LIVE PRESIDENTIAL DEBATE TO AIR
NBC plans to air a live presidential debate on Nov. 6, the network announced Thursday. However, the participants will be fictional candidates Rep. Matt Santos and Sen. Arnold Vinick, characters on The West Wing played by Jimmy Smits and Alan Alda respectively. NBC is reportedly hoping that the live episode will help boost ratings for the long-running drama, which has seen its numbers tumble to all-time lows during the first two weeks of this season. A live season opener of Will & Grace helped boost ratings for that series last month.

SETS STAGE A COMEBACK

Producer Dick Wolf's decision not to scrap the sets for his canceled Law & Order: Trial by Jury and instead pay for their storage costs at Kaufman-Astoria studios in New York has paid off. He said Thursday that they will be used for his new series Conviction that NBC recently ordered. "I'm pleased and gratified that the gamble that was taken to hold the Trial by Jury sets in place has paid off," Wolf said in a statement. The series, which will not be released under the Law & Order banner, will follow a group of young New York prosecutors.

DVR'S: THE STORAGE EXPANDS

Satellite service DirecTV said Thursday that it will spend $30 million on a campaign to promote its own digital video recorder. The company had recently severed its connection with TiVo, maker of the country's most popular DVR. Published reports said that DirecTV plans to introduce its own DVR models this month, with the standard model capable of recording 100 hours of programming. Increasingly, the industry appears to be gravitating towards digital recorders that will record up to a week of programs on all channels, thereby dispensing with the need to program recording times. Viewers would thus be able to watch "on demand" any program that aired during the previous week.

BBC PAID BIG BUCKS FOR LITTLE-USED DOMAIN NAME

The British Broadcasting Corporation disclosed Thursday that it paid $375,000 to buy the bbc.com Internet address from Boston Business Computing, a U.S. firm, during the height of the Internet boom. The figure was obtained by the London Times following a Freedom of Information request. The BBC explained the large expenditure by noting that it "had a duty to its brand and its users to provide an easy route to its online content." Nevertheless, the broadcaster prefers the domain name bbc.co.uk and rarely refers to the .com name.

MURDOCH THE YOUNGER RECEIVES $3.9-MILLION SALARY

James Murdoch, the CEO of BSkyB, the News Corp-controlled British satellite service, earned $3.9 million in salary and bonuses last year despite the fact that shares in the company fell by 15 percent. The London Times, a News Corp newspaper, observed that Murdoch's bonus is based on achievement of growth targets in operating profit, free cash and subscribers, but not share price. The 32-year-old Murdoch is now regarded as the heir apparent of Rupert Murdoch. The filing also indicated that BSkyB paid News Corp-owned Fox $122 million for programming and $7 million to Shine Entertainment, the production company run by Elisabeth Murdoch, James's sister and the former general manager of BSkyB.

FROST SAYS HE'LL BE GIVEN FREE REIN ON AL-JAZEERA

British interviewer David Frost said Thursday that the management of al-Jazeera International, the coming English-language version of the Arab TV news service, offered to include a clause in his contract guaranteeing him that his programs would not be censored. In an interview with Britain's Guardian newspaper, Frost called the offer "delightful." Referring to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's accusation that al-Jazeera had broadcast beheadings and promoted terrorism, Frost said, "It's definitely true to say that the beheading thing on al-Jazeera was a myth. ... I don't think it ever happened." Asked whether he believed that he would be able to land U.S. politicians to appear on his al-Jazeera program, Frost replied that "quite a few State Department people already appear on al-Jazeera."

PARAMOUNT CLASSICS CHIEFS PUSHED OFF MOUNTAIN

Less than a month after becoming involved in a bizarre wrangle with rivals at Fox Searchlight at the Toronto Film Festival over Jason Reitman's Thank You For Smoking, Paramount Classics chiefs Ruth Vitale and David Dinerstein have been fired. The pair had been accused of botching negotiations with the producers of Smoking. Although they had claimed that they had a handshake deal to buy the film, producer David O. Sachs later insisted, "Although we had negotiations with Paramount Classics, no deal was ever concluded. ... I am also a lawyer and ... know when we have closed a deal and when we haven't." Losing out to Fox Searchlight may have been a particularly devastating blow to the pair since the Fox specialty unit has consistently outperformed its Paramount counterpart. Nevertheless, several publications observed that Paramount Classics has been having its best year ever with two films picked up at the Sundance Film Festival, Hustle and Flow and Mad Hot Ballroom, and in exit statements Vitale and Dinerstein observed that they have been profitable in each of the eight years that they have headed the division. Yet in reporting on the firing, today's (Friday) New York Times observed, "The division did not live up to expectations that it would be a thriving pipeline for talent and filmmakers from the independent film world."

IN A SURPRISE, EISNER QUITS DISNEY BOARD

An SEC filing has disclosed that on the same day that Michael Eisner stepped down as CEO of the Walt Disney Co. he also gave up his seat on the company's board of directors. The filing surprised industry observers, who had expected him to remain on the board at least until Disney's annual meeting next year. He had also been expected to remain as a company consultant. However, the SEC filing noted that Eisner "no longer provides any services" for Disney. His move to cut his ties all at once with the company that he headed for 21 years immediately aroused speculation that he was preparing to mount a non-Disney-related entertainment project quickly. He remains one of Disney's largest stockholders.

MORE BAD NEWS FROM BLOCKBUSTER

Blockbuster released more bad news Thursday, warning that it would not be able to achieve its goal of signing up 2 million subscribers to its online service as early as it had hoped and that video rentals at its stores had dipped again in its third quarter. Shares in the company closed at $4.45, down 16 cents. They have fallen 53 percent in the past year. Meanwhile, a reader has reported that he has begun receiving online-rented films from his Blockbuster outlet with 37-cent stamps affixed over the USPS permit printed on the mailpiece. Meanwhile, news reports said Thursday that a Blockbuster store in Argentina had been destroyed by a terrorist bomb.

