ABC DANCES WITH SUMMER'S BIGGEST HIT

ABC's hit summer series Dancing With the Stars, which saw its ratings slip a tad last week, made up for the lost numbers -- and more -- Wednesday night as it scored an 11.7 rating and a 20 share in the 9:00 p.m. hour, equaling the ratings of CBS, NBC and Fox combined. The final broadcast of the series is set to air next week. Wednesday night's show gave ABC a wide lead over its rivals as it posted an average 7.9 rating and a 14 share. NBC was well behind in second place with a 5.4/10. CBS finished in third place with a 4.6/8, while Fox trailed with a 2.4/4.

RATINGS DIVE ON TUESDAY

On Tuesday night, when the television networks handed over time to President Bush for a speech that critics said was singularly unnewsworthy and designed to defend his Iraq policy, audiences fled the broadcast networks in droves. The cable network BET, in fact, outrated the major broadcast networks among 18-49 year olds, with its coverage of the fifth annual BET Awards. Taking the biggest hit was the launch of ABC's big-budget and mightily-hyped miniseries Empire, which drew just a 5.1 rating and an 8 share, representing 6.4 million viewers. Worse still was the season premiere of NBC's Average Joe: The Joes Strike Back, which was bumped to 10:00 p.m. by the president's address. It scored a last-place 4.4/7, slightly better than its flop lead-in, I Want to Be a Hilton, which recorded a 4.2/7.

ABC PULLS OUT OF THE NEIGHBORHOOD

Bowing to protests from numerous activist groups, ABC on Wednesday yanked its reality series Welcome to the Neighborhood in which a group of seven families from untraditional backgrounds were to vie for a four-bedroom home in an Austin, TX suburb. The judges were to be the white, Christian neighbors living on the cul-de-sac where the house is located. ""Our intention with Welcome to the Neighborhood was to show the transformative process that takes place when people are forced to confront preconceived notions of what makes a good neighbor, and we believe the series delivers exactly that," However, the network added, anyone tuning in to the first few episodes would get a poor impression of the neighbors, whose attitudes change during the final episodes. Among the groups protesting the show was the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, whose entertainment media director Damon Romine told the Associated Press on Wednesday, "Regardless of how things turn out at the end of the last show, it's dangerous to let intolerance and bigotry go unchallenged for weeks at a time" John C. Brittain, chief counsel for the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, told the New York Times that the show was "hilarious and had me in stitches. ... If it weren't so discriminatory, it would be great."

TBS LOVES RAYMOND TO THE TUNE OF $650,000 PER EPISODE

In what is believed to be the richest cable-rights deal since TBS paid nearly $1 million per episode in 1998 for Seinfeld, TBS agreed to pay $650,000 per episode to air all nine seasons of Everybody Loves Raymond, starring Ray Romano, the Hollywood Reporter reported today (Thursday). The deal will keep the CBS-produced show on the Turner Broadcasting outlet through 2016. NBC, meanwhile, is reportedly looking to get $1 million per episode for cable reruns of Friends.

CABLE NEWS BACK IN JAWS MODE

Cable news networks, who were taken to task after 9/11 for devoting hours of time to shark sightings and individual attacks off the Florida coast, are being criticized for doing the same thing again. George Burgess, curator of the International Shark Attack File at the University of Florida, who is often called to comment on such attacks, told the Miami Herald: "I'm sitting here waiting to do two Fox shows back to back. ... I was on Good Morning America and CNN and have been running from one interview to the next. I spent about four hours today tied up with the autopsy and when I came out, I had 80 messages waiting for me. It's a real media feeding frenzy right now."

LACHLAN MURDOCH SAYS FOX SEEKS AD "POD" ALTERNATIVE

Saying that traditional two- or three-minute long commercial breaks on TV shows were always "a stupid idea," News Corp scion Lachlan Murdoch told an advertising industry forum in Cannes Wednesday that his company was experimenting with ways to deliver commercial messages to audiences more effectively. The current advertising "pods," he said, send the message, "let's change the channel or let's fast forward." Murdoch, News Corp's deputy COO, said that his company is working with ad clients to include them in the creative process and working with them in cross-media projects.

U.S. MILITARY KILL TWO MORE REPORTERS IN BAGHDAD

Yasser Salihee, an Iraqi special correspondent for the Knight Ridder news service, has become the latest reporter to be shot and killed in Baghdad. Tom Lasseter, who frequently shared a byline with Salihee, reported Wednesday that Salihee was apparently shot by a U.S. military sniper as he was driving past a joint patrol of American and Iraqi troops last Friday. Lasseter said that the U.S. military is investigating the incident. Ironically, Salihee had frequently written about attacks by U.S. military and Iraqi police on friendly Iraqis and foreign contractors. Last November he wrote, "Gunfire is so frequent in Baghdad, and hard-to-identify armed people so ubiquitous, that a senior official in the Human Rights Ministry declined to criticize accidental deaths from such shootouts." Meanwhile, officials of the new Iraqi TV news station al-Sharqiya said Wednesday that U.S. troops killed their program director, Ahmed Wael Bakri as he was trying to pass a traffic accident in Baghdad Tuesday. The international watchdog group Reporters Without Borders issued a statement demanding an investigation of the death.

