WAVE OF TV REPORTERS REACHES DISASTER AREA

More than a week following the tsunami disaster in Southeast Asia, top American news anchors have arrived at the scene of the tragedy. NBC's Brian Williams and CBS' Dan Rather anchored their nightly newscasts from the area on Monday. ABC's Diane Sawyer reported from Thailand for ABC's Good Morning America. (A respiratory illness kept ABC's World News Tonight anchor Peter Jennings from traveling, the network said.) Meanwhile, analysts began speculating Monday about why the networks were so slow to deploy top news personalities to the area. Today's (Tuesday) Los Angeles Times suggested that the delay may have resulted from the "holiday week" and noted that the "networks are scrambling to make up for lost time." "It took a couple of days to figure out the scope of this story," Jon Banner, executive producer of ABC's World News Tonight, told the Associated Press "The death toll went from 10,000 or 20,000 to 80,000 over the course of three days." ABC News correspondent Bob Woodruff told USA Today: "This is one of those stories nobody quite understood in the first couple of days exactly what this was going to be." However, cable stations had jumped on the story almost immediately, with CNN going with wall-to-wall coverage almost at once. The BBC rushed reporters immediately to the area and saw the audience for its Ten O'Clock News rise 34 percent by Tuesday. Although the U.S. networks' evening newscasts began devoting increasing chunks of coverage to the disaster, it was virtually ignored in primetime, except for a single Primetime Live special by ABC on Wednesday and a portion of an NBC Dateline show on Sunday, more than a week after the tsunami struck.

NBC UNIVERSAL TO AIR TSUNAMI TELETHON

An hour-long, celebrity-studded variety show to raise funds for disaster relief in the area hit by last week's tsunami will air live on Jan. 15 on all of the NBC Universal broadcast and cable outlets, NBC Universal Television Group president Jeff Zucker announced Monday. Names of the celebrities who will participate in the show were not disclosed. The program will air at 8:00 p.m. Eastern time on NBC, USA, Bravo, Trio, Sci-Fi, MSNBC and CNBC. NBC stations on the West Coast will air a tape of the show three hours later. Advertising Age reported that another fund-raising program, produced by WNBC-TV in New York, will air at 7:00 Wednesday night on NBC's 14 owned-and-operated stations, replacing the syndicated shows Extra and Access Hollywood. Meanwhile, it was announced that actress Sandra Bullock had sent a $1-million donation to the American Red Cross for tsunami relief and that Leonardo DiCaprio had pledged a "sizable" amount to UNICEF to be targeted for aid to Thailand, where he filmed his 2000 movie The Beach. Ironically, the makers of that film were castigated by Thai environmentalists at the time for temporarily removing some plants from the beach area of Phi Phi island and bulldozing two sand dunes there.

IDOL JUDGE COWELL JUDGED TOP-EARNING U.K. TV STAR

American Idol's Simon Cowell has topped the list of highest-paid British TV personalities by the London Daily Mirror. According to the newspaper, Cowell, who sits as a judge on both the American and British versions of the talent show and is also one of its producers, earned $34 million in 2004. Second on the list was Frasier co-star John Mahoney, who earned $33 million. The third highest earner was Weakest Link host Anne Robinson, who made $19 million.

NEW CHIP WILL PERMIT PORTABLE TV RECORDERS

Advanced Micro Devices (AMD) plans to unveil a chip that will allow consumers to download TV programs to a portable video player without having to route them through a personal computer first, Bloomberg News reported today (Tuesday). "If you can remove the PC from the necessary equation, all of a sudden your market potential goes up rapidly," Dan Shine, director of the AMD unit working on the project, told the wire service.

BOX OFFICE SETS NEW RECORD -- BARELY

Thanks to two films that the major studios had rejected, the 2004 domestic box office managed to beat out the 2003 box office, according to final figures released Monday by Nielsen EDI. The difference between the two years' totals was slim, however, just half a percent -- $9.21 billion in 2004; $9.17 billion in 2003. (Figures released by Exhibitor Relations were slightly higher.) If Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ and Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 is removed from the equation, the box office shortfall would amount to more than 6 percent. Moreover, the number of tickets sold during the year fell 2.5 percent. (Since 2002, the number is down 7.5 percent.) Sony was the top-grossing studio with $1.2 billion in ticket sales. Warner Bros. was close behind in second place with $1.19 billion, followed by Disney with $1.14 billion. Twentieth Century Fox was fourth with $933 million. DreamWorks came in fifth with $926 million. Universal landed in sixth place with $837 million, while Paramount ended up with $613 million. Overseas, Time Warner was the top grosser with a record $2.6 billion, well above Disney's second-place $1.9 billion.

