HBO BECOMES FIRST $BILLION NETWORK

Time Warner-owned HBO will become the first network -- broadcast or cable -- in TV history to surpass $1 billion in profits during any year, doubling NBC's record at its peak, Daily Variety reported today (Thursday) citing word that had "filtered out of TW headquarters." The trade publication credited not only the fees it receives from subscribers, but also sales of DVD packages for such shows as The Sopranos, Sex and the City, Six Feet Under and Band of Brothers as well as syndication fees for Sex and the City.

MISS THE START OF A TV SHOW? NOW YOU CAN START OVER

Time Warner Cable is about to introduce a new service, tentatively called Startover, that will allow viewers to start at the beginning of a television show no matter when they tune in, published reports said today (Thursday). Unlike current digital video recorders, the system would not permit users to record programs, would not permit them to fast-forward through commercials, and would only store the first parts of TV shows that were already on the air -- not on the viewers' home equipment but at the cable company itself, the trade publication said. Although noting that the service will require permissions from rights holders, the Wall Street Journal observed that the "feature will mark another step in the television industry's shift from scheduled programming to giving viewers more discretion about when they watch a show."

CAN TUCKER CARLSON BECOME AN IMPARTIAL NEWS ANCHOR?

CNN has tapped its conservative commentator Tucker Carlson to substitute for Aaron Brown on its primetime (10:00 p.m. ET) program NewsNight next week, Daily Variety reported today (Thursday). CNN's move comes as Carlson is being wooed by MSNBC to replace Deborah Norville in her 9:00 p.m. slot. It also comes as Carlson's verbal slugfest with Comedy Central's Jon Stewart on CNN's Crossfire, the show Carlson currently co-hosts on CNN, was making many critics' lists as one of the most memorable moments in TV during 2004.

SHAQ-KOBE MEETING STACKS UP TO BECOME BIG RATINGS WINNER

ABC expressed relief Wednesday when informed that the Miami Heat's Shaquille O'Neal, who missed Tuesday's game against the Boston Celtics because of a calf injury, would likely be fit for Saturday's game against Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers. "All the information we received this morning indicated" O'Neal will play, ABC executive producer Mike Pearl said during a conference call on Wednesday. The game, pitting O'Neal, a member of the Lakers for seven years, against Bryant, his onetime teammate/rival, is expected to draw an enormous audience. "I can't think of a more anticipated regular-season game than this,'' ABC announcer Al Michaels said during Wednesday's conference call. "From the moment the [O'Neal] trade was made and the NBA announced the schedule, everybody looked at this game and went, 'Wow.'"

SHERIDAN: PLEASE DON'T SEND ME FLOWERS (SEND CAR INSTEAD)

Nicollette Sheridan, the Desperate Housewives co-star who touched off a national controversy last month when she doffed a towel during a teaser intro for ABC's Monday Night Football, says that despite her show's success, "I'm the poorest actress on television." In an interview with Access Hollywood, Sheridan complained that while the cast of Friends received cars as gifts when their show pulled big ratings, "I got flowers. ... I'm still waiting for the Porsche." Sheridan also told the entertainment tabloid show that she's hoping the network will become less tight-fisted by the time the season ends. "I have the feeling that ABC will be extremely generous at the end of the season. They will say, 'You know what, girls and boys? You really deserve a lot more than what you're getting there.'"

SUICIDE RAID?

The cutthroat price war among online DVD rental outfits heated up Wednesday as Blockbuster lowered its monthly subscription fee to $14.99, $3.50 below that of Netflix and $0.55 below Wal-Mart's. In a statement, Shane Evangelist, who heads up the online Blockbuster unit, said: ""This is not a promotion. We want to make it clear to anyone who is now subscribing to an online service or considering such a service that Blockbuster is committed to being the high-quality, low-cost provider in the online rental space." Nevertheless, some analysts expressed doubt that such pricing could produce profits for the company. Netflix said it had no intention of following suit, suggesting that it was providing valuable special services to its subscribers that Blockbuster does not. Wal-Mart did not comment. "This definitely ratchets up the competition for the subscription business," analyst Larry Gerbrandt of AlixPartners told today's (Thursday) Los Angeles Times. Another media analyst, Dennis McAlpine of McAlpine & Associates, told Video Store magazine that he suspected that Blockbuster's move may have been an attempt "to scare Amazon out of the business ... and at the same time screw Netflix a little bit."

