TV DEBATE BOOSTS KERRY

Snap polls taken by most of the major television news outlets following Wednesday night's presidential debate indicated that most viewers concluded that Sen. John Kerry won it. The CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll produced the widest victory for Kerry, 53-37 percent; CBS News had Kerry beating Bush by 44-26 percent; ABC, by 45-36 percent (with the remaining voters in each instance calling it a tie). Most political analysts, however, concluded that the debate wound up a draw. But Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, was quoted on CBS News's website as saying: "I don't view this as a tie. ... I view this as a superb dual presentation that presented the American people with a clear choice and that's really all you can expect from these television extravaganza." Several credited Jim Lehrer of PBS for deftly keeping the candidates on topic and raising the most pertinent foreign-policy issues. Diana Carlin, communications professor at the University of Kansas, gave this assessment of Lehrer's role to USA Today: ""Very skillfully done in terms of keeping the dialog going. A textbook example" of how to moderate a debate and not become part of the evening's story.

DEBATE DRAWS BIG AUDIENCE

NBC's coverage of the presidential debate ranked well ahead of its rivals in the ratings as it captured a 12.7 rating and a 17 share, according to Nielsen Research. CBS drew a 9.4/13, followed by ABC with an 8.4/11. Fox (the broadcast network, not the cable news outlet) finished last with a 3.8/5. Earlier in the evening, CBS' Survivor: Vanuatu, which drew an 11.1/17,virtually tied with NBC's Joey, which registered an 11.0/17 in the 8:00 p.m. timeslot. Survivor jumped to a 12.2/19 at 8:30 p.m., significantly ahead of Will & Grace's 10.7/15.

PROBE UNDER WAY AT CBS NEWS

Former U.S. Attorney General Dick Thornburgh and retired Associated Press exec Louis Boccardi, along with a team of lawyers, began what the New York Daily News described today (Friday) as "intense interrogations" of some 20 key people involved in 60 Minutes' discredited report concerning President Bush's National Guard service. According to the newspaper, the probers are expected to interview CBS News President Andrew Heyward, anchor Dan Rather, primetime news vice president Betsy West, 60 Minutes executive producer Josh Howard, and 60 Minutes producer Mary Mapes, among others. CBS New spokeswoman Sandy Genelius told the Daily News: "The panel's work is well underway, and that's it. There are no details, and we don't plan on releasing any until the report is final."

FORMER 60 MINUTES PRODUCER SAYS HE WOULDN'T HAVE AIRED BUSH REPORT

60 Minutes

creator Don Hewitt, who has previously expressed reluctance to discuss the report concerning President Bush's National Guard service that has convulsed the CBS news division, said Thursday that he would not have put it on the air. Interviewed in Vermillion, South Dakota, where he received the 2004 Al Neuharth Award for Excellence in Journalism from the University of South Dakota, Hewitt said: "I never would have done the story. ... I would have been very wary injecting myself into a campaign. You've got to be very careful that you're not perceived as doing the job that one of the two candidates should be doing himself." Hewitt, who retired as executive producer of 60 Minutes this year but was ostensibly retained as a consultant to it, implied that no one had consulted him on the botched report. "They weren't careful enough to not make mistakes. And the minute you make one mistake, you're dead," he said.

ANIMAL ACTIVIST COMMERCIAL IS YANKED FROM PITTSBURGH SPORTS NET

The regional Fox Sports Net in Pittsburgh, which carries Pirates and Steelers games, has rejected a TV spot by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), which, it suggested, contained inappropriate sexual innuendo. In a news release, PETA described the ad this way: "[It] features a pair of scantily clad women who try to seduce the pizza man but discover that he can't deliver 'the sausage.' Things pick up when they test the prowess of a vegetarian delivery boy. PETA's message is that eating meat can cause impotence by clogging the arteries to all the body's vital organs, not just the heart." PETA noted that CBS had also rejected the ad when the organization attempted to buy time for it (for $2 million) during February's Super Bowl

BART'S AUNT IS GAY

Marge Simpson's sister Patty will come out as a lesbian and marry a woman that she met in a bar in a forthcoming episode of The Simpsons, several gay-oriented websites are reporting. The episode is almost certain to touch off controversy, not only because of the significant number of children the series continues to attract but also because it comes at a time when many states are seeking to ban same-sex wedding ceremonies. It is due to air early next year.

FIRE AND WATER MIX AT BOX OFFICE

After experiencing the worst September box office in three years, studios are expecting things to begin heating up again this weekend with the release of Disney's firefighter thriller Ladder 49 and DreamWorks' animated Shark Tale. But all studios could benefit from a box-office boost, analysts observed. "Hopefully these two movies will inject a lot of new energy into the business," Universal's distribution chief Nikki Rocco told Daily Variety. "We like people to be in a moviegoing mode, because if they're satisfied they'll come back again." DreamWorks in particular has a lot riding on this weekend since its release of Shark Tale comes as it is about to take its animation unit public. With the unit's Father of the Pride stumbling on television, "the whole IPO could be ruined" if the movie fails to become a big hit, Paul Kim, an analyst with Tradition Asiel Partners, told CNN.