The top-grossing movies of 2004:

1. Shrek 2, $436.5 million; 2. Spider-Man 2, $373.4 million; 3. The Passion of the Christ, $370.3 million; 4. The Incredibles, $251.6 million; 5. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, $249.4 million; 6. The Day After Tomorrow, $186.7 million; 7. The Bourne Supremacy, $176.2 million; 8. Meet the Fockers, $162.5 million; 9. Shark Tale, $159.7 million; 10. The Polar Express, $155.1 million

UNIVERSAL LIFTED BY FOCKERS

To paraphrase a Barbra Streisand tune, Universal, a studio that needed people to watch its movies after finishing sixth among the majors during 2004, was the luckiest studio in the world over the weekend as its Meet the Fockers continued to set new holiday attendance records. The movie, which stars Streisand, along with Ben Stiller, Robert DeNiro, Dustin Hoffman, Blythe Danner and Teri Polo, took in $41.7 million to set a record for the New Year's holiday weekend. (It set a similar record over the Christmas weekend.) The film annihilated the record for New Year's Eve, earning $12.2 million, $3.7 million more than the previous record holder, Tom Hanks' Cast Away earned in 2000. The Jim Carrey starrer, Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events, remained in second place with $14.6 million. Expanding its release, Miramax's The Aviator set down in third place with $11.4 million.

The top ten films over the weekend, according to final figures compiled by Exhibitor Relations (figures in parentheses represent total gross to date):

1. Meet the Fockers, Universal, $41,741,785, 2 Wks. ($162,461,370); 2. Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events, Paramount, $14,587,219, 3 Wks. ($94,616,745); 3. The Aviator, Miramax, $11,364,664, 3 Wks. ($31,541,390); 4. Fat Albert, 20th Century Fox, $10,176,065, 2 Wks. ($33,325,622); 5. Ocean's Twelve, Warner Bros., $9,433,199, 4 Wks. ($107,006,344); 6. National Treasure, Disney, $6,768,112, 7 Wks. ($154,522,305); 7. Spanglish, Sony, $6,183,965, 3 Wks. ($31,001,588); 8. The Polar Express, Warner Bros., $5,609,096, 8 Wks. ($155,112,441); 9. Andrew Lloyd Webber's The Phantom of the Opera, Warner Bros., $4,762,233, 3 Wks. ($16,178,431); 10. Darkness, Miramax, $4,615,762, 2 Wks. ($16,626,820).

PHANTOM FLOP? WARNER'S DENIES IT

Warner Bros. has denied analysts' conclusions that Andrew Lloyd Webber's The Phantom of the Opera has flopped at the box office. A spokeswoman for the studio pointed out on Monday that the film had the second-highest per-theater average last weekend behind Meet the Fockers and that its box-office take increased 20 percent over the previous weekend. "Phantom of the Opera is definitely not a flop and our box office will continue to prove it," the spokeswoman said. (Films released in selected markets -- Phantom is playing in 622 -- generally see better-than-average per-theater results. Moreover, 75 percent of last weekend's top-20 films showed increases over the previous weekend, including The Aviator and Spanglish, which rose by 33 percent.) Phantom, which cost $60-80 million to produce, has thus far earned $16 million.

GREY STORY TURNS GRAY

The Los Angeles Times, which first reported that Brad Grey was close to signing a deal with Viacom to become head of Paramount, is reporting today (Tuesday) that negotiations between the two sides have bogged down over how much the company will pay Grey to leave his own firm, Brillstein-Grey. The newspaper said in today's editions that Grey has told friends and associates that he hasn't decided whether to take the job but hopes to do so by today. It added that Viacom sources had expressed confidence that the issue would be resolved quickly.

SYSTEM CAN QUICKLY SPOT FIRST MOVIE BOOTLEGGERS

Los Gatos-based BayTSP has developed a new monitoring system called FirstSource that can quickly track down movie bootleggers, the San Jose Mercury reported today (Tuesday). The newspaper quoted BayTSP CEO Mark Ishikawa as saying, "Pirated copies of movies and software typically appear online within hours of release. ... Identifying and taking action against the first uploaders can greatly slow the distribution of illegally obtained intellectual property and might make users think twice before doing it." According to the Mercury, when FirstSource spots a movie that has just been released on a file-sharing network, it can capture the IP address of the computer that has uploaded it and then tracks the IP addresses of those downloading it.