IDOL ON IDLE?

The chief executive of the Fox network admitted Monday that the network had "drifted too much" toward reality shows this season and said she doubted that American Idol would improve the network's situation. In fact, she said, she expected ratings for the talent contest to decline. "We can expect to see audience dispersion and some declines. I think that is only natural," she told critics at their annual winter tour in Los Angeles. Idol's fourth season launches tonight (Tuesday). Berman refused to accept the verdict that her plan to launch new shows during the summer months was a failure, suggesting that the reason why the shows that launched last June tanked had more to do with the audience's reaction to the content than to the timing. "There's no question that the audience, in our mind, is ready, willing and able to accept new programming in the summer," she told the television critics. This year, however, some of the new shows will debut in May rather than in June, she said, including the new animated American Dad from Seth MacFarlane, who created Family Guy. (The new series revolves around a CIA agent and his family "trying to find a way to love and trust each other during these increasingly stressful times.") Berman also told the writers that Fox had recently blurred out the naked butt of a character on a rerun of Family Guy because it was worried that it might generate complaints to the FCC. Given the current political climate, she indicated, "We have to be checking and second-guessing ourselves now." The same episode had aired uncensored five years ago on Fox.

DOFF THE AGE CAPS, SAYS IDOL'S COWELL

American Idol judge and co-producer Simon Cowell has criticized the Fox network for capping the age of contestants on the show at 28. (It was recently raised from 26.) In an interview with the Philadelphia Inquirer, Cowell remarked that it was a mistake for TV executives to target any specific demographic. "It's a funny thing about 18- to 34-year-olds. My gut is that when you don't aim at them specifically and aim at everyone, they'll still watch. It's always a danger when you try to target an age group in TV or music. I would never do it."

SPORTS STARS JOIN SIMPSONS VOICE CAST FOR SUPER BOWL SUNDAY

The voices of a number of sports superstars will be featured on a special episode of the animated Fox series The Simpsons that will air following the Feb. 6 Super Bowl game, the network announced Monday. They include two-time Super Bowl champion Tom Brady, seven-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Warren Sapp; NBA All-Stars Yao Ming and LeBron James, and Olympic figure skating medalist Michelle Kwan.

MALONE'S LIBERTY IN MERGER DEAL WITH OVERSEAS CABLER

John Malone's Liberty Media International, which already owns more cable TV systems abroad than any other company, announced Monday that it will pay about $3.65 billion in stock for UnitedGlobalCom, which serves nine million subscribers in 15 countries. The combined group will be known as Liberty Global. Under the deal, shareholders in UnitedGlobalCom, will receive 0.2155 Liberty Global share for each UnitedGlobalCom share. In a statement, Mike Fries, president and CEO of UnitedGlobalCom, said that as a result of the merger, "Liberty Global will have one of the strongest balance sheets in the industry, additional cash to pursue acquisitions and a simplified and more liquid trading market for its stock."

SHOW TO MAKEOVER ENTIRE TOWNS

Taking "makeover" shows to the nth degree, TLC, The Learning Channel, plans to launch a new series on Jan. 22 in which entire towns will be renovated. Titled Town Haul, the reality show will begin with the renovation of Jeffersonville, NY over a series of weeks. The series, hosted by Trading Spaces' Genevieve Gorder, will be sponsored by Procter & Gamble, whose products will be employed by the skilled workmen and local townspeople working side-by-side on the renewal project. In addition, P&G's Swiffer cleaning product will be the primary sponsor. In a statement, Kristine Decker, P&G's Swiffer brand manager, said: "To organically integrate our products with "Town Haul" in such an entertaining format is a great fit for our brand."

NO CENSOR POWER FOR BBC GOVERNORS, BRITISH GOVERNMENT SAYS

The British government has turned down demands that it give the BBC board of governors authority to preview programs and alter them if they suspect they will be offensive. The demands came in the wake of an outcry by conservative and religious groups over the BBC's recent telecast of the hit West End musical Jerry Springer: The Opera. Several leading members of the opposition Conservative party had joined in the protest over the telecast, including deputy party leader Michael Ancram, who warned that the publicly supported broadcaster had a responsibility "to exercise a degree of caution."

