LOOK WHO'S AT THE TOP!

Suddenly, ABC was back on top again, with its best ratings since the heady days of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire four years go. Only this time the credit did not go to just one show. The network was able to boast big numbers for a slew of programs, and especially for Saturday's NFL playoff game between the New York Jets and San Diego Chargers that produced a 16.0 rating and a 28 share translating to 26 million viewers. ABC also saw the audience for Wednesday's Lost swell to its biggest size of the season, while Desperate Housewives continued to draw the top numbers of the night on Sunday. The fourth season premiere of Alias on Wednesday was by far the best ever for the ABC thriller. Overall, ABC averaged an astounding 10.0 rating and a 16 share for the week, well above second-place CBS's 7.9/12. NBC placed third with a 6.9/11, while Fox improved to a 5.4/8.

The top ten shows of the week according to Nielsen Research:

1. CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, CBS, 17.7/26; 2. AFC Wild-Card Game: New York Jets vs. San Diego Chargers, ABC, 16.0/28; 3. Desperate Housewives, ABC, 15.1/22; 3. Without a Trace, CBS, 15.1/24; 5. NFL Showcase, ABC, 14.6/26; 6. Orange Bowl: USC vs. Oklahoma, ABC, 13.7/22; 7. Lost, ABC, 12.8/19; 8. CSI: Miami, CBS, 12.0/19; 8. NFC Wild-Card Post-Game Show, Fox, 12.0/19; 10. Everybody Loves Raymond, CBS, 11.8/17.

CBS NEWS FIRINGS: THE AFTERMATH

While newspapers and wire services were abuzz Tuesday over CBS's decision to fire four key news executives and staffers over their handling of the network's discredited story about President Bush's service in the National Guard, the story never made The CBS Evening News with Dan Rather. Rather himself referred to the matter only in an email message sent to news employees in which he expressed "sadness and concern" for the "four good people" who had been fired and urged his colleagues to get back to business and do their jobs better than ever. "We should take seriously the admonition of the report's authors to do our job well and carefully, but also their parallel admonition not to be afraid to cover important and controversial issues." (In that regard, CBS News observers were continuing to ask why the network was still holding back the report that was dumped in favor of the Rather piece last September -- about how the Bush administration was apparently duped into believing that Saddam Hussein was attempting to buy uranium from Niger. The network had originally said that it intended to air the report following last November's presidential election.) Meanwhile, critics of the independent investigation, mostly conservative activists, questioned its actual independence, noting that the panel had been paid by CBS, that it released no staff memos or emails related to the investigation, that it failed to address the issue of political bias, and that it seemed intended to defuse the controversy and limit its possible damage to the news division's and Rather's reputation. Perhaps some of the strongest criticism voiced by anyone within CBS News in response to the network's and Rather's statements about the report came from Face the Nation host Bob Schieffer, who told the Associated Press Tuesday: "You just can't promise 'We're never going to do it again. ... You have to demonstrate you don't tolerate this sort of thing and put procedures into place that convince people you're really serious."

ESPN INTRODUCING TABLOID NEWS SHOW

If movie stars can have their own gossip shows, why not sports stars? That question presumably arose in the minds of ESPN execs who announced Tuesday that they plan to launch a new series, ESPN Hollywood, described as a kind of Entertainment Tonight or Access Hollywood for sports fans, or as MediaWeek put it, a series that "covers the latest [indulgences], pursuits and romances of today's hottest sports icons and the musicians and movie stars who love to watch them." The daily half-hour magazine will originate in Hollywood and feature two unnamed hosts.

WHITE HOUSE DRUG OFFICE IN SUPER BOWL WITHDRAWAL

The White House Office of National Drug Control Policy has decided not to shell out $2.5 million to buy a spot on the Feb. 6 Super Bowl game, Advertising Age reported today (Wednesday). (Actually, networks are required to provide government agencies with two spots for the price of one -- so the drug office has usually aired two ads during the annual football contest.) A spokesman for the ONDCP said that the decision resulted from budget cuts. "We think that the Super Bowl is a great [ad] buy for us and a great co-viewing opportunity" for parents and their children, the spokesman told the trade publication. "It's been [this way] over the last few years and has been effective, but our budget has been reduced, and we are trying to focus our buying and have been forced to make some hard choices."

JUDGES WASHES MOUTH OF DRUG COMPANY

A federal judge has ordered Pfizer to yank its TV ads for Listerine mouthwash that claim it is as effective as dental floss to remove plaque. Calling the ads "false and misleading" Judge Denny Chin of United States District Court in Manhattan also ordered Pfizer to halt its similar print ads and to put stickers over the claims on Listerine bottles and to remove ads hanging on the product's bottlenecks. The lawsuit against Pfizer was brought by McNeil-PPC, a unit of Johnson & Johnson, which claimed that the ads posed an unfair threat to sales of its Reach brand dental floss.

NEW JERSEY TOWN BARS THE SIMPLE LIFE

Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie won't be working as substitute teachers and cafeteria monitors at the J.P. Cleary Middle School in Buena, a rural community 30 miles west of Atlantic City, NJ. Word that the school would be featured in an upcoming episode of Fox's The Simple Life outraged some local parents who protested that it would hold the community up to ridicule. The Associated Press quoted one parent as saying that she thought it was "ludicrous that the Board of Education and the administration would invite Paris Hilton to teach 11-, 12- and 13-year-olds, and Nicole Richie, too." [In the series the two give the impression that they must have flunked most of their basic education.] Producers had reportedly offered school officials $5,000 to film the episode at the Cleary school.

