BASEBALL AND POLITICS DUEL TO A DRAW

Wednesday night's presidential debate and Fox's playoff baseball games drew viewers from one another but neither appeared particularly hard hit. Fox's baseball coverage posted an 8.1 rating and a 12 share in the 8:00 p.m. hour, beating all of its competition. (Tuesday night's baseball coverage averaged a 9.5/15.) At 9:00 p.m., when the debate began, Fox's ratings actually increased to an 8.5/12. However, ABC's debate coverage posted an 8.6/12. (It's lead-in was the new hit drama Lost, which nabbed the highest ratings of the night with a 10.6/16). NBC's debate coverage averaged an 8.2/11, well above CBS's 6.6/10. Baseball charged ahead in the 10:00 p.m., hour with Fox drawing an 8.6/14, while NBC's debate analysis came in second with a 7.8/12, edging out ABC's 7.6/12 and CBS's 6.0/9.

SUPER SALES FOR SUPER BOWL ALREADY

Four months before the kickoff of next year's Super Bowl on Feb. 6, Fox has already sold out two thirds of its commercial inventory at $2.4-2.5 million for a 30-second spot, the New York Daily News reported today (Thursday) citing ad execs of the network. Spots are going at rates that are 5-9 percent higher than they were last year when CBS televised the event. Some ad execs are predicting that the 2005 contest may draw more viewers than usual. (The Super Bowl already is the highest-rated telecast of any year.) Last year's Janet Jackson incident "raised awareness," an unnamed TV exec told the newspaper. "People are wondering what will happen during halftime."

RATHER, UNDER A CLOUD, TO ANCHOR ELECTION-NIGHT COVERAGE

CBS revived speculation concerning the actual independence of the two independent investigators that it had asked to look into its discredited 60 Minutes report on George W. Bush's Air National Guard service. After distributing a news release saying that Dan Rather, who fronted the 60 Minutes report, will anchor the network's election night coverage on Nov. 2, reporters asked whether the investigators' probe would be completed by then. A CBS spokeswoman responded that the network doesn't know whether it will be. CBS Chairman Les Moonves had indicated earlier that it might be politically inopportune to release their report before election day, a comment that was so widely criticized that the network released a follow-up statement saying that the investigators would decide on their own when their report is released.

WILL MARTIN SHEEN RUN FOR PRESIDENT AGAIN?

The West Wing will soon see another presidential election campaign -- but its timing is hinged to a decision by Martin Sheen on whether he wants to return for another season, according to TV Guide. In the coming season, which begins next Wednesday, various stars will be introduced as characters who might succeed President Josiah Bartlet as president, including Jimmy Smits and Alan Alda. "This is the last year of Martin's contract, and he has to decide what he wants to do next," executive producer John Wells told the magazine. "It would be our preference to do the election next season. But if Martin tells me around Christmas time that he doesn't want to do any more beyond this season, we may accelerate that. ... We haven't made any plans yet for if he doesn't [come back]. We're in full denial!"

NBC SPOILS LAST COMIC STANDING FINALE

NBC on Wednesday revealed the winner of its third season of Last Comic Standing even though the season finale will not air until Saturday -- on Comedy Central, not on NBC. The "spoiler" announcement that Alonzo Bodden was the winner further outraged fans of the show, who were already angry at NBC for yanking it one week before the finale was to air. The network ostensibly had acted to support its expensive animated series Father of the Pride from DreamWorks, which followed LCS. However, back-to-back episodes of Pride this week failed to lift its ratings. In a thank-you message posted on his website, Bodden commented: ""As for NBC, no one knows why they jerked around the show at the final episode. Some say it's ratings, others say it's DreamWorks. The producers of the animal puppets have lots of clout. ... Somewhere out there is a great salesman. I mean, how do you pitch that show and when did they think it might be funny?"

ABC CUTS SHORT THE BENEFACTOR

Internet entrepreneur and Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban has confirmed that ABC will air only six episodes of his reality series The Benefactor, with the finale set to air on Oct. 25, the Dallas Morning News reported today (Thursday). Eight episodes were shot. In an interview with the newspaper, Cuban said, "I still love the show and the way it turned out. Viewers won't see everything we shot, but it still turned out great and will be incredibly entertaining." Although ratings for the first four episodes of the show were ABC's lowest each week, Cuban remained optimistic that series would be renewed next season. "There is always a chance of a sequel," Cuban told the newspaper.

