CRONKITE: RATHER SHOULD HAVE BEEN REPLACED EARLIER

Walter Cronkite, who was forced to step down as anchor of the CBS Evening News 24 years ago because of the network's mandatory retirement policies at the time, has suggested that Dan Rather, the man who replaced him, should have been removed years ago. Referring to Bob Schieffer, who is due to take over as anchor on Thursday, Cronkite told CNN's Wolf Blitzer Monday, "He is, to my mind, the man who, quite frankly -- although Dan did a fine job -- I would like to have seen him there a long time ago. He would have given the others a real run for their money." When Blitzer asked Cronkite whether he would have been "happier" if Schieffer had taken over earlier, Cronkite responded, "Certainly, if not Bob, someone else." In a left-handed compliment, Cronkite then went on to say that it was "quite a tribute" to Rather that CBS continued to hold on to him despite the news program's third-place position in the ratings. "It surprised quite a few people at CBS and elsewhere that, without being able to pull up the ratings beyond third in a three-man field, that they tolerated his being there for so long," he said. Cronkite, however, downplayed Rather's role in the "memogate" scandal, noting that he relied on the producers of the feature to get the story right. He acknowledged that if he had been asked to front a similar story, "I would not be sure that I wouldn't have followed my producers and accepted what they had to offer."

ABC NEWS CHIEF WARNS OF POLITICIZATION OF NEWS

ABC News President David Westin has warned that cable and broadcast news face a "real danger" by the growth of opinion-based journalism. Writing in the Columbia Journalism Review, Westin remarks, "This rush to present opinion is beginning to drown out our reporting of facts. The clash of ideas is moving to center stage, while the search for truth is being pushed into the wings." The result, he argues is that audiences begin to confuse opinion and fact or to ascribe political motivations to what in the past would have been considered an ordinary reporting of fact. Westin cites as an example the decision by Nightline to read the names of the men and women who had died during the Iraq war. He said that a senior White House official had told him that "our airing the program became a statement against the war, not because of what we said but because many people assumed our attitude was antiwar. ... I asked him whether he would have had a different view if Fox News had put on the very same broadcast. He said that would be an entirely different case."

TIGER-MICKELSON CONTEST LIFTS DORAL RATINGS

NBC's telecast of the Doral Open on Sunday, which featured a "showdown" between Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson (Woods won), produced the highest ratings for the golf event in 15 years, according to Nielsen overnight ratings released Monday. The broadcast drew a 5.9 rating and a 16 share -- 84 percent higher than last year's telecast of the Doral. Ratings exceeded final-round coverage of last year's British Open and the PGA Championship.

MANY NEW YORKERS LEFT WITHOUT METS, KNICKS

Cablevision abruptly yanked the Madison Square Garden (MSG) channel and Fox Sports New York channels from Time Warner's cable systems in New York Monday, thereby blacking out Mets and Knicks games in parts of the country's largest market. Cablevision has been demanding a significant increase in the fee paid by Time Warner Cable to carry the two channels. Each side blamed the other for the blackout. "Time Warner Cable has declined our offer to keep games on while we bring the dispute to an independent arbitrator,'' MSG Networks said in a statement. But Time Warner argued that in the past, "arbitration has proven to be the fuel contributing to the skyrocketing costs of professional sports."

ENTERTAINMENT TONIGHT MAKING HUGE BUDGET CUTS

Entertainment Tonight

was forced to forego coverage of the premiere of Robots Sunday night because it had gone well over its budget after spending $550,000 for exclusive footage of the Donald Trump/Melania Knauss wedding on Jan. 22 in Palm Beach, FL, New York Daily News columnist Lloyd Grove reported today (Tuesday). Grove quoted a source as saying that morale at ET is "deadly" and that staffers may be laid off temporarily if the show halts production for a few weeks in order to offset the recent costs.

APPRENTICE PRODUCER ACCUSES FIRM OF MILLION-DOLLAR SCAM

Reality show producer Mark Burnett has sued Los Angeles-based Madison Road Entertainment, claiming the company engaged in a double-dealing scheme to place Crest toothpaste, Levi's jeans, and Mars candy bars on episodes of The Apprentice, the New York Post reported today (Tuesday). The newspaper charged in the suit that Madison told the makers of the products that it was associated with Burnett and offered them product placement deals at vastly inflated prices -- as high as $7 million, according to the lawsuit. Madison would then approach Burnett, the lawsuit claims, and tell him that it was the exclusive representative of the companies and negotiate a separate product-placement fee that would fall well below what the companies had paid Madison; Madison would then pocket the difference. The Post did not publish a response from Madison.

SHARES IN MARTHA'S COMPANY PLUNGE AGAIN

Shares in Martha Stewart Omnimedia, which had soared to $37.45 just two weeks ago continued to plunge at midday trading today (Tuesday), dropping 6 percent to $26.22. Speaking to employees of her Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia in New York on Monday -- for the first time since her release from prison -- Stewart acknowledged the critical condition of her signature magazine. David Verklin, CEO of ad agency Carat, told today's New York Post that Stewart ought to shut down the magazine. "TV is her medium," said Verklin. "That's where I'd focus. The magazine was a sideshow."

