'SNL' has best premiere since 2001

Phelps as host, Fey's Palin impression aid strong start

NEW YORK -- With the surprise appearance of Tina Fey playing Sarah Palin in the opening and gold medalist Michael Phelps as guest host, "Saturday Night Live" logged its best premiere since September 2001.

It was also the most-watched "SNL" for any date since Dec. 17, 2002, when former vice president Al Gore was the guest host.

"SNL" averaged a 7.4 household rating/18 share in the 55 metered markets, Nielsen Media Research said Sunday afternoon. The ratings don't include New Orleans or, this weekend, Houston following damage from Hurricane Ike. Saturday's program was up 64% compared to last year's season premiere on Sept. 29.

Already there was a lot of attention to the show thanks to the guest hosting of Phelps, who last month broke Mark Spitz's single-Olympic gold medal record. But the buzz ramped up even further on the weekend when it was rumored that Fey would be putting in an appearance as Palin, whose sudden emergence seemed likely to be strong fodder for the newly reinvigorated "SNL." There was also a cameo by "Star Trek" and "The Practice" star William Shatner, who had his own well-remembered "SNL" appearance in 1986.

This weekend's "SNL" was the best ratings for any of the shows since Dec. 17, 2002, with Gore and musical guest Phish. The top market was Baltimore, which averaged a 14.7/29, with New York averaging an 8.3/20.

Final ratings will be out Thursday.