NBC HOPING FOR COMEBACK

NBC Universal TV Group President Jeff Zucker told TV critics on Friday that he's unhappy with his network's showing in the ratings this season but predicted that the season will end with each of the four networks being separated by three-tenths of a ratings point. "It's never been this close. There's never been such parity between the four networks," Zucker said. He also took aim at rumors that Today show host Katie Couric might sign a deal to anchor the CBS Evening News after her contract expires next year. Zucker said that negotiations have already begun to extend her NBC contract. Besides, he said, "We've decided that if CBS goes after Katie Couric, we're going after Julie Chen." Chen, who competes against Couric on CBS's The Early Show, is married to Moonves. Referring to the Dan Rather "memogate" report, Zucker, a onetime president of NBC News, said that he found Rather's "lack of involvement in a piece of that magnitude ... shocking." He maintained that NBC, as a result of an embarrassment of its own in 1992 when producers rigged up a fake truck crash, had put safeguards into play that would have prevented such an occurrence on any of its news programs. Moreover, he added: "The degree to which responsibility was abdicated on a piece about the president of the United States six weeks before the election is something that would have never been done by Tom Brokaw or Brian Williams." His criticism was later echoed by NBC News President Neal Shapiro.

FORMER CBS NEWS VETERAN FENTON BLASTS NETWORK NEWS CHIEFS

Former CBS foreign correspondent Tom Fenton, who was referred to as "a true gentleman" by CBS News President Andrew Heyward when Fenton retired last month, has taken off the gloves and has attacked "navel-gazing executives" at CBS News for failing to devote sufficient attention to overseas issues. As reported in today's (Monday) Washington Post, Fenton, in a forthcoming book titled Bad News, claims that network bosses refused to allow him to pursue an interview with Osama bin Laden in 1996. "Our bosses saw him as an obscure Arab of no interest to our viewers," Fenton says. "More concerned with saving dollars than pursuing the story, they killed the project." Fenton maintains that during his 34 years with the network, he had "so many of my stories rejected" by news executives who served as "corporate bean counters." The network's London bureau, where he was stationed for nearly all of his career with the network, "doesn't do much reporting any more," he said. "What it does is called packaging."

CBS'S AFC PLAYOFFS TROUNCE TV RIVALS -- EXCEPT HOUSEWIVES

CBS overwhelmed its rivals Sunday night with its telecast of the AFC playoff game which likewise saw the New England Patriots overwhelm the Pittsburgh Steelers 41 - 27. The game scored an average 21 rating and a 31 share in primetime. Nevertheless, there were a lot of TV viewers who had their sets tuned in during the 9:00 hour as Desperate Housewives pulled a 16.1/22 against the game's 21.6/30. Following the game, the premiere of CBS's new series Numb3rs at 10:00 p.m. won the hour with a 13.4/21.

ABC WON'T ABANDON MONDAY NIGHT FOOTBALL, SAYS EXEC

Even though Monday Night Football no longer occupies the dominant position in the ratings that it once did and even though ABC loses an estimated $150 million a year to carry it, the network will probably renew its deal with the NFL, which expires at the end of the 2005-2006 season, a top executive of the network said Sunday. Speaking to reporters at their annual winter press tour in Los Angeles, Steve McPherson, president of primetime entertainment for the network, said, "We're planning on having Monday Night Football for many, many years to come."

HOW DESPERATE CAN A HOUSEWIFE GET?

Desperate Housewives

creator Marc Cherry said Sunday that the Monday Night Football promo for the show in which star Nicollette Sheridan confronted Philadelphia Eagles star Terrell Owens in a locker room and doffed the towel she was wearing was originally supposed to feature not Owens but MNF commentator John Madden. "A woman as glorious-looking as Nicollette Sheridan throwing herself at John Madden is just funny," Cherry said. He added, apparently tongue in cheek: "I didn't want to upset people. I didn't realize that Monday Night Football was such a family viewing experience. I wouldn't let my 5-year-old watch beer commercials with big-busted cheerleaders, but that's just me." Sheridan maintained that the intent of the promo was merely to entertain, adding, "Taking a pop culture incident like that and having it take precedence over the underlying problems of the world was absurd."

TELETHON'S RESULTS TALLIED

NBC's celebrity telethon on behalf of the victims of the tsunami disaster in Southeast Asia raised more than $18 million last weekend, the network said Sunday. Telethons conducted by individual NBC stations raised an additional $10 million, it added. The benefit was reportedly modeled after a similar one in 2001, which raised $130 million to aid families and victims of the 9/11 attacks.