MEL GIBSON CALLS OSCARS "LUDICROUS"

Mel Gibson has denounced the Oscar ceremonies as "a celebration of mediocrity" and accused academy members of treating his The Passion of the Christ as a political football. "My film is not right-wing or political, but they made it so," he told an interviewer on the Catholic cable channel EWTN (Eternal Word Television Network). Gibson, who won an Oscar for his direction of Braveheart in 1995, remarked: "The whole notion of these awards ceremonies is ludicrous. ... It's really a marketing exercise." He said he decided not to promote the film for Oscar consideration because he realized that doing so would be futile. "I knew exactly what was going to happen. I didn't try to market the film. People are spending 15 or 20 million dollars to market their films. That's a lot of money for a little gold statue."

DIESEL FUELS BOX OFFICE

Vin Diesel's family film The Pacifier defied analysts' forecasts and raked in $30.6 million in ticket sales over the weekend. The film was expected to finish a distant second to John Travolta's Be Cool. The tables were turned, however, as the Travolta movie wound up with $23.5 million, which nevertheless was the biggest opening-weekend gross ever for a Travolta movie. In an interview with the Associated Press, Exhibitor Relations chief Paul Dergarabedian remarked, "Pacifier did better than anyone expected, but you can't underestimate the family audience. ... I think people like to see a fish-out-of-water story -- an action star in a very unexpected role." The romantic comedy Hitch finished in third place with $12.1 million, while last week's top film, Diary of a Mad Black Woman, tumbled to fourth with $11 million. Oscar winner Million Dollar Baby nabbed fifth place with $8.1 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. The Pacifier, Disney, $30,552,694, (New); 2. Be Cool, MGM, $23,450,212, (New); 3. Hitch, Sony, $12,118,263, 4 Wks. ($138,004,437); 4. Diary of A Mad Black Woman, Lions Gate, $11,026,195, 2 Wks. ($37,077,829); 5. Million Dollar Baby, Warner Bros. $8,135,421, 12 Wks. ($76,600,008); 6. Constantine, Warner Bros. $6,127,173, 3 Wks. ($60,653,370); 7. Cursed, Miramax/Dimension, $3,867,052, 2 Wks. ($15,281,069); 8. Man of The House, Sony, $3,506,726, 2 Wks. ($13,982,619); 9. Because of Winn-Dixie, 20th Century Fox, $3,200,236, 3 Wks. ($26,777,812); 10. The Jacket, Warner Bros. $2,723,682, (New).

DISNEY SHAREHOLDERS SEEK MORE THAN $262 MILLION

Walt Disney shareholders suing the company's board of directors have asked Delaware Chancery Court Judge William B. Chandler III to order the board to repay the company $129.8 million -- the amount it paid former Disney President Michael Ovitz in severance -- and $132 million in interest. In a 98-page brief filed with the court, attorneys for the shareholders accused the board of "meekly acquiescing" to Disney chief Michael Eisner, thereby breaching their fiduciary responsibilities to the shareholders, actions that amounted to "gross negligence." Attorneys for the Disney directors are due to present their closing arguments next month.

STRINGER PLANS TO WEAR TWO HATS -- FOR NOW

Newly named Sony Chairman Howard Stringer plans to continue to oversee Sony's entertainment interests in the U.S. and has informed the heads of the film and music divisions that they will continue to report directly to him, the New York Times reported today (Tuesday), citing two Sony executives with knowledge of the discussions. The newspaper said that Stringer phoned Michael Lynton, chairman of Sony Pictures Entertainment, and Andrew Lack, CEO of Sony BMG Music Entertainment, from Tokyo on Sunday and informed them that he has no plans to find someone to take over his job as CEO of Sony Corporation of America.

TIMBERLAKE DEMANDS REVISIONS OF SCRIPT FOR ELTON JOHN BIOPIC

After agreeing to play Elton John in a movie biography, Justin Timberlake is apparently having second thoughts -- although he is apparently not concerned that portraying a gay rock star will adversely affect his image. Quite the contrary, he indicated in an interview with Britain's Daily Star. He said that when he was initially approached, "I thought, 'Wow, you're offering me that role?' But when I read the script, all the wild stuff had been left out." The newspaper has said that Timberlake wants the film to include "sex and drug-taking" and that the producers of the film, budgeted at $39 million, have now ordered a massive rewrite in order to keep the pop star aboard. "I told the studio that it would have to be warts-and-all so that's what it's going to be. I can't wait to get started," Timberlake told the newspaper.

"INVENTOR OF VIDEO RENTAL" DIES

The Video Software Dealers Association on Monday paid tribute to George Atkinson, whom it described as the "inventor of video rental," who died Thursday in Los Angeles. It observed that in the fall of 1977 Atkinson opened Video Station, the first video rental store, in Los Angeles, stocked with 50 Beta and 50 VHS movies that he had purchased. "Atkinson was soon threatened with a lawsuit for renting the videos, but discovered that U.S. copyright law gave him the right to rent and resell videos he owned," the VSDA observed.

HALLOWEEN PRODUCER DEAD AT 54

Debra Hill, who produced the 1979 film Halloween and co-wrote it with director John Carpenter, has died at the age of 54. She was also involved in producing and writing the sequels to the movie and formed an independent production company with Lynda Obst that made Adventures in Babysitting, Heartbreak Hotel, and The fisher King. Other films that she produced included The Dead Zone, Head Office, Clue, and Gross Anatomy. The cause of her death was not disclosed.