NETS SWEPT UP BY THE PRESIDENT

The nation's television networks, faced with a sudden decision by the White House to call a presidential news conference during primetime on the first night of the May sweeps, at first decided to air regular programming, then, one by one, reversed their original decision. ABC, which has the weakest lineup on Thursdays, was first to agree to carry the news conference. NBC then said it would do so if it could be moved to 8:00 p.m. rather than the scheduled 8:30 p.m. The White House promptly agreed. Fox quickly yielded as well. Finally, CBS, which ordinarily dominates Thursday nights, caved in, too. President Bush himself took note of the networks' concerns at two minutes before 9:00 p.m. when he said he would take a final question. "I don't want to cut into some of these TV shows that are getting ready to air -- for the sake of the economy," he said. The networks were able to air their regular schedule on the West Coast but substituted repeats for fresh episodes that ordinarily would have aired on a sweeps night.

AMERICANS OVERWHELMINGLY SEE NEWS BIAS

According to a new national survey, 85 percent of Americans detect bias in the news media. Of those, 48 percent believe it is liberal, 30 percent conservative, and 12 percent both. On the other hand, the survey, conducted by the Missouri School of Jorunalism's Center for Advanced Social Research, found that two-thirds of participants believe that TV and print journalism is credible and more than half, that it is trustworthy. In a statement accompanying the survey results, which were published Thursday on the Editor and Publisher website, professor George Kennedy, who co-authored the study commented, "The consumers of American journalism respect, value and need it, but they're also skeptical about whether journalists really live up to the standards of accuracy, fairness and respect for others that we profess."

NEW MUPPETS TV SERIES IN THE WORKS

A new primetime television series featuring the Muppets is currently in early production in England, and the producers have lined up some big-name stars, including Jennifer Lopez and Ricky Gervais, star of the original British version of The Office, the London Times, reported today (Thursday). The original Muppet Show, which aired during the '70s and '80s and became one of the most profitable syndicated TV series in history, was also produced in England, as were many of the feature films starring the Jim Henson characters. Now owned by Disney, the Muppets Holding Company is also planning new forays into television (upcoming: an ABC special on May 20, The Muppets' Wizard of Oz) music, stage shows, theme parks, and the Internet. The Times noted that even mobile-phone wallpaper, ring tones, and mobile video clips will be coming within a few months.

NBC AGREES TO RATE PROGRAMS

After refusing for eight years to adopt the TV ratings system, as all the other networks have, NBC reversed its stand Thursday, saying, in the words of NBC Universal chief Bob Wright, that it wanted "to provide information to parents so that they can judge the appropriateness of programming for their children." Wright said that the network also wants to raise awareness of the V-chip so that parents can use the technology "to make informed decisions" about what shows their kids should be permitted to see. Some studies have suggested that even among parents who are aware of how to use the technology, few actually employ it.

U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL WARNS STUDENTS ON PIRACY

In a stern lecture that seemed reminiscent of remarks by officials to students about the consequences of smoking marijuana, U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales on Thursday warned a group of teenagers that illegally downloading music, computer software, TV shows and movies could result in consequences "that may follow you for the rest of your life." Appearing at a UCLA conference sponsored by Court TV that honored top high school students, Gonzales pointed out that being arrested for illegally downloading copyrighted material could cause them to fail a government background check in the future.

COMING SOON: TV ON YOUR PHONE

By 2010, about 125 million consumers will be watching TV on their cell phones, according to a new study by the research group Informa. Just entering a testing phase, only about 130,000 TV phones, which use a special chip, are expected to be sold this year, but the instruments are expected to catch on quickly as consumers discover that they'll be able to call up TV programs and music wherever they are on demand.

COMEBACK TIME AT THE BOX OFFICE?

Box office analysts are predicting that after nine weeks of business that fell below the same period a year ago, this week's openings of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and XXX: State of the Union ought to pull the business out of its slump. If so, it won't be because the two films are receiving much help from critics.

