JOE ROTH TO PRODUCE TV SITCOMS FOR CBS

Former Disney studio chief Joe Roth has signed a three-year deal to produce sitcoms for CBS, Daily Variety reported today (Friday). The deal calls for a guarantee of at least one series and an additional pilot. According to the trade paper, Roth plans to set up a new TV company at Paramount that will operate independently from his movie company, Revolution Studios, which is based at Sony. In an interview, Roth told Variety that the company's "sole purpose" will be to develop sitcoms that "we could really knock out of the park." He added: "That's what's missing from TV right now," he said. "The networks have plenty of dramas, and I couldn't develop a reality show if my life depended on it." Roth said that he's aiming to get his first TV project on the air by next September.

KARMAZIN IS SERIOUS ABOUT SIRIUS

Surprising entertainment analysts -- many of whom had placed him on top of the list of candidates to succeed Michael Eisner at Disney -- former Viacom President and COO Mel Karmazin was named CEO of the relatively pint-sized Sirius Satellite Radio. The deal calls for him to receive a salary of $1.25 million a year, plus an undisclosed number of stock options. Karmazin has had a long association with Howard Stern, whom he hired at his Infinity Radio company in the mid-80s and whom Sirius recently signed to a five-year, $500-million deal that begins in January 2006. Shares in Sirius soared 18 percent to $5.58 on news of the deal. "From the investment community's point of view, this is more important than the Stern deal,'' media analyst Tom Adams told Bloomberg News. "It's just like when Terry Semel joined Yahoo. Suddenly a company that was considered a startup in a new technology field without a lot of credibility gained a lot in a hurry.''

DISNEY REPORTS BIG FOURTH-QUARTER GAINS

The resuscitation of ABC helped Walt Disney Co. post a 24-percent rise in net income in its fourth quarter, according to its latest SEC filing. Disney reported a net of $516 million versus $415 million for the comparable period a year ago. While operating income at its broadcasting units rose 50 percent, it dropped 14 percent at his movie division. Nevertheless, all in all, "We did better than we said we were going to do," Disney President Robert Iger said in a conference call. He was joined by CEO Michael Eisner, following his court appearance in Delaware, who commented, ""We are seeing improvement across key financial measures, but we are not where we want to be yet."

REPORTER WHO REFUSED TO REVEAL SOURCES CONVICTED OF CONTEMPT

Providence, RI TV reporter Jim Taricani was convicted of criminal contempt Thursday for refusing to reveal the source of an FBI videotape that he aired on TV station WJAR, an NBC affiliate, three years ago. He faces up to six months in prison when he is sentenced on Dec. 9. U.S. District Chief Judge Ernest C. Torres said that the evidence was "clear, overwhelming and undisputed" that Taricani had defied an order by the court to disclose who had given him the tape. Speaking to fellow reporters afterwards, Taricani read a statement in which he said: "When I became a reporter 30 years ago, I never imagined that I would be put on trial and face the prospect of going to jail simply for doing my job. ... The government has used its resources and power and the threat of jail to try to coerce me to identify a confidential source. This assault on journalistic freedom exacts a high price by stifling the flow of newsworthy information to reporters and to the public. I wish all of my sources could be on the record, but when people are afraid, a promise of confidentiality may be the only way to get the information to the public, and in some cases, to protect the well-being of the source."

CONGRESSMAN WANTS REPORTERS BARRED FROM IRAQ CONFLICT

Democratic Congressman Sylvestre Reyes of Texas, a member of the House Armed Services Committee, proposed Thursday that the practice of allowing reporters to be embedded with soldiers in combat zones in Iraq be ended. His remarks follow the release of television footage taken last Saturday of a U.S. soldier shooting an unarmed and wounded man in a Fallujah mosque. "We should not be providing the [Arab news channel] al-Jazeera the kind of propaganda they've had the last couple of three days [sic]," he said. Meanwhile, at a meeting of news executives at the News Xchange conference in Portugal, Eason Jordan, vice president and chief news executive at CNN, accused the U.S. military of failing to live up to its promises to protect journalists from attack by its own men. "The reality is that at least 10 journalists have been killed by the U.S. military, and according to reports I believe to be true journalists have been arrested and tortured by US forces," Jordan said. Although the military has promised to investigate the incidents, he said, "the fact that no one has been reprimanded would indicate that no one is taking responsibility."

CANADA OPENS DOORS TO FOX NEWS CHANNEL

Canada's broadcasting regulator, the CRTC, has approved a petition by the Canadian Cable Telecommunications Association to carry Fox News Channel in Canada, rejecting public complaints that the channel represented a propaganda organ of the Bush White House. Writing in today's (Friday) Toronto Star, media columnist Antonia Zerbisias observed that a recent University of Maryland study indicated that 80 percent of Fox viewers are likely to believe "that weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq, that Saddam and Al Qaeda were linked, and that the world approved of the U.S.'s attack on the country." Nevertheless, she added, "with freedom of information comes the freedom to disinformation."

EISNER ADMITS LYING ON KING SHOW

Michael Eisner admitted Thursday that he had not been "completely candid" when he appeared with Michael Ovitz on the Larry King show in Sept. 1996 and called rumors of dissension between Ovitz and himself "baloney" and declared that if he had it to do all over again, he would rehire Ovitz as president of the company. Testifying during a shareholders lawsuit in Delaware, Ovitz called his remarks, "dumb ... unfortunate ... stupid." Eisner's remarks raised eyebrows among legal experts observing the trial. "If what he said was untrue at the time he said it, and it was material and some shareholders relied on that to buy or sell shares, that's problematic under securities law," Charles Elson, a professor of corporate governance at the University of Delaware, told today's (Friday) Los Angeles Times.