Movie PictureMOVIE REVIEWS: SHARK TALE

Shark Tale

is certainly not garnering the kind of enthusiastic reviews that Finding Nemo, another animated fish movie, did a year ago. A typical reaction is A.O. Scott's in the New York Times, who writes, "All in all, Shark Tale is reasonably good fun, even if, in the end, it's not really very interesting." Michael Wilmington in the Chicago Tribune describes it as "standard Hollywood product. But standard product can entertain you, sometimes quite a bit, when it's done with expertise, flash and lots of stars." Similarly Chris Vognar in the Dallas Morning News comments that the movie "is just aggressively, tenaciously, average." Liam Lacey in the Toronto Globe and Mail calls it "a fast-paced, star-studded, joke-stuffed piece of fast-food studio product. ... [It's] antic and cute enough for the children, with enough grownup jokes to keep the adults involved." Some reviewers are not so polite. Ty Burr in the Boston Globe describes it as "Finding Nemo gutted of all its charm and remixed for urban hit radio. Shark Tale is a film calculated to give us a good time, and it's the calculation that spoils the fun. Where Nemo was clever, soulful, and marvelous to look at, Tale is manic and surprisingly ugly, with a script that leans on the shallowest aspects of hip-hop street cred while pimping for corporate product placement at every turn." Lou Lumenick in the New York Post comments: "They say a dead fish stinks from the head first -- but the animated shipwreck Shark Tale arrives reeking all over."

Movie PictureMOVIE REVIEWS: LADDER 49

Some critics obviously believe that Ladder 49 should be tossed into a bonfire. John Anderson writes that the film may be "bearable only to people in deep mourning and vulnerable to emotional coercion. Which is, of course what makes the whole thing so distasteful." Megan Lehmann in the New York Post comments: "The tedious and obnoxiously manipulative Ladder 49 plays as if the filmmakers compiled a list of every smoke-eater cliché imaginable and then resolutely set about crossing them off." Carrie Rickey in the Philadelphia Inquirer grants that it might be intended as a "heartfelt tribute" to firefighters; however, she adds, it winds up being "a series of Hallmark-card platitudes, not a human portrait." Leah McLaren in the Toronto Globe and Mail is downright outraged by the plot. "It's no big secret that movies are a business, but every once in a while one comes along that is so shameless in its effort to exploit public sympathy in the name of box-office returns you feel can't help but feel emotionally conned at the end of it," she writes. On the other hand, Joe Morgenstern in the Wall Street Journal calls it "an honorable film, for all its faults, and its calculations seem less opportunistic than opportune." Carina Chocano in the Los Angeles Times is also willing to give the movie an A for effort, writing: "As a loving tribute to the courage and sacrifice of firefighters, it's first-class. As a movie, it's a TV show. Still, it's always hard to criticize a film that wraps itself in the woolly blanket of real people's heroism. It's meant to be a homage, and it plays like one."

DISNEY, THRU SUBSID, WILL INCREASE OUTPUT OF HAND-DRAWN FEATURES

Disney may be abandoning hand-drawn animated features, but it plans to step up its production of family-friendly G- and PG-rated features sporting the Disney logo and reduce its output of Touchstone films, Disney President and COO Robert Iger told the Merill Lynch Media Conference in Pasadena Thursday. Henceforth, he said, live-action family fare will comprise more than half of the studio's output. Iger also indicated that another animation company is being brought into the Disney fold. He said that Miramax's Dimension unit has signed a deal to co-finance and distribute films from Wild Brain, Inc., the company responsible for the Lamisil anti-toenail fungus pills. Its first feature project will be a film based on the "Bloom County" comic strip character, Opus, a penguin.

WHO'LL PLAY THE SONGWRITER IN THE PRODUCERS?

Mel Brooks's comment in a Playbill interview that he would like Australian comic Bert Newton to appear in his movie version of The Producers musical has raised questions about whether -- as previously announced -- Will Ferrell will appear in the movie. In the recent interview, Brooks remarked, "An Australian chap named Bert Newton plays Franz Liebkind in the show Down Under and he gives the best performance of that role I've ever seen, frankly. ... I'd love Newton to be involved." However, Ferrell was reportedly in talks to play the role of Liebkind, the writer of "the worst musical ever written," and Brooks had announced that he planned to expand the role for him. Asked about Brooks's comments Thursday, Newton replied only, "Well, it's the first I've heard of it, and what a thrill." In Brooks's original 1969 movie, Liebkind was played by Kenneth Mars, who later appeared in Brooks's Young Frankenstein. On Broadway, the character was played by Brad Oscar, who received a Tony nomination for his performance.