ABC PUNTS MONDAY NIGHT FOOTBALL TO ESPN

Monday Night Football, which lifted ABC from a perennial also-ran to a potent contender among the Big Three TV networks 35 years ago, will be leaving the network and dashing to corporate sibling ESPN next year. At the same time, it was announced that NBC, which had abandoned NFL telecasts seven years ago as unjustifiably expensive, would return to the field next year with a package of Sunday-night games. Setting up a clashing competition in their own right, the NBC telecasts will be competing against ABC's highest-rated shows, Desperate Housewives and Grey's Anatomy. According to published reports, ESPN agreed to pay $1.1 billion a year for eight years for the exclusive Monday-night TV rights, while NBC will pay $600 million a year for six years for the Sunday package. As for the Super Bowl, it will be divvied up between CBS, which will get it in 2007 and 2010; Fox, in 2008 and 2011; and NBC, in 2009 and 2012. Again, ABC will remain sidelined. "The analysis [of the deal] is very simple," former CBS Sports President Neil Pilson told today's (Tuesday) Los Angeles Times. "You know, they asked Willie Sutton why he robbed banks. And he said, 'That's where the money is.' Why are the sports leagues finding a new home on ESPN? And the answer is: That's where the money is. ESPN generates more than $2 billion a year in subscriber fees. No other broadcast network has that resource." Newsday observed today that the NFL's yearly rights fee will now be larger than the combined yearly average of the National Basketball Association, Major League Baseball, NASCAR, the Professional Golfers Association, NCAA basketball and the Summer Olympics.

VIACOM EARNINGS DROP AS EXECS' PAY RISES

One day after disclosing that it had paid its top three executives a total of $160 million last year, Viacom was expected to report a drop in first-quarter profit of 18 percent versus a year ago. The decline was blamed mostly on a drop in revenue from its CBS division, which televised the Super Bowl last year (Fox had it this year). The television unit was also without political ads, which flooded the air during the 2004 presidential contest. But analysts pointed out that income even from top TV shows -- CBS remained the dominant TV network during the quarter -- was down significantly from a year ago. A 30-second spot on CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, the No. 1 show overall during the quarter and No. 2 among younger adults, was selling for an average of $298,000 versus $407,900 in 2004, according to Nielsen Research.

VERIZON TO OFFER NBC UNIVERSAL CHANNELS ON BROADBAND SERVICE

Verizon, which is planning to launch a digital television service over broadband Internet connections late this year, has signed a deal with NBC Universal to include both the over-the-air NBC and Telemundo networks as well as cable networks, Bravo, CNBC, CNBC World, MSNBC, Sci Fi Channel, Trio, USA, and ShopNBC. The deal with Verizon's FiOS TV also includes rights to offer high-definition channels. Verizon would appear to be attempting to gain support among broadcasters in its effort to become an alternative to cable TV by promising them something that cable operators have been unwilling to agree to: -- an extension of "must carry" agreements to include all of the broadcasters' digital channels. Speaking to the NAB on Monday, Verizon chief Ivan Seidenberg said, "Must-carry is something ... we think is beneficial for broadcasters, and we think for our systems would be fine."

TV BANDLEADER CAMARATA DEAD AT 91

Salvador "Tutti" Camarata, who was the musical conductor/arranger for numerous early TV series, including The Alcoa Hour, The Vic Damone Show and Lincoln-Mercury Startime and was one of the top big-band leaders of the 1930s and '40s, died in Burbank, CA on April 15, less than a month away from his 92nd birthday, published reports said Monday. Camarata was also regarded as the founding father of Disney's Disneyland Records and helped launch the career of Annette Funicello, the onetime Mouseketeer.

RUDIN LEAVES THE MOUNT FOR THE MOUSE

Scott Rudin, long considered one of Paramount's top movie producers, has signed a five-year deal with the Walt Disney, where he is expected to turn out commercial fare for the company's Touchstone division and prestige films for its Miramax unit. At Paramount, his films had ranged from School of Rock and The Addams Family to The Hours and The Truman Show. According to today's (Tuesday) Los Angeles Times, Rudin had been tumbling from Paramount's peak since Viacom co-President Tom Freston singled out his The Stepford Wives last fall as the kind of costly film the studio should not be producing. With the $120 million that it cost to produce, Freston said, "we could have made three pictures targeted at a younger audience that could be a lot more profitable." In an interview with the Times, Rudin said that "the heart went out of the place for me" after Viacom forced out studio chairman Sherry Lansing and Viacom Entertainment Group chairman Jonathan Dolgen earlier this year.

