Death Becomes ‘ER’; Almost-Death Works for Dave

If it was death that kept “ER” at the top of the primetime ratings heap for the third consecutive week, it was life — after a close call with the grim reaper — that brought record ratings to David Letterman‘s “Late Show” on Monday.

While “ER” once again managed to fend off “Millionaire” mania, perhaps with a little help from Fox’s Romanesque “Multimillionaire” debacle, the return of Letterman to late night had America tuned in, if only for now.

Letterman drew a 9.3 preliminary overnight rating — some 19 million viewers, according to Nielsen Media Research — as he walked on stage at New York’s Ed Sullivan Theatre to host the show for the first time since he underwent open-heart surgery five weeks ago. (The show, broadcast Monday, was taped last Friday.) Letterman‘s brush with death delivered his third-biggest audience since his 1993 CBS debut. Even the self-proclaimed King of All Media, CBS’s own Howard Stern, wasn’t enough to spare Jay Leno’s “Tonight Show” on NBC. With the bankable Stern making his first appearance on the “Tonight Show” in three years, Letterman still buried Leno. In the nation’s 47 biggest markets, Letterman trounced his late-night rival by an unheard-of 98 percent.

So, CBS had its Monday, and NBC will always have its bloody Thursday. Last week’s stabbed-dying-and-dead storyline on “ER” (the second in a two-part saga) fueled the show to an impressive 25.0 rating. (Each rating point represents a little more than 1 million TV homes.)

The expected death of Kellie Martin‘s popular “ER” character kept the show at No. 1 and floating above “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” — though ABC’s tribute to our darker impulses remained entrenched in the Top Five, nabbing the No. 2, No. 3 and No. 4 spots last week.

While the stampede is on for “Millionaire”-like shows, Fox rode its train wreck of a seven-figure special into the Top 20. At No. 17, “Who Wants to Marry a Multimillionaire [And Then Quickly Have It Annulled Just to Show Us You’re Not a Complete Idiot]” caught the attention of 16 million viewers — many of whom were just the type of folks you’d think would be outraged by this kind of thing, namely women ages 18 to 34.

“A lot of women want to marry someone rich,” one female commentator told Newsweek. (Really? Well that explains it then.)

Since the gag is up and groom Rick Rockwell’s restraining order is out, Fox says it’s out of the nuptial-exploitation trade — presumably until it realizes some desperate people out there will allow the network to video the honeymoon, as well.

Overall, ABC narrowly bested NBC for the weekly ratings crown. CBS ran third. NBC placed the most shows in the Top 10. In addition to “ER,” it had the reliable “Friends” (No. 5) and double-barrel postings by both “Frasier” (No. 6 and 9) and “Law & Order” (No. 8 and 10).

Minus “Multimillionaire,” Fox barely cracked the Top 20. Meanwhile, network wannabes UPN and the WB remained firmly in the middle of nowhere. Consider that “7th Heaven” was the WB’s highest-charting show — at a scorching No. 82, which meant it was tied with the UPN’s progressive “WWF Smackdown.”

Here’s a complete rundown of the Top 10 for the TV week of Feb. 14-20, according to statistics compiled by Nielsen Media Research:

1. “ER,” NBC 2. “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” (Sun.), ABC 3. “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” (Thurs.), ABC 4. “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” (Tues.), ABC 5. “Friends,” NBC 6. “Frasier,” NBC 7. “The Practice,” ABC 8. “Law & Order,” (special) NBC 9. “Frasier,” (special) NBC 10. “Law & Order,” NBC