AUSTRALIAN TV CAMERAMAN ON HAND WHEN BOMB STRUCK

The Australian Broadcasting Corp. said today (Monday) that one of its cameramen was struck by debris but was uninjured when a car bomb exploded at a checkpoint near the headquarters of Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi. Two people were reportedly killed and 10 wounded in the attack. As the ABC cameraman began taking pictures of the scene, he was seized by police and forced to leave the area, according to a report by the French news agency Agence France Presse.

SO LONG, JOHNNY

Dozens of expressions of sorrow were issued by political and entertainment celebrities Sunday following the death of Johnny Carson at age 79. "His wit and insight made Americans laugh and think and had a profound influence on American life and entertainment," said President Bush. "All of us who came after are pretenders. We will not see the likes of him again," said David Letterman. "No single individual has had as great an impact on television as Johnny. He was the gold standard," commented Carson's Tonight show successor, Jay Leno.

MOVIEGOERS BRAVE BLIZZARD

Ice Cube may be the way to describe the blizzard-struck box office over the weekend. It's also the name of the star of the unexpected winner of the No. 1 position, the comedy Are We There Yet?, which earned $18.5 million in ticket sales. The results far exceeded the predictions of most analysts -- and even the film's distributor, Sony. Last weekend's winner, Paramount's Coach Carter, starring Samuel L. Jackson, slipped to second place with $11 million, edging out the Universal comedy Meet the Fockers with $10.2 million. The thriller Assault on Precinct 13, which many analysts had predicted would wind up as the top film of the weekend, instead opened in sixth place with $7 million ($8.6 million including Wednesday and Thursday). Ticket sales for the top 12 films totaled $85.6 million, up 3.9 percent from the comparable weekend a year ago.

The top ten films for the weekend, according to studio estimates compiled by Exhibitor Relations:

1. Are We There Yet? $18.5 million; 2. Coach Carter, $11 million; 3. Meet the Fockers, $10.2 million; 4. In Good Company, $8.5 million; 5. Racing Stripes, $7.06 million; 6. Assault on Precinct 13, $7.02 million; 7. The Phantom of the Opera, $5.02 million; 8. White Noise, $5 million; 9. The Aviator, $4.8 million; 10. Elektra, $3.8 million.

SINGLETON SIGNS THREE-PICTURE DEAL AT CANNES

Producer/director/writer John Singleton (Boyz 'n the Hood, Poetic Justice, Higher Learning, Shaft, Rosewood) has not only signed a distribution deal for his first independent feature, Hustle & Flow, which he produced (and reportedly paid for out of his own pocket), but the deal also covers two additional films that have yet to be produced. Singleton's deal reportedly calls for Paramount and MTV Films, corporate siblings in the Viacom family, to pay $16 million for the package, with $9 million of the figure designated for Hustle & Flow, in itself a sizable price for a Sundance pick-up. "It's a great [and] unprecedented deal," Paramount Classics Co-president David Dinerstein told the online indieWIRE on Sunday. Hustle & Flow, he said, "is the best film at this festival."

THE ATTACK OF THE MULTIPLEXES IN FLORIDA

Multiplexes are going up at a staggering pace in Central Florida, where the number of movie screens in Orlando alone is expected to rise to 465 this year from the current 355, raising questions about the area's ability to sustain such growth, the Orlando Sentinel reported today (Monday). The newspaper reported that developers are encouraged by an increase in admissions and quoted the editor of In Focus, an online publication of the National Association of Theater Owners, as saying that ticket sales had risen to their highest level since 1957 over the last three years. (The comment contrasts with other trade reports, which have indicated that admissions declined in both 2003 and 2004.)

FRANCE TO FILMMAKERS: THE LOUVRE IS NOT A MOVIE SET

A French official indicated Friday that the film version of The Da Vinci Code, in which numerous key scenes take place in the Louvre museum in Paris could "in principle" be shot at the museum itself, but only if the shooting takes place at night or on Tuesdays when it is closed to the public. Museum director Henri Loyrette, appearing on France-Inter Radio remarked that "The Louvre is not a movie set. It is a place that receives an average of 20,000 visitors a day." The implication of his remarks was that the filmmakers could receive permission to film at the museum provided that they not interfere with normal access to its galleries by visitors.