RATHER: A WEE VOICE TOLD HIM

Dan Rather has indicated that he reluctantly agreed to step down as anchor of the CBS Evening News. In an interview with the New York Observer, Rather said: "Certainly there were times I was conflicted about, 'Well, gosh, I'd like to make in another week, another month, another season.' ... Somebody said to me the other day, 'Well, weren't you trying to get to the 25th anniversary?' And I said, 'Truthfully, no, I was trying to get to the 35th anniversary.' But life's not like that." In the end, he said, after consulting with CBS president Les Moonves, his agent Richard Liebner, his wife and two children, he decided to listen to "a wee, small voice" inside when he made his decision. He particularly praised Moonves, who, he said, was "sensitive enough to know these kinds of decision are never easy to make when you've been doing something for 24 years and you love it as I do. I'm really lucky that I've dealt with him, particularly in the last two or three weeks." Nevertheless, he insisted that his decision was unrelated to the controversy over his now-notorious report about George W. Bush's National Guard service. "Everybody is going to write what they're going to write, think what they're going to think," Rather told the Observer, "but we know the fact of the situation is, my stepping out of the anchor chair is not connected to the storm over the 60 Minutes weekday story. ... This is separate and apart from that.

SEINFELD CAN'T HALT CBS'S THURSDAY JUGGERNAUT

Even the return of Jerry Seinfeld in a one-hour NBC retrospective about his eponymous TV series couldn't prevent CBS from sweeping Thursday night again. With ratings down across the board because of the Thanksgiving holiday, The Seinfeld Story, with an 8.2 rating and a 15 share was a distant second to CBS's Without Trace, which pulled an 11.9/22in the 10:00 p.m. hour. CBS dominated the night with an average 11.4/21. NBC was far behind in second place with a 6.9/13. Fox, which aired the hit movie Spider-Man, averaged a 5.8/10, to place third, while ABC came in fourth with a 4.2/8.

CRITICS DIVIDED OVER SHEPARD MURDER FEATURE ON ABC

Tonight's (Friday) edition of ABC's 20/20, which reexamines the Matthew Shepard murder, is touching off a storm of conflicting comments from TV critics, ordinary journalists, and gay activist groups. Virginia Heffernan in the New York Times calls the feature "intellectually brave" and praises Elizabeth Vargas, who recently replaced Barbara Walters as co-host of the show, for the courage of "taking on a risky story." But the hypothesis of Vargas's story -- that Shepard's killers, whom she interviews, did not engage in an anti-gay hate crime but simply intended to rob Shepard in order to buy methamphetamine -- is rapped by many gay activists for failing to take into consideration crucial comments that the killers made about the case earlier. (For example, one of the killers wrote in a 1999 letter that Shepard "said he was gay and wanted a piece of me. Being a verry [sic] drunk homofobick [sic] I flipped out and began to pistol whip the fag with my gun.") Los Angeles Times TV writer Paul Brownfield calls the writing "sophomoric." And Editor & Publisher reporter Mark Fitzgerald observes that the two killers broke a lifelong gag order that was part of their sentencing agreement and he welcomed ABC's effort to confront that agreement, which he described as an "unprecedented example of prior restraint."

BAYWATCH NAMED WORST U.S. SHOW EVER BY U.K. TV EXECS

Readers of the British trade weekly Broadcast have named Baywatch the worst television show ever exported by the U.S. to the U.K. (It also happens to be one of the most successful; at its peak, it was seen by one billion viewers in 140 countries, according to the magazine.) Also in the top ten: 2. Anna Nicole Show; 3. Dukes of Hazzard; 4. Wild Palms; 5. Manimal; 6. The Jerry Springer Show; 7. Knots Landing; 8. Falcon Crest; 9. The Bold and the Beautiful; and 10. Extreme Makeover. The list of the best U.S. television shows was headed by The Simpsons and followed by: 2. Dallas; 3. M*A*S*H; 4. 24; 5. The Larry Sanders Show; 6. Hill Street Blues; 7. The X-Files; 8. I Love Lucy; 9. Twin Peaks; 10. Star Trek: The Next Generation.

NOAH MAY BE HAVING SECOND THOUGHTS ABOUT LEAVING E.R.

Noah Wyle may be reconsidering his announced decision to leave E.R. at the end of the current season. In an interview in the upcoming issue of TV Guide, Wyle acknowledged that he's "doing a big of soul-searching about" his intention to leave. However, he added, he feels "fairly confident" that he'll depart when the season ends in May.

ALEXANDER: NOT GREAT

Alexander was ingloriously defeated at the box office during the first two days of the Thanksgiving holiday weekend, according to studio estimates released by Exhibitor Relations today (Friday). The Oliver Stone epic took in only $3.97 million on Wednesday and $4.32 million on Thursday, for a total of $8.29 million, to place fourth overall during the two days. Sony's Christmas with the Kranks, the only other film opening wide over the holiday period, performed somewhat better, earning $9.53 million during the two days to place second. Disney's National Treasure remained in the lead.

STONE EXPECTS ALEXANDER TO RISE AGAIN -- IN EUROPE

Pummeled by U.S. critics this week, Oliver Stone told reporters in Stockholm Wednesday that he expects European critics will give his latest movie, Alexander, a warmer welcome. Interviewed at the Stockholm International Film Festival where he received a lifetime achievement award, the writer-director said, "I think one of the reasons I am being honored here in Sweden is that [Europeans] tend to see me a little differently than they do in the U.S."

MASS MERCHANTS OFFERING LOWEST PRICES ON DVD'S

Mass merchants like Wal-Mart, Best Buy, Target, Costco, and Toys 'R Us are apparently using DVD's as loss leaders to pull customers into stores on this, the biggest shopping day of the year. According to the Fatwallet.com website, Wal-Mart is offering a slew of older releases for just $3.88 apiece. Best Buy is discounting numerous DVDs, pricing them at $9.99, including Aladdin, Chappelle's Show Season One, Mean Girls,and The Day After Tomorrow. Toys 'R Us is offering many Disney movies, including Aladdin, Mulan and Pirates of the Caribbean, for 35 percent off and all Nickelodeon VHS titles at half off. Target has numerous TV DVD boxed sets on sale for $17.77.

CHERNIN'S CONTRACT ALLOWS HIM TO QUIT DISNEY

News Corp President Peter Chernin negotiated a contract renewal last summer that would allow him to exit the company quickly if he is asked to replace Michael Eisner as CEO of the Walt Disney Co. The contract also allows him to leave easily if Rupert Murdoch decides to step down as CEO without naming Chernin to succeed him. Details of Chernin's contract were published today (Friday) by the Los Angeles Times, which cited sources close to the negotiation.

AIRPORT WRITER HAILEY DEAD AT 84

Arthur Hailey, who wrote the novels on which the movies Airport and Hotel were based, died in the Bahamas Wednesday of an apparent stroke at age 84.

NOTE:

Studio Briefing is somewhat abbreviated today because of the U.S. Thanksgiving Day weekend.