Movie PictureMOVIE REVIEWS: XXX: STATE OF THE UNION

Joel Siegel of ABC's Good Morning America sums up XXX: State of the Union in seven words: "Great toys, neat action, not much else." He concludes by remarking: "This is the silliest big-budget movie I have ever seen." David Hiltbrand in the Philadelphia Inquirer doesn't spare the disparaging hyperbole, either. "State of the Union concludes with a stunningly unconvincing, uninteresting and unsuspenseful chase of a bullet train, one of the worst sequences in cinematic history," he writes. Glenn Whipp in the Los Angeles Daily News calls it "an earsplitting, freakishly over-the-top finale that seems born either of desperation or a bender that would make Hunter S. Thompson proud." Stephen Hunter in the Washington Post remarks that the movie "is so primitive, it must have been written in lizard blood on animal skin." Manohla Dargis in the New York Times refers to the "nitwit story" and its "mercilessly bad dialogue." She remarks that the production is all about "casting actresses who are easily upstaged by their breasts and young actors ... who look as if they should be warbling in a boy band." Peter Howell in the Toronto Star chastises director Lee Tamahori (Once Were Warriors) from going "from New Zealand talent to Hollywood sell-out" with this film. Nevertheless, a few critics concede that it makes a good movie to eat popcorn by. And Kevin Thomas in the Los Angeles Times, the dependable contrarian, gives it an all-out rave -- calling the much reviled ending "an intricate, stunningly staged climax, a bold instance of the fantastic made jarringly realistic, which characterizes the entire film -- and what makes it exhilarating as entertainment."

Movie PictureMOVIE REVIEWS: HITCHHIKER'S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY

Critics seem worlds apart on The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, one of the few radio shows (from the BBC) of relatively recent times to make its way to the screen (in this case, via books and TV). On the one hand, there's Manohla Dargis in the New York Times, who calls the film "hugely likable." On the other, there's Jack Mathews in the New York Daily News (certainly a world away), who writes that it is "way too goofy for all but the most thumbstruck Hitchhiker." (Several critics, apparently fans of the original radio, book, and TV versions, do repeat the frequent advice that crops up in them: "Don't panic.") Actually, several writers take a middle position. Michael Sragow in the Baltimore Sun, for example, comments that it is "part irritating, part inspired." Gene Seymour in Newsday comments: "The movie is cuddly, cozy and companionable enough, but it cops out on the book's cheekiness." Ty Burr in the Boston Globe, remarks that although it is "visually playful and often good fun, it never settles on a convincing narrative shape." And Peter Howell in the Toronto Star concludes: "Neither as good as hoped for nor as bad as feared, the long-overdue screen adaptation of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is likely to amuse and vex fans while leaving casual observers mildly baffled."

Movie PictureKEVIN SMITH REVIEWS REVENGE OF THE SITH

Director Kevin Smith (Clerks, Chasing Amy) has written one of the first reviews of George Lucas's Star Wars: Episode 3 -- Revenge of the Sith. Posted on his website, www.viewaskew.com, the review contains numerous spoilers -- and numerous adjectives that are not likely to be included in any ads for the movie. Smith calls it "quite simply, f***ing awesome." He remarks that it "is so satisfyingly tragic, you'll think you're watching Othello or Hamlet." He says that Lucas was correct in setting a dark one for the film and suggests that there are several scenes that will disturb children. However, he notes, "This is the birth of Darth Vader we're talking about. The only comic moments in the flick are given to R2D2, and while good, they're all pretty few and far between; the order of the day is dark, dark, dark."

COMPANY TO RELEASE FILMS IN THEATERS AND DVDS ON SAME DAY

In a break from the traditional model for releasing movies -- theaters to DVD to pay-TV to networks to cable -- 2929 Entertainment, a film company owned by entrepreneurs Mark Cuban and Todd Wagner -- are planning to release six films by director Steven Soderbergh on all of the various platforms on the same day, published reports said today (Friday). Bubble, the first of the films (all of which are being shot using high-definition electronic cameras), is currently in production in Ohio, the newspaper said. It noted that the multiplatform plan worries theater owners, who fear that if it catches on, moviegoers will stop buying tickets and buy the DVDs instead. Regal Theaters spokesman Dick Westerling told the Times: "We do not exhibit films that are simultaneously being released on DVD, video or pay television ... and we do not anticipate changing that policy."

RESTORED CLASSIC MOVIES TO BE SCREENED AT CANNES

The second year of the Cannes Film Festival's Classics Series will feature two restored works of French director Jean Renoir, the 1925 silent film Whirlpool of Fate (La Fille de l'eau) and his 1951 English-language film The River (Le Fleuve) accompanied by an exhibit illustrating his other work, the festival announced Thursday. The Series, to be hosted by actress Betsy Blair, will also feature what it calls an "homage to Mexican cinema," with a selection of recently restored films. Marking the 100th anniversary of the birth of British filmmaker Michael Powell, the event will also feature seven films that he directed in the 1930s and '40s, including The Red Shoes and Black Narcissus. Powell's widow, the Oscar-winning film editor Thelma Schoonmaker Powell, is due to attend the screening of Black Narcissus. In addition, the festival will honor James Dean, who died fifty years ago in an auto accident, by screening Michael Sheridan's unreleased documentary Forever Young and two of Dean's films, East of Eden and Rebel Without a Cause. Ten other restored prints are due to be presented during the series, including Delbert Mann's Marty, which won the Palme d'Or at Cannes fifty years ago (and the Oscar the following year).