SEC OVERRULES STAFF, LETS EISNER OFF HOOK

The Securities and Exchange Commission overruled its own staff and dropped a claim against Walt Disney Co. CEO Michael Eisner that he permitted the company to withhold information from investors that it had business ties to some members of its board, Bloomberg News reported today (Thursday), citing people who asked not to be named. The charge was dropped even after Eisner had reached an accord with the SEC staff agreeing to shoulder the blame for the disclosure lapse and stating through a company spokesperson that he was prepared to do so. But Republican members of the SEC, according to Bloomberg, took the position that CEOs of large companies should not be blamed for not knowing the details of information included in their SEC filings. Bloomberg cited unnamed securities lawyers as saying that the action by the commissioners represented a rare rebuke to the SEC's enforcement unit.

SONY TO DEMONSTRATE NEW DIGITAL THEATER PROJECTOR

Sony plans to demonstrate its next-generation "4K d-cinema" digital theater projector with a screening of Spider-Man 2 at the Hollywood Pacific Theater on Jan. 13, the company announced Wednesday. Yair Landau, Vice Chairman of Sony Pictures Entertainment and President of Sony Pictures Digital, said in a statement: "Sony's 4K digital projection system is the ideal vehicle for screening this movie in the most dramatic and visually appealing manner, truly showing off all the care and effort that went into this production." The resolution is four times that of competing digital projectors. Sony said in its statement that it expected its technology "to become the quality standard in digital cinema."

ONTARIO OK'S NEW TAX CREDITS

Hoping to revive its languishing film and TV production business, the Canadian province of Ontario, whose capital is Toronto, rolled out a package of enhanced tax credits on Wednesday worth C$48 million (US$39 million). In a statement, Brian Topp, executive director of the Alliance of Canadian Cinema Toronto, said, "The more than 20,000 people who work in Ontario's film and television business were given their future back today." The Canadian film industry said that foreign (i.e. U.S.) production in Toronto was down 36 percent in 2003 and an additional 25 percent this year. Richard Perotto, business rep for the Toronto IATSE local, told the Toronto Globe and Mail: "There's quite a relief and the timing couldn't be better for a Christmas present."

DRUG COMPANIES WARN EMPLOYEES TO LOOK OUT FOR MOORE

Drug companies, familiar with issuing advisaries about their products, have issued a warning about Michael Moore's planned documentary on the U.S. health industry tentatively titled Sicko, according to the Los Angeles Times. ""We ran a story in our online newspaper saying Moore is embarking on a documentary -- and if you see a scruffy guy in a baseball cap, you'll know who it is," Stephen Lederer, a spokesman for Pfizer Global Research and Development, told the Times. The newspaper said that five other pharmaceutical companies have told their employees not to speak to Moore and instead refer him to their public relations departments. AstraZeneca spokeswoman Rachel Bloom said that she could only assume that Moore's documentary "won't be a fair and balanced portrayal. ... His movies resemble docudramas more than documentaries."

KING REPLAYS EISNER'S SONG-AND-DANCE STORY ABOUT OVITZ

CNN's Larry King on Wednesday replayed excerpts of his 1996 interview with Michael Eisner and Michael Ovitz in which Eisner denied rumors that a rift had developed between him and Ovitz and insisted that if he had it to do all over again, he would hire Ovitz again. "There has not been one story where one person is quoted directly about any problems inside our company," Eisner said at the time, adding "It's just all baloney." King played the video during an interview with writer Dominick Dunne, who is covering the current shareholders' lawsuit against Disney for Vanity Fair. The trial of the lawsuit in Delaware chancery court is due to resume on Jan. 11.