ANTIOCO HITS BACK AT ICAHN

A war of words between Blockbuster CEO John Antioco and the company's biggest shareholder, Carl Icahn, escalated Monday as Antioco released a public letter to Icahn accusing him of creating "turmoil and uncertainty" among investors. The letter came in response to Antioco's recent blast accusing Icahn of taking an "unconscionable" compensation package, going on a "spending spree" with company money and failing in his effort to acquire competitor Hollywood Video. In his letter, Antioco maintained that his compensation was hinged to Blockbuster's performance and that he had in fact cut spending significantly.

SITH SPOTS ON INTERNET DRAW FANS

One month before the official premiere of Star Wars: Episode III - The Revenge of the Sith, 20th Century Fox and Lucasfilm are stepping up their promotional efforts by, among other things, displaying their latest TV ads on www.starwars.com, the movie's official website. Britain's Empire magazine observes that one of the ads reveals that it is Obi-Wan Kenobi who speaks the obligatory "I have a bad feeling about this" line in the final film. Meanwhile, the website comingsoon.net has posted clips from a German TV documentary that contains additional footage from the film, some of it showing a devastating battle that ushers in the latest installment. Comments Empire: "Whatever else, Revenge of the Sith is sure to be the most visually stunning Star Wars of them all." Meanwhile, online ticket seller Fandango reported Monday that many opening-night screenings of the movie sold out after tickets went on sale Friday. "The appetite for tickets is huge," Fandango said.

BOX OFFICE ALL BUT GIVES UP THE GHOST

The box office appeared royally spooked over the weekend -- and not just because The Amityville Horror turned up in first place with $23.5 million, but also because the entire slate of films in release dipped significantly for the eighth week in a row. For the season, box office revenues are off more than 4 percent from a year ago, even though ticket prices are up. (Actual attendance is down 7 percent.) Part of the problem is attributable to the fact that no studio has produced a hit comparable to last year's The Passion of the Christ. However, Exhibitor Relations chief Paul Dergarabedian observed in an interview with today's (Monday) Los Angeles Daily News: "We can't blame everything on Passion eight weeks out. Moviegoers have definitely lost interest a little bit, and the marketplace as a whole has been in a depression."

The top ten films over the weekend, according to final figures compiled by Exhibitor Relations (figures in parentheses represent total gross to date):

1. The Amityville Horror, MGM, $23,507,007, (New); 2. Sahara, Paramount, $13,071,283, 2 Wks. ($36,417,478); 3. Fever Pitch, 20th Century Fox, $8,518,883, 2 Wks. ($23,662,931); 4. Sin City, Miramax/Dimension, $6,687,810, 3 Wks. ($61,301,949); 5. Guess Who, Sony, $4,875,712, 4 Wks. ($57,548,885); 6. Beauty Shop, MGM, $3,742,462, 3 Wks. ($31,220,578); 7. Robots, 20th Century Fox, $3,606,520, 6 Wks. ($115,761,012); 8. Miss Congeniality 2: Armed and Fabulous, Warner Bros., $2,980,158, 4 Wks. ($41,676,315); 9. The Pacifier, Disney, $2,410,620, 7 Wks. ($103,727,286); 10. The Upside of Anger, New Line, $2,069,066, 6 Wks. ($15,119,417).

MAD MAX FANS LAND IN JAIL

Eleven Mad Max fans staging a recreation of a scene in Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior in which a gang of motorcyclists hijack a tanker truck were arrested Saturday after motorists who witnessed the scene called San Antonio police. Authorities showed them little sympathy, first charging them with obstruction of a highway, then, after being told that they were filming a movie, citing them for filming without a permit. One of the motorcyclists, Chris Fenner, told the San Antonio Express-News that he had alerted the SAPD about their intentions. The newspaper said that the event was supposed to culminate with the screening of a marathon of Mad Max movies but that the marathon was canceled after the arrests.

DISCOUNT AIRLINE ABANDONS MOVIE/GAME PLAYER

Ryanair, the Irish discount airline, which operates short-haul flights in Europe, has abandoned its digEplayer system that allowed travelers to play movies, games, and listen to music using a handheld device for $9.50 per trip. Britain's Guardian newspaper pointed out that as few as five passengers per aircraft were willing to pay the fee and noted that some analysts had questions whether Ryanair's flights were long enough to justify such an expense.

PRODUCER PUTTNAM DECRIES VIOLENT FILMS WITHOUT CONSEQUENCES

Producer David Puttnam, whose films include Midnight Express, The Killing Fields, and Chariots of Fire, has accused the film industry of portraying violence "devoid of human consequences." In an interview with Britain's Guardian newspaper prior to addressing a conference on school bullying, Puttnam, who is addressed in Britain as Lord Puttnam, commented that in film, "sensation has come to eclipse almost everything -- bigger and better explosions that miraculously don't kill the most important of the protagonists; simulated plane crashes in which the right people somehow survive; and, most common of all, shootings that manage to create victims without widows or orphans." He urged filmmakers to "think far more deeply about the impact of their work on broader society."