STALLONE'S MOTHER A SURPRISE BIG BROTHER GUEST

Producers of the British version of Celebrity Big Brother have stoked controversy by adding Sylvester Stallone's mother to the eight original housemates who began living together under 24-hour camera coverage last Thursday. The arrival of Jacqueline Stallone, who gave her age as 71 (her son is 58), was presumably intended to set off sparks between her and another celebrity housemate, actress Brigitte Nielsen, who was Mrs. Stallone's daughter-in-law from 1985-1987. At the time, Mrs. Stallone said that she wished for an earthquake and that her daughter would fall in the crater. Instead, her entrance resulted in the exit of another celebrity housemate, feminist author Germaine Greer, who said that she couldn't abide watching Mrs. Stallone torment Nielsen. Greer, who had been publicly critical of such reality shows in the past, said in the show's "diary room," "If you take my advice, you'd get me out of here fast. I didn't expect this level of squalor either physically or mentally. I shouldn't have done it. I hate making mistakes."

DID JAPANESE GOVERNMENT CENSOR CONTROVERSIAL NHK WWII DRAMA?

The producers of a 2001 Japanese drama dealing with sexual violence by Japan's military during World War II have accused Japan's largest TV network, NHK, of censoring the program in order to appease critics within the government. Today's Asahi Shimbun reported that Shoichi Nakagawa, minister of economy, trade and industry, and Shinzo Abe, acting Liberal Democratic Party secretary-general, prompted the revisions. The newspaper quoted unnamed sources as saying that the two politicians demanded a meeting with top NHK executives at which they denounced the program as one-sided and demnded that it be made more objective. "If you can't do that, cancel the program," Nakagawa was quoted as saying. Following the meeting, editors were ordered to alter the program's contents. "The reasoning was that the opinions of politicians could not be ignored when the government budget for NHK for the next fiscal year was being discussed in the Diet," the Asahi Shimbun reported.

DISNEY RETURNS TO DELAWARE

Testimony resumed in Georgetown, DE Tuesday in what both sides seemed to expect would be the final week of the shareholders' lawsuit against the Walt Disney Co. Larry Feldman, an attorney specializing in wrongful-termination lawsuits, said that former president Michael Ovitz would have sued the company for hundreds of millions of dollars if it had refused to pay him the $140 million under the terms of his employment contract. He said that he himself would have "gladly represented" Ovitz in such a lawsuit. (Ovitz paid for his appearance at the Delaware trial.) "There was nothing anyone could show that was deceitful, improper" that would have given grounds for Disney to fire Ovitz for cause, Feldman testified.

SAG HEAPS NOMINATIONS ON SIDEWAYS, FOXX

The stars of Sideways, who have already received heaps of awards from critics, got more from their peers Tuesday when all of them received nominations for the 11th Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards. Paul Giamatti was nominated for best actor; Thomas Haden Church, for best supporting actor; Virginia Madsen, for best supporting actress; and the entire cast for best ensemble. Jamie Foxx set a record when he was nominated for three different roles. He received a best actor nomination for Ray; a best supporting actor nod for Collateral; and another best actor nomination for his television performance in the miniseries Redemption. He was also nominated as a member of the ensemble cast of Ray. Other best actor nominees were Don Cheadle (Hotel Rwanda), Johnny Depp (Finding Neverland) and Leonardo DiCaprio (The Aviator). Best film actress nominations went to Annette Bening (Being Julia), Catalina Sandino Moreno (Maria Full of Grace), Imelda Staunton (Vera Drake) and Kate Winslet (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind).

ALEXANDER CAN'T STAND THE NOISE

The low-budget White Noise, which received withering reviews, went up against Alexander, which received equally faultfinding comments, at the British box office over the weekend as both films made their U.K. debut. White Noise, which stars Michael Keaton,won, taking in $3.37 million. Alexander settled for $2.27 million.

BANGKOK FILM FESTIVAL OPENS AMID CONTROVERSY

Despite the devastation and loss-of-life incurred by Thailand in last month's tsunami, the Bangkok International Film Festival 2005 was expected to open as planned today (Thursday in Thailand) at several theaters, hosted by the country's Tourism Authority. The festival, produced by Beverly Hills, CA-based Film Festival Management, will feature more than 180 films, shown in several downtown Bangkok theaters over nine days. Commenting on the festival, the Bangkok Post observed that it faces the task of "establishing a meaningful niche in the film festival circuit as well as creating real significance for local filmmakers and audiences alike." However, the decision to hire a U.S. firm to produce the festival and to feature many English-language films without translation has upset many local film makers. Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul, who received a Jury Prize award in Cannes last year, told the Post: "This event seems to me more like a celebration of movie stars rather than a celebration of movies." But Craig Peters, head of Film Festival Management responded: "Our objective is to expose international films to the Thai community and distributors, and to expose Thai filmmakers to the rest of the world. And sure, tourism is the important part."

VANCOUVER FILM COMPANIES THREATEN TO MOVE EAST

Film companies based in Vancouver plan to pull up stakes and move to Toronto or Montreal unless the British Columbia government matches the tax credits recently introduced in the Eastern provinces, the Vancouver Sun reported today (Wednesday). Stephen Hegyes, co-owner of Brightlight Pictures, which produced the new hit film White Noise in Vancouver, told the newspaper, "The thing about this industry is that money is portable. ... We are going to have to [switch] movies to better conditions until we know what is going on with the B.C. tax credit." However, British Columbia Finance Minister Colin Hansen told the Sun that he wants to avoid a "knee-jerk reaction" to what the other provinces have done. "We want to analyze it and decide how we can most effectively support the industry," he said.