LOS ANGELES, Dec 6 (Reuters) - U.S. network NBC's live telecast of the musical "The Sound of Music" played to the tune of 18.5 million viewers, the Comcast Corp-owned broadcaster said on Friday, helping NBC inject some momentum into its entertainment division.
The three-hour production on Thursday starring country singer Carrie Underwood as Maria, the would-be nun who falls in love with an anti-Nazi Austrian captain, was NBC's best non-sports draw in the 18 to 49 age group most coveted by advertisers since the finale of hospital drama "ER" in 2009.
"The Sound of Music" telecast, which was based on the 1959 stage version of the Rodgers and Hammerstein show rather than the Oscar-winning 1965 film starring Julie Andrews, was the top overall draw on U.S. prime-time TV on Thursday, according to Nielsen figures.
NBC has languished at the bottom or near it in overall viewers in recent years, dragged down by poorly rated entertainment offerings compared with rivals CBS, Fox and ABC.
But for the TV season that started in September, NBC ranks second among overall viewers and first among 18-to-49-year olds, according to Nielsen data through Dec. 1. Its ratings hits include "Sunday Night Football" and singing competition "The Voice."
Although critics commended NBC for taking a risk on an expensive production, which reportedly cost $9 million and required several sets and lavish costumes, they sounded a sour tone on the performances, particularly Underwood.
"As her multiple Grammys and her legion of country music fans will attest, the quality of Underwood's singing voice is not the problem," USA Today's Robert Bianco wrote. "It's that she doesn't know how to use that voice to sing in character, or what to do with her face when she's trying."
The 30-year-old singer, who has become one of biggest country stars since winning the singing contest "American Idol" in 2005, has little experience acting compared to her co-star, "True Blood" actor Stephen Moyer as Captain von Trapp.
Veteran Broadway stars Audra McDonald (Mother Abbess), Laura Benanti (Elsa Schrader) and Christian Borle (Max Detweiler) rounded out the cast of the musical famous for hit songs "My Favorite Things" and "Edelweiss."
"Underwood nails the look of a virginal almost-nun, but goes no deeper than that. Blank stares and placid smiles," wrote Marc Bernardin of trade magazine the Hollywood Reporter.
Critics' opinions also echoed the live reaction on Twitter from viewers, who were mixed on Underwood's performance.
NBC's "The Sound of Music" harked back to the early days of U.S. television when live musicals were often shown.