April 17, 2003 11:16 AM

What “Seinfeld” curse?

Despite receiving reviews that you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy, the Julia Louis-Dreyfus sitcom “Watching Ellie” made, if not a triumphant return, at least a respectable one on NBC Tuesday night.

Her 9:30 p.m. debut ranked No. 2 in total viewers and the key demographic of adults aged 18 to 49, according to Nielsen Media Research.

Averaging 9.8 million viewers overall, “Ellie” was bettered by the critically lauded FOX thriller “24,” which has been boosted in the ratings thanks largely to the powerful lead-in from “American Idol.”

But NBC boasts that “Ellie” retained a solid 88 percent of its own lead-in audience (among the 18-49 age group) from the network’s 90-minute special “Great Women of Television Comedy,” featuring perennial favorites Lucille Ball, Mary Tyler Moore and Carol Burnett, Reuters reports.

“Ellie,” which was yanked after six episodes and sent back to the drawing board last season, also decisively whomped its closest comedy rival, ABC’s “Lost At Home.”

Meanwhile, in other TV news, those great women of comedy, Debra Messing and Megan Mullally — as well as male stars Eric McCormack and Sean Hayes — will be getting much heftier paychecks on NBC’s “Will & Grace,” says the Hollywood Reporter.

Effectively immediately, McCormack and Messing will be receiving $250,000-$275,000 per episode, with Mullally and Hayes getting only slightly less than that.

By the seventh season, says the Reporter, McCormack and Messing should be pocketing about $400,000 per episode. All four stars are also tied into syndication rights.

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