MOVIE REVIEWS: WALLACE AND GROMIT: THE CURSE OF THE WERE-RABBIT

They're only made of clay but the critics' love for Wallace and Gromit is obviously here to stay. Of six films debuting this weekend, the "claymation" feature, Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, based on the English cartoon series, is garnering the most critical raves. Several even praise the performances of the clay characters -- especially Gromit's. The animated dog, A.O. Scott observes in the New York Times, "has no mouth, and yet his face is one of the most expressive ever committed to the screen." Comparing Gromit to the computer animated Shrek, Scott remarks, "Gromit, made by hand and animated by a painstaking stop-motion process, has something Shrek will never acquire in a hundred sequels: a soul." Lou Lumenick in the New York Post concludes: "If animated dogs were eligible for acting awards, the Oscar would go to Gromit." Ann Hornaday in the Washington Post calls Gromit, "the most expressive silent star since Buster Keaton." And Roger Ebert in the Chicago Sun-Times begins his review by remarking, "Wallace and Gromit are arguably the two most delightful characters in the history of animation." Several reviews point out that it took director Nick Park five years to make his film, using the enormously time-consuming process of clay animation. And Michael Booth in the Denver Post expresses the hope that "Wallace & Gromit bring such embarrassingly large mounds of leafy cash down upon themselves that Park can make his next feature even faster. Calling all artists with a talent for clay: Get thee to England, and join the fun."

MOVIE REVIEWS: GOOD NIGHT, AND GOOD LUCK

Another film eliciting much passion this weekend is the polar opposite of Wallace & Gromit. Good Night, and Good Luck, co-starring, co-written and co-directed by George Clooney, concerns CBS newsman Ed Murrow's 1954 clash with Communist-hunter Sen. Joseph McCarthy. Ty Burr in the Boston Globe calls the film, "a hermetically sealed period piece so intensely relevant to our current state of affairs that it takes your breath away ... a call to civic responsibility and renewed purpose in broadcast journalism that demands to be seen and discussed by audiences of all ages and political stripes." Jack Mathews in the New York Daily News calls it "the biggest little movie of the year -- and one of the best ever about the news media." On the other hand, Stephen Hunter in the Washington Post accuses Clooney of painting a totally black-and-white scenario -- leaving out "nuance, context, empathy, anything that suggests the larger truth that nothing is as simple as it seems. The film, therefore, is like a child's view of these events, untroubled by complexity, hungry for myth and simplicity."

MOVIE REVIEWS: TWO FOR THE MONEY

Al Pacino is being singled out for much praise -- and much scorn -- in D.J. Caruso's Two for the Money. His is a performance "vibrating with tension and need," writes Roger Ebert in the Chicago Sun-Times. Robert K. Elder in the Chicago Tribune describes him as "the Michelangelo of alpha males, the superior craftsman of high-strung, barking-mad rulers of men." Kyle Smith in the New York Post comments that "Pacino is always worth watching. ... He brings so much flash he almost makes us forget that the story, and even the setting, don't make sense." But Chris Kaltenbach writes in the Baltimore Sun, "If watching Al Pacino overact does it for you, then by all means go see Two for the Money." Similarly, Peter Howell in the Toronto Star observes, "Al Pacino begins dining on the shrubbery from the moment the camera turns to him." Philip Wuntch in the Dallas Morning News says that Pacino "overacts with such self-aware vigor, vintage movie fans may wonder if he's possessed by the spirit of Bette Davis." And Steven Rea concludes in the Philadelphia Inquirer: "A little Al Pacino goes a long way, and his rants and revelations assume a sort of bludgeoning familiarity as the film progresses, heading for a muddled, emotionally messy conclusion."

MOVIE REVIEWS: THE GOSPEL

Rob Hardy's The Gospel is attracting as much hell fire and damnation as it is hallelujahs. Ty Burr in the Boston Globe describes it as "a heartfelt but muddled melodrama about an R&B singer's crisis of faith and the church politics that ensnare him when he goes home to visit his dying father." Bob Townsend in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution dismisses it as "a preachy soap opera about Saturday night and Sunday morning." On the other hand, Kevin Thomas in the Los Angeles Times calls it "rousing, affirmative entertainment." Steve Persall in the St. Petersburg Times writes that the movie offers "soap opera spirituality that won't have any problem pleasing the faithful." And Michael Wilmington in the Chicago Tribune concludes that The Gospel "may not surprise us, but it's a likable movie done with verve and style.

MOVIE REVIEWS: WAITING ...

Waiting ... about a group working at a chain restaurant, gets small-change tips from the critics. In fact the only tip Lou Lumenick gives in his review of the movie is: "Skip this." Stephen Holden in the New York Times calls it "a witless farce." Mike Clark in USA Today concludes: "Geared to 16-year-olds who can't name the governor of their state, this movie ought to be closed down by the health department." And Elizabeth Weitzman in the New York Daily News says the movie is "such an obvious candidate for the direct-to-video shelf, someone will surely be demoted for sending it into actual theaters."

MOVIE REVIEWS: IN HER SHOES

Most critics are concluding that Curtis Hansen has succeeded in making In Her Shoes a chick flick with a soul. Joe Morgenstern in the Wall Street Journal writes that it's "a case of solid emotional content trumping conventional form." That's not the way Jack Mathews in the New York Daily News views it at all. He comments: "Many a tear will be shed at screenings of Curtis Hanson's In Her Shoes, a lot of them by men sorry to have been dragged along by wives and girlfriends."