TV AD PRODUCTION COSTS SOAR

The average cost of producing a single network 30-second commercial has reached a record $372,000, up 4 percent from the previous year, according to the American Association of Advertising Agencies. The figure is more than twice the $180,000 cost in 1989, when the organization began keeping track of commercial production costs. Reporting on the rising costs, MediaPost's online MediaDailyNews.com observed Wednesday that they come "even as Madison Avenue has shifted away from relatively expensive location shoots to more studio-based production."

O'REILLY AND FORMER PRODUCER TRADE LAWSUITS

Andrea Mackris, a former producer of Bill O'Reilly's TV talk show for Fox News Channel, filed a sexual harassment lawsuit against O'Reilly Wednesday. It was filed shortly after O'Reilly sued Mackris, accusing her of attempted extortion. Mackris recently quit the news channel. O'Reilly referred to his suit on his television program Wednesday night, claiming that Mackris and her lawyer had demanded $60 million from him in exchange for their silence. "There comes a time when enough is enough. ... I will not give in to extortion." O'Reilly commented.

WRITERS PEN A NEW CONTRACT

Seeing little determination from fellow entertainment-industry unions and guilds to make DVD residuals a crucial issue in their negotiations with Hollywood's movie and TV producers, the WGA on Wednesday agreed on a new three-year contract, calling for an increase in health-care contributions, wage minimums and an increase in pay-TV residuals but postponing a battle over DVD residuals for another day. WGA members had been working without a contract since June 2, when guild leaders decided to wait to see whether the Directors Guild of America (DGA), the Screen Actors Guild (SAG), and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA) would be willing to go on strike to support their demands for DVD residuals. When those unions appeared to concede that a strike over the issue would not be productive, the WGA threw in its towel, too. John McLean, executive director of the WGA-West told today's (Thursday) Los Angeles Times: "There is no question we are disappointed we didn't get a deal from [DVD] but the health-care numbers sucked the money out of this deal."

WEINSTEINS LEAVING DISNEY?

The Walt Disney Co. has declined to comment on a Daily Variety report that it has notified Miramax Co-chairmen Harvey and Bob Weinstein that it intends to end their partnership in Sept. 2005. The trade paper said that the Weinsteins have taken their dispute with Disney Chairman Michael Eisner to the company's board of directors in hopes that the board will override Eisner's decision. Variety quoted a Miramax spokesman as saying, "Bob and Harvey hope for an amicable resolution that will allow them to continue to be productive members of the Disney family." Tensions between the Weinsteins and Eisner have reportedly grown rigid over the years, reaching their current condition earlier this year when Disney refused to distribute Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11.

SOUTH PARK GUYS LAMPOON MICHAEL MOORE

South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone are taking pains to describe their Team America: World Police, due to be released on Friday, as an equal opportunity offender. The movie not only satirically attacks the Bush administration's handling of the war on terror but also many of the celebrities who rail against it, including Martin Sheen, Tim Robbins, Susan Sarandon, Janeane Garofalo, Samuel L. Jackson, Matt Damon, Helen Hunt, and, most especially, Michael Moore. Stone told today's (Thursday) Toronto Globe & Mail that he included Moore in his film (as a hot-dog munching suicide bomber) because he was outraged over a segment of Moore's last documentary. "I did an interview for Bowling for Columbine because I'm from Littleton [where Columbine High School is located]. He asked me to do it. ... People think we did that [South Park-type] animation that comes after us in the movie, but we didn't. It's so anti-American and mean, and I was just bummed out because people thought I did that."

"TWINS" ARNIE AND DANNY BATTLE RUNAWAY PRODUCTION

California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger greeted his Twins costar Danny DeVito on a location set of DeVito's new film, Relative Strangers, Wednesday to congratulate him on his efforts to produce the film in California, rather than succumb to the tax lures and lower labor costs offered by other states. DeVito acknowledged that he had to persuade the film's cast and crew to take pay cuts in order to offset the lower production costs that other states offered. They're "working for much less than they normally work for," DeVito told reporters Wednesday.

HIGH DEFINITION MOVIES COMING TO THE INTERNET

Online movie provider CinemaNow said Wednesday that it will begin making high-definition movies available for download from its site, using Windows Media High Definition format. The first titles will be movies originally produced for IMAX giant-screen theaters by MacGillivray Freeman Films. Meanwhile, Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates has predicted that the Internet will eventually replace broadcast television as the principal source of video entertainment. "The ideal for many content people [producers] would be that they just put their content on the Internet and then they have a direct relationship with the viewer," Gates told the Hollywood Reporter.