SPONSORS LOVE RAYMOND FINALE

Although it won't come close to equaling the record $2 million per 30-second spot fetched by the finale of Friends, or even the $1.6 million by the finale of Seinfeld, Everybody Loves Raymond is nevertheless going out with a bang. MediaPost's online MediaDailyNews reported Tuesday that the final episode of Raymond, set to air on May 16,is netting NBC an average of $1.3 million per spot. Hoping to make it the biggest ratings draw of the season, CBS is promoting it on line, on its radio networks and on its cable networks, including VH1, Comedy Central, and Nick at Nite, the trade publication said.

NBC LOSES AUDIENCE, INCREASES EARNINGS

NBC's ratings may have plunged during the current season, but its profits continue to grow, NBC Universal Television Group President Jeff Zucker told an analysts meeting in Orlando, FL Tuesday. He said that he expects revenue at the television division to grow by 13 percent this year and operating profit, by 20 percent, much of it achieved through cost-cutting. Referring to the ratings retreat, Zucker remarked, "We can handle that financially. Emotionally, that's a little tougher. ... We are in second place and we will get back to first place."

NBC WILL BID FOR NFL RIGHTS -- WITHOUT MUCH HOPE

NBC parted with the NFL seven years ago, saying that it could not justify losing an enormous amount of money to enhance its overall programming schedule. This year, NBC Universal CEO Bob Wright told a meeting of analysts in Orlando, FL, the network intends to bid for football rights, "but it's unlikely that ... we would be able to put up enough money to interest [the NFL] to do something with us." Echoing a statement made seven years ago by NBC Sports chief Dick Ebersol when he walked away from the negotiating table with the NFL, NBC Universal Television Group President Jeff Zucker remarked, "We'd love to have football, [but] we will not make a stupid deal."

CBS EXECS REFUSE TO RESIGN OVER "MEMOGATE"

Five weeks after the report on 60 Minutes' flawed account concerning President Bush's National Guard service was released, the news executives who were asked to resign at the time have refused to do so. Moreover, the New York Times observed today (Wednesday), executive producer Josh Howard has demanded that CBS President Les Moonves retract his remarks accusing him of failing "to assert his role as the producer," thereby inflicting "a tremendous blow to the credibility" of the program and the news division. The Times said that Howard has hired an attorney to help him clear his name and to bring a breach-of-contract suit against the network, should it cut off his paycheck. Likewise, it said, Howard's top deputy, Mary Murphy, and Senior News Vice President Betsy West have also retained attorneys. The Times cited two prominent legal experts, Jay Goldberg and Martin Garbus, as saying that, by publicly chastising the three executives, CBS may have given them grounds for a defamation suit. Moreover, the independent inquiry concluded that Howard, upon learning that questions had been raised about the authenticity of the documents presented in the report, recommended that CBS acknowledge that it might have been the victim of a hoax -- a recommendation that was ignored by high-level execs. The Times noted that Howard's lawyers will no doubt ask whether CBS News President Andrew Heyward relayed Howard's doubts about the documents to Moonves, and, if he did, why did the network continue to defend them?

GRAMMYS REMAIN MUSIC FOR CBS'S EARS

Ratings for the Grammy Awards may have gone south last weekend, losing nearly a third of the audience it attracted last year, but they were still potent enough to help CBS win the first full week of the February sweeps. Fox also scored strongly with two editions of American Idol, which clobbered their competition on Tuesday and Wednesday. Fox appeared to be on the verge of repeating that feat again this week as ratings for American Idol again dominated the Nielsen list Tuesday night.

TV REPORTER SUSPENDED FOR BADMOUTHING FELLOW REPORTER

A Philadelphia TV reporter has been suspended for reportedly urging a police officer to avoid talking to her colleague because he was not to be trusted, the Philadelphia Daily News reported Tuesday. TV columnist Dan Gross said that insiders at NBC-owned WCAU-TV don't believe that Monique Braxton, who became a full-time reporter for the station only nine months ago, had bad-mouthed fellow reporter Harry Hairston, but that Hairston, believing that she had, complained to management, which promptly suspended her. Neither Hairston, Braxton, or station management has commented on the matter.

DISNEYWAR IN PREEMPTIVE STRIKE

Publishers Simon & Schuster has rushed out copies of James Stewart's DisneyWar: The Battle for the Magic Kingdom, crossing out their official March 7 release date. The Orlando Sun-Sentinel reported Tuesday that the publishing company was acting to get copies of the books into stores after articles disclosing details of the book appeared in the newspaper and the Los Angeles Times. The initial printing was said to be 200,000. Meanwhile, Stewart, in his regular column for Smart Money, wrote Tuesday that it was time for Disney to name a successor to Michael Eisner and for Eisner to make a complete break from the company. "Disney needs a leader who can reignite the creative spirit at the heart of the company, respect and encourage the often difficult personalities who create hit entertainment products, unite the warring factions of the company, and placate institutional investors and business partners," Stewart wrote. "It needs to be someone who can be an effective partner to people like Steve Jobs at Pixar and Harvey Weinstein at Miramax, and who doesn't feel threatened by them or by people who succeed within Disney's executive ranks." That person, Stewart added, should not be Disney President Robert Iger "given his close association with Eisner."

HOT CONTROVERSY OVER SAHARA

Disney's upcoming thriller Sahara, having already raised eyebrows because it was directed by Michael Eisner's son Breck, who had little previous experience behind the cameras, is likely to be at the center of another controversy when Clive Cussler, who wrote the novel on which it was based, files a breach-of-contract lawsuit. FoxNews.com's Roger Friedman writes that Cussler will claim that he was not given script approval as his contract stipulated. But a spokesman for Philip Anschutz's Bristol Bay Productions, which has a distribution deal with Disney, maintains that Cussler "got everything he was entitled to and more." He accused Cussler of abandoning the production.

MCGURK AND WEINSTEINS TO FORM NEW MOVIE COMPANY?

Outgoing MGM Vice Chairman and COO Chris McGurk may partner with outgoing Miramax Co-chairmen Bob and Harvey Weinstein in a new film company, the New York Post reported today (Wednesday), citing unnamed sources. According to the newspaper, McGurk is seeking to raise $300 million from private investors in the company, which would come into existence after the completion of Sony's takeover of MGM and the Weinstein's departure from Disney. Both the Weinsteins and McGurk denied the report.

STUNT MEN WANT ACADEMY RECOGNITION

Four Hollywood organizations representing stunt men are banding together to petition the movie academy to create a new Oscar category, best stunt coordinator, the New York Times reported today (Wednesday). The groups are Stunts Unlimited, Brand X, the Stuntmen's Association of Motion Pictures and the International Stunt Association. In a joint statement that the groups plan to release next week, they wrote: "Stunt performers are the only faction of the movie industry that must literally risk their lives for the sake of their art. ... The talent and expertise that is required of a stunt coordinator to be both creative and safe is enormous and highly deserving of academy recognition." However, John Pavlik, a spokesman for the academy, told the Times: "Stunt groups have asked for categories in the past. The board of governors has looked at it in the past, and is reluctant to add categories."

BRUNEI BANS CONSTANTINE

The government of Brunei has banned Keanu Reeves' supernatural thriller Constantine, presumably concluding that its depiction of God and Satan renders it unsuitable for public viewing in the Islamic country. The Associated Press, which disclosed the ban, observed that Brunei has some of Southeast Asia's strictest censorship rules on movies that could be regarded as offensive to Islam.