BROKAW IS HIS OWN BIGGEST STORY IN 8 YEARS

More people watched Tom Brokaw's farewell on NBC Nightly News Wednesday than watched him report on any of the turbulent events of the past eight years, preliminary ratings released by Nielsen Research indicated Thursday. According to the ratings service, Brokaw drew the largest total audience -- 15.36 million viewers -- since Jan. 16, 1997. The number nearly equaled that of ABC (9.2 million) and CBS (7.2 million) combined. Nightly News averaged 10.8 million viewers last week, Brokaw's final full week as anchor of the evening newscast. Meanwhile, TV critics gave Brian Williams, Brokaw's successor, high marks for the aplomb he displayed during his first nightly stint as regular anchor. New York Daily News critic David Bianculli referred to the "seamless transition" that appeared to take place. Alessandra Stanley wrote in the New York Times that Williams handled the job "in a graceful, understated manner." But to syndicated columnist Maureen Dowd, it was simply a case of "one tall and handsome white male anchor with bespoke clothes" replacing another. "The networks don't even give lip service to looking for women and blacks for anchor jobs," she wrote, "they just put pretty-boy clones in the pipeline."

DIRECTV CREATOR EXITS COMPANY

Eddy Hartenstein, who virtually single-handedly introduced the nation to digital and satellite TV is stepping down as vice chairman of DirecTV after being "cut out of the loop" by its new owners, News Corp, the Los Angeles Times reported today (Friday). Hartenstein launched DirecTV in 1990 after persuading General Motors, then the parent company of Hughes Electronics, where he was an executive, to back the venture. In an interview with the Times, he said, "The thing I'm proudest of is that we really changed the way people view television. ... We made digital happen." Hartenstein's biggest rival, EchoStar Communications chief Charles Ergen paid him the most laudatory compliment: "Few executives in this industry have matched his vision," Ergen told the Times.

STUDIO ASKS DIRECTOR TO RETOUCH HISTORIC PAINTING

Concerned about the recent backlash over the Janet Jackson incident and the FCC's apparent determination to enforce its decency rules to the letter, Sony Film Classics has asked director Michael Radford to digitally retouch a scene in his The Merchant of Venice in which a naked cupid is shown in a Veronese fresco, the London Financial Times reported today (Friday). The newspaper said that Radford had already anticipated the distributors' concerns by shooting extra scenes for television in which bare-breasted prostitutes who appear in the theatrical version are fully clothed for TV. But Radford said that he was perplexed when he received a request from the distributors to "paint-box the wallpaper" in one of the scenes. "I said, wallpaper, what wallpaper? This is the 16th century. People didn't have wallpaper." When it became clear that they were referring to the fresco, he said, he drew the line. "A billion dollars worth of Veronese great master's frescoes they want paint-boxed out because of this cupid's willy. It is absolutely absurd," he said.

RECORD PAYMENT FOR RERUN RIGHTS TO LAW & ORDER: CRIMINAL INTENT

USA Network and sibling channel Bravo have agreed to pay NBC Universal a record $1.92 million per episode for reruns of Law & Order: Criminal Intent. The figure is slightly more than the $1.9 million that Spike TV has agreed to pay for CSI: NY. Both deals amount to money being taken from one pocket and placed in another, inasmuch as NBC Universal, USA Network, and Bravo are each owned by General Electric, while Spike TV and CSI distributor King World are owned by Time Warner.

VIACOM PAYS A HEFTY PRICE FOR SECOND SACRAMENTO STATION

Viacom will boast its ninth "duopoly" -- owning two stations in a major market -- if the FCC approves its acquisition of KOVR-TV in Sacramento, which, it announced Thursday, it is buying from Sinclair Broadcast Group for $285 million. The station, a CBS affiliate, will likely combine many of its operations, including news and sales, with those of KMAX-TV, a UPN station that Viacom already owns. Shares of Sinclair soared $1.04 a share to close at $8.41 on the news, while shares of Viacom closed up 50 cents to $36.06.

WE'RE OFF TO SEE THE WIZARD IN HDTV

The WB plans to broadcast The Wizard of Oz for the first time in high-definition television (HDTV) on Sunday, Dec. 19, the network announced Thursday. The film has aired annually on network television since 1956, except for a period between 1999 and 2001. The HDTV screening will mark a second technical milestone for the movie. When it was first shown in 1956, many viewers who had just purchased color TV sets flooded CBS, which carried it, with complaints when the opening sequence came on the air in black and white.