THE INCREDIBLES TO DEFEND AGAINST SPONGEBOB SQUAREPANTS

Will movie audiences find The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie more absorbing than The Incredibles? Certainly Paramount, which has been suffering through one of its worst slumps in memory, is hoping that they will. And analysts think it may have a good chance. The Incredibles is expected to see a 50-percent decline in ticket sales in its third week -- mimicking the performance of Monsters, Inc., the previous November release by Disney/Pixar -- bringing its total to about $25 million. SpongeBob, analysts say, is likely to collect $25-30 million. The weekend also sees the reteaming of Nicholas Cage with producer Jerry Bruckheimer in National Treasure, which is projected to earn $20-25 million. The weekend also sees Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason expanding from 530 theaters last week to 2,452. Remaining in limited release, but expanding slightly, are two highly touted biopics, Kinsey, which moves into 36 theaters, and Finding Neverland, which moves into 57.

Movie PictureMOVIE REVIEWS: THE SPONGEBOB SQUAREPANTS MOVIE

It was inevitable that The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie would be compared by critics to the SpongeBob SquarePants Nickelodeon TV show. On ABC's Good Morning America, film critic Joel Siegel remarked: "I love the TV show. Which is probably why I didn't like the movie. Like when you really love a book, you're almost always disappointed with the movie? They left stuff out." A.O. Scott, who brought his children to the screening, reacted similarly: "This is the only time I can recall hearing my own children ... complain that a movie was too short. They had a point: ... the movie lacks the density of the television episodes, around seven of which would fit comfortably inside it." Despite that, Scott comments, the movie "is a marvel of unleashed childishness." Joe Morgenstern in the Wall Street Journal concludes, "The movie is much too long, but mostly, and sometimes very, entertaining." Peter Howell in the Toronto Star doesn't see a lot of difference between the movie and the TV show. "Working on the theory that if it ain't broke, don't fix it," he writes, "the movie mainly expands on characters and ideas seen in the TV show. For the most part, it's an easy and happy stretch, big on slapstick and jokes that groan rather than gross out."

Movie PictureMOVIE REVIEWS: NATIONAL TREASURE

Most critics seem to agree that National Treasure is not. Jami Bernard in the New York Daily News figures that it's not much more than a "pedestrian ripoff of Raiders of the Lost Ark." (Several other reviewers refer to it as a ripoff of the best-seller, The Da Vinci Code.) Bob Townsend in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, referring to the film's allusions to American historical events, comments, "It fakes high concept, but turns into a whole lot of hooey." On the other hand, Bob Strauss in the Los Angeles Daily News calls it "state-of-the-art Jerry Bruckheimer entertainment. It combines elements of the industry's top producer's most interesting recent efforts."

Movie PictureMOVIE REVIEWS: KINSEY

In its effort to land Oscar nominations for Kinsey, the biopic of the famed sex researcher Alfred Kinsey, played by Liam Neeson, Fox Searchlight will be able to distribute a ton of laudatory reviews to academy voters. For example, A.O. Scott in the New York Times writes: "I can't think of another movie that has dealt with sex so knowledgeably and, at the same time, made the pursuit of knowledge seem so sexy. There are some explicit images and provocative scenes, but it is your intellect that is most likely to be aroused." The performances of each of the lead and supporting actors are also extolled. "Liam Neeson gives a career-best performance," praises Lou Lumenick in the New York Post. "Laura Linney delivers the year's most fascinating performance" as Kinsey's wife, writes John Anderson in Newsday. Winning similar praise are John Lithgow as Kinsey's moralist father and Tim Curry as Kinsey's public adversary. And Joe Morgenstern writes in the Wall Street Journal, "Lynn Redgrave, as Kinsey's final interview subject, turns a brief appearance into a small tour de force. Within a much larger one."

Movie PictureMOVIE REVIEWS: FINDING NEVERLAND

While most critics find much to praise about Finding Neverland, starring Johnny Depp as J.M. Barrie, the playwright who created Peter Pan, several who are familiar with the actual course of Barrie's life are suggesting that the movie may be almost as fictional as anything Barrie himself ever wrote. The movie's plot, writes Manohla Dargis in the New York Times, "hews closer to Disney than Barrie." Jami Bernard in the New York Daily News adds: "The movie is so determined to wring laughter and tears -- and it succeeds, there's no question -- that it makes of Barrie's life a fiction on the order of flying children and pirates with hooks for hands." Most of the critics who have not boned up on Barrie's true-life story heap undiluted admiration on it. Philip Wuntch in the Dallas Morning News writes, "Despite opportunities to turn soft and clammy, the film is moving but not maudlin, whimsical but not cloying. Originally planned as a fall release, it arrives as one of the holiday season's most irresistible gifts." Most critics regard Depp's performance as Oscar-worthy. Michael Wilmington in the Chicago Tribune suggests that there are few other actors who "can play a childman [like Barrie] without seeming effete or precious. ... The absolute ease and empathy with which he plays this part guide us smoothly into the tale's emotional thickets." Roger Ebert in the Chicago Sun-Times writes that, for Depp, the movie "is the latest in an extraordinary series of performances. ... It is commonplace for actors to play widely differing roles, but Depp never makes it feel like a reach; all of these notes seem well within his range."