FIRST-RUN MOVIES COMING TO HOME THEATERS

Morgan Freeman and his movie company, Revelations Entertainment, have joined Intel in a strategy to bypass multiplexes and distribute first-run movies directly to home theaters via the Internet, the Wall Street Journal reported today (Tuesday). "We're not pushing his technology -- the technology is pushing us," Freeman told the newspaper. The Journal noted that in the past, releasing a film directly to video implied that the film was so bad that movie executives had concluded that it would tank at the box office. However, Freeman said that such a perception would not likely be accorded the Internet, which, he said, users perceive as cool.

MLK HOLIDAY A DREAM WEEKEND FOR MOVIE COMPANIES

The four-day Martin Luther King holiday fulfilled the dreams of movie executives as a lackluster parade of new films produced the second-highest total result for the holiday in history. (The Hollywood Reporter said that the box office "has a shot" at topping the $170.7-million record set in 2001.) Heading the list was Paramount's Coach Carter, which took in an estimated $29.2 million for the four days. Universal's Meet the Fockers slipped to second place with an estimated $22.7 million for the holiday period, bringing its total to $234.5 million. The debut of Warner's Racing Stripes took the third spot with $18.6 million, nosing out Universal's In Good Company, which placed fourth with $16.4 million. Fox's Elektra was short-circuited as it premiered with just $15 million for the four days. An even greater disappointment was House of Flying Daggers, a critically praised film from China's Zhang Yimou, which grossed only $2.2 million. Final figures will be released later today (Tuesday).

PRODUCER STILL SHOOTING FOR STAR TREK 11

The executive producer of Star Trek has denied reports that Paramount has vetoed the script for what is currently being called Star Trek 11 and has ordered that a new story be developed. "Unless there is something going on that I am not familiar with, the rumors are totally fictitious," Berman told the Internet site Sci Fi Wire. "Absolutely neither statement, that something has been scuttled and that I have been asked to redevelop something, is true," he said. In fact, Berman predicted that the next Star Trek feature will be bigger and better than all the rest, saying "Of all the Star Trek movies I've been involved with and the previous regimes have been involved with, this one will undoubtedly have a larger scope and budget. It's a very ambitious project, and I'm hoping that it will get the support to come to fruition."

DAWN OF A NEW ZOMBIE FILM

First there was George Romero's classic 1978 zombie movie Dawn of the Dead. Then, last year, came the spoof of the movie, Shaun of the Dead. Now, Romero has a new film in the works, Land of the Dead, in which members of the cast of last year's spoof will be featured, one of the stars of the new movies has disclosed. John Leguizamo, who says he plays "a zombie killer" in the new movie, told the website ComingSoon.net, "I've got my own hypothesis too about [why Romero included the Shaun cast]. ... The beauty about Romero is that there's always been a sense of humor about things. I mean, there's always a little bit of a wink to it."

SPANISH DIRECTOR WINS TOP AWARD AT PALM SPRINGS FESTIVAL

Highlighting its international aspect, the Palm Springs International film Festival ended Monday by presenting its audience award for best narrative feature to Alejandro Amenábar's The Sea Inside, starring Javier Bardem, which is Spain's entry for the foreign-language Oscar. The documentary feature award went to Israeli director Yaron Zilberman's Watermarks, which tells the story of a group of Austrian Jewish athletes, members of the Hakoah Sports Club, who achieved great success in the early 20th century and who were forced to flee their country after the Anschluss with Germany. Meanwhile, it was announced that Fox Searchlight's Kinsey, starring Liam Neeson in the title role, has been selected to close the Berlin International Film Festival on Feb. 20, according to trade publications. The festival opens on Feb. 10 with the previously announced screen of French director Regis Warnier's Man to Man.

DEATH TAKES TWO STARS OF THE '40'S

Ruth Warrick, who made her film debut in Orson Welles's Citizen Kane but was perhaps best known for her long-running performance as Phoebe Tyler Wallingford on All My Children, died Saturday in New York, ABC announced Monday. She was 88. The cause of death was described as complications from pneumonia. It was also announced Monday that Virginia Mayo, a movie queen of the '40s and '50s, had died in Thousand Oaks California at the age of 84. The cause of death was pneumonia and heart failure.

TICKET SALES BOOM IN RUSSIA

The number of people going to movie theaters in the U.S. may not have changed much in years, and it even declined a bit last year, but a boom in the construction of multiplexes in Russia sent admissions in that country rising 41 percent over last year, the BBC reported today (Tuesday). The most popular film of the year was a sci-fi thriller titled Night Watch, which set a record for a Russian Film, $30 million. The highest-grossing foreign film in Russia was The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, which took in $14 million.