiere of CSI. With its spinoff, CSI: Miami, attracting 23 million viewers to its debut Monday (the biggest September debut since ER in 1994) and with the original CSI ending last season by dethroning ER as the tube's top-rated drama, you had to figure the forensic-themed gorefest would score. And it did, pulling in its biggest audience yet: 30.5 million viewers.

CSI buried its nearest challengers, NBC's Will & Grace and the rookie Good Morning, Miami. NBC did claim victory in the coveted 18-49 demo for the fifth season premiere of Will & Grace and trumpeted Good Morning, Miami as the season's most watched newbie sitcom, but that didn't add up to a real win.

At 10 p.m., the pendulum swung back as the season opener of NBC's long-running ER premiered in first place, quarantining 26.7 million viewers with the payoff to last year's epidemic evacuation cliffhanger. However, CBS' new missing person's investigation series Without a Trace, starring Anthony LaPaglia, drew 16.2 million, proving tougher competition to the doc drama than last season's CIA drama The Agency, which only snagged 11.9 million. It was the Eye network's strongest challenge to ER since 1994's Chicago Hope.

When all the beans were counted, NBC came out the overall winner, averaging 24.9 million viewers in prime time to CBS' 22.7 million. According to preliminary estimates from Nielsen Media Research, the jockeying nets more than doubled the combined totals for both Fox (6.2 million) and ABC (5.9 million).

ABC, which is looking to recover after a disastrous season last year, isn't going to win anything with the whodunit Push, Nevada. The Ben Affleck creation registered in fifth place in its regular 9 p.m. time slot Thursday night, attracting only 4.4 million viewers. That's down from last Thursday's 8.1 million, which was already a marked drop-off from the 12 million who sampled the premiere. Push, Nevada's numbers are even more perplexing than its Twin Peaks-like plot, since the show was sandwiched between the picked-up-from-cable Monk and Primetime Thursday, both of which came in third place last night in their time slots.

For the night, the Alphabet net's lineup wound up tied with UPN's WWE Smackdown!-led roster. Fox did better in third place with a repeat showing of the movie Rush Hour, but the WB had a terrible night as their sitcom lineup of Family Affair, Do Over, The Jamie Kennedy Experiment and Off Centre barely registered a blip--although the Frog did gamely issue press releases claiming that it had bettered itself in various women's demos, despite the "brutal competition" from NBC and CBS.

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