EXPENSIVE GIFTS? THAT'S SHOWBIZ, SAYS EX-DISNEY LAWYER

While it may have seemed odd to outsiders that the president of the Walt Disney Co. would casually bestow gifts worth hundreds -- even thousands -- of dollars on employees and associates, such gifts are a regular part of doing business in Hollywood, the former top legal officer at Disney testified Thursday. Under cross-examination by shareholders who contend that Disney could have fired its former president, Michael Ovitz, "for cause," without having to pay him $140 million in severance, Sanford M. Litvack, said that each of the gifts that Seth Rigrodsky, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, ticked off represented a "reasonable" expense. "They were related to the business of the Walt Disney Co.," he said. When Rigrodsky zeroed in on six stuffed animals that Ovitz had sent to agents at CAA, the talent agency he founded, Litvack remarked, "I wasn't going to lose a lot of sleep over it. ... If you think that's cause to terminate, we're on different planets." He said that Ovitz was eventually fired "because he didn't fit in, because he didn't do his job, because he failed in his performance. He wasn't terminated for giving someone a $100 gift or any of those things. He was terminated because he didn't work out. That's why I determined it should be without cause."

DVD SALES LEVEL OFF

After years of rocketing growth, DVD sales appear to be leveling off, if business at Best Buy, one of the country's top video retailers, are any indication. According to a report by Video Store magazine, sales of DVD titles accounted for 21 percent of the company's third-quarter revenue last year and this year and 20 percent for the first nine months of both years. The magazine reported that sales of DVD players have begun to show signs of slippage at Best Buy, although the company did not disclose actual figures on DVD hardware sales. The Consumer Electronics Association estimates that demand for DVD players was down 25 percent from last year.

GREEK LAWYERS SEE ALEXANDER; WITHDRAW THREAT OF LAWSUIT

The group of Greek lawyers who had threatened to file a lawsuit to prevent the screening of Alexander in Greece because it depicted a homosexual relationship involved the Greek hero said Thursday that they will not proceed with the lawsuit. After viewing the Oliver Stone-directed epic, Giannis Varnakas, one of the lawyers, told the Associated Press. "There is a kiss that can be interpreted in many ways, but we have avoided the worst. ... Fortunately it was not what we had feared. The people can go and see the movie."

Movie PictureMOVIE REVIEWS: CLOSER

Mike Nichols' Closer is opening on fewer than 500 screens today, but it is touching off widespread critical debate. A.O. Scott in the New York Times hails Nichols as one of the few filmmakers "who are capable of infusing the bodily expressions of erotic desire with dramatic force and psychological meaning." Weslie Morris in the Boston Globe remarks that "it's a show of the director's goodness that a movie fundamentally preoccupied with interpersonal ugliness is allowed to end on a convincing note of beauty." Bob Longino in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution describes the movie as "compelling, unsettling and finely acted." Peter Howell, in the Toronto Star calls it "a Nichols signature movie, one of his best in a long career and of a piece with Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Carnal Knowledge." On the other hand, Kenneth Turan in the Los Angeles Times concludes that what the film "lacks is a compelling reason to see it. Despite involved acting from Julia Roberts, Jude Law, Natalie Portman and Clive Owen and Nichols' impeccable professionalism as a director, the end result is, to quote one of the characters, 'a bunch of sad strangers photographed beautifully.'" Jack Mathews in the New York Daily News remarks that while the actors are all "terrific," the movie "still manages to be unpleasant." John Anderson in Newsday remarks that the movie winds up being a case of "bad Pinter meets bad Updike, dancing to the rat-a-tat rhythms of an E.R. episode." Similarly, Joe Morgenstern writes in the Wall Street Journal: "The movie is insistently playlike, if rarely playful, thanks to the director's fondness for artificial, rat-a-tat-tat rhythms of speech that sound like parodies of drawing-room comedy." Bob Strauss in the Los Angeles Daily News comments that the film "offers only intermittent satisfaction." And Philip Wuntch's comments in the Dallas Morning News would seem to apply to his fellow critics when he remarks: "Closer reaches out and grabs all but the most reluctant viewer. Some spectators will be bored, but more will be shaken and stirred."