PIRATE TO WALK THE PLANK

Johnny Ray Gasca, described as the poster boy of movie piracy, became the first person to be convicted on movie bootlegging charges Wednesday. A federal court jury found him guilty of three misdemeanor counts for taping the movies Anger Management, 8 Mile and The Core with a camcorder in 2002 and 2003. He was also found guilty of four felony charges related to the case. In a diary introduced as evidence Gasca boasted that he had been earning as much a $4,000 a week from his DVD bootlegs. (Gasca claimed in court that he had made up the figure in order to impress a girlfriend.) In a statement, MPAA President Dan Glickman said, "Gasca, who posed as an employee of the MPAA to get into screenings, threatened people and boasted about his illegal camcording adventures, was brought to justice today."

LUCAS REFLECTS ON THE DARK SIDE OF FILMMAKING

George Lucas has predicted the imminent demise of big-budget epics like the Star Wars and Indiana Jones movies with which he is associated. The online edition of Wired magazine quotes him as saying, "The big tent-pole movies will be the first victim of the rapid technological changes we're seeing now. ... We're just not going to see those being made anymore." Internet piracy was one of the factors influencing change, Lucas observed. "Why pay for something when you can get it for free on opening day? ... If they don't solve this problem of how to sell over the internet, the business is going to shrink, and what's produced will be more like TV movies. They'll be low budget, and there won't be as many of them." Another factor, he said, was the growth of home entertainment systems. "There is a difference between how you make things for big screen and small screen," he said. "When you're designing for DVD, you tend to end up with more close-ups, and your wide shots aren't so wide. I don't subscribe to that stylistic shift, but a lot of kids making movies now grew up on TV and DVDs -- not films in theaters -- so that's how they make movies."

LOW-BUDGET FILMS PRODUCE HIGH PROFITS FOR LIONS GATE

Demonstrating again that low-budget films can often produce far greater box-office success than blockbusters, Toronto-based Lions Gate reported Wednesday that it recorded net profit of $20.1 million in its fourth quarter, reversing last year's fourth-quarter loss of $50.5 million. It attributed the results to the success of Tyler Perry's Diary of a Mad Black Woman and the thriller Saw. The company said that its revenue for fiscal 2005 totaled $842.6 million, up 124.2 percent over last year's $375.9 million.

SAG MEMBERS TO VOTE ON VOICE-OVER CONTRACT

The membership of the Screen Actors Guild will be given a chance to have its say in a proposed contract with video game producers that had appeared scuttled a week ago after the union's National Executive Committee rejected it on the grounds that it did not provide for residual payments. The agreement had been approved by SAG's sister union, the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, presenting the likely scenario that all health and welfare payments made by the game producers would go to it and not to SAG. The producers contend that the actors contribute relatively little to a game's success compared with the efforts of digital creators and artists, and that if they were to begin making residual payments to them, they would be obligated to making payments to everyone connected with the game's production. The new contract does call for a substantial 36-percent pay raise over the 3 1/2-year contract.

15-YEAR-OLD SELECTED FOR TEEN SPY ROLE

A handsome 15-year-old actor has admitted to being slightly overwhelmed when he learned that he had landed the lead in the upcoming Stormbreaker, based on the Anthony Horowitz books about a teenager who becomes an agent for Britain's M16 spy agency after his uncle and guardian is mysteriously killed. The film will co-star Ewan McGregor (as the uncle), Mickey Rourke, Alicia Silverstone and Damian Lewis. In an interview with the British Press Association wire service, Alex Pettyfer remarked, "One minute I'm playing a PlayStation game with Ewan McGregor in it and the next minute I'm standing next to him." PA said that Pettyfer's role will be the most physically demanding ever undertaken by a child actor. He apparently was a perfect match for the character created by Horowitz, who first saw him on a British TV drama. He said that immediately after it was over, "I emailed the film's producers and said, 'You have to see this boy.'"

TARZAN TO FLY ON BROADWAY

The Walt Disney Co., which created rigging to fly Mary Poppins over the audience for the London stage version of its 1964 movie, will presumably be doing the same when it presents a Broadway adaptation of its 1999 Tarzan movie next year. Disney Theatricals announced Wednesday that the show will be directed and designed by Bob Crowley, who also designed the sets, rigging and costumes for Mary Poppins. Disney said that the score will be written by Phil Collins, who provided the songs for the film.