NBC NEWS TRUMPETS TRUMP Bringing to mind episodes of ABC's The Wonderful World of Disneythat were devoted entirely to hyping a new Disneyland attraction, NBC Wednesday night presented a one-hour special edition of Datelinedevoted entirely to hyping tonight's (Thursday) season finale of the Donald Trump reality series The Apprentice. Television critics expressed astonishment that the network would jeopardize the credibility of its premier news magazine by mounting such a generally uncritical special about one of its own entertainment programs. MediaWeekcolumnist Mark Berman remarked, "Isn't Datelinesupposed to be a valid newsmagazine and not a promotional tool for the network? Watching the ultra-stiff Stone Phillips seriously report on The Apprentice was one of the oddest, and unintentionally funniest, moments on television this season. The only thing missing was a laugh track." Detroit Free Presscritic Julie Hinds, noting that there's additional hype in store for The Apprenticeon Friday's edition of Dateline, suggested that the show's motto ought to be "All the news that's fit to promote." Earlier, former NBC News President Laurence Grossman remarked in an AP interview, "I think it's a disgrace. ... It's clearly using the news division to hype the network's entertainment schedule." Nevertheless, the special performed well in its own right Wednesday, winning the 9:00 p.m. hour with an 8.9 rating and a 13 share.


ABC, which was chastised by critics for initially overexposing its hit quiz show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,now apparently plans to bring the show back (as Super Millionaire, with a top prize of $10 million) only during sweeps periods. The network said Wednesday that the Regis Philbin-hosted series will return on Sunday, May 16, with additional installments airing on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and the following Sunday. ABC brought back the souped-up version of Millionairein February, and although the first-night audience attracted an impressive 17.5 million viewers, the show quickly slumped on succeeding nights as it became clear that few contestants would risk relatively big winnings early on in their appearances in order to go for the top prize. Nevertheless, the show performed far better than any other ABC entertainment offerings. (Diane Sawyer's interview with Mel Gibson during the same week drew 17.1 million viewers.)


ABC News Wednesday named Good Morning Americaexecutive producer Shelley Ross to replace David Doss as executive producer of Primetime Thursday, co-hosted by Diane Sawyer and Charles Gibson, who also co-host GMA. Her appointment comes following reports that she was feuding with Gibson and that Gibson had threatened to quit the show if Ross remained. In an interview with the Associated Press on Wednesday, Ross again dismissed the rift reports. "Everyone forgets the fact that Charlie is on Primetime, too," she said. "In my new office, I'll be right across the hall from him." Gibson indicated that he welcomed Ross's appointment. "She has been an indomitable force in turning this program [GMA] around," he told AP. NBC's Todayremains the morning leader, but GMAhas narrowed the ratings gap in recent years. Ben Sherwood, a former NBC News producer, is expected to replace Ross at GMA, according to published reports.


Lawyers for David Beckham were working until the last moment to block News Corp-controlled BSkyB from broadcasting an interview tonight (Thursday) with Beckham's former personal assistant, Rebecca Loos, who claims she had an affair with the soccer star. The interview, for which Loos reportedly was paid $267,000, was taped in Spain on Monday. Beckham has denied Loos's allegations, calling them "ludicrous" when they first appeared in the News Corp tabloid News of the Worldearlier this month. In tonight's TV interview, Loos said that she could prove her allegations. "There is something I know about him, an intimate part of his body that I think only women who've been in bed with him would know, so I think if they did want to take me to court, I could easily stand up and say, 'Well ... .'" USE A CAMCORDER, GO TO JAIL Tipped off by an audience member and a projectionist, police have arrested two men under California's new law barring use of a camcorder in a movie theater. The Associated Press reported Wednesday that one of the men, Min Jae Joun, was nabbed Saturday after someone spotted the red light from his camcorder during a screening of The Passion of the Christ.The other man, Ruben Centeno Moreno, was spotted by a projectionist scanning the audience with night-vision goggles. The arrests were the first to be carried out under a recently enacted California law making the use of a camcorder in a movie theater a misdemeanor.


John Luczycki, charged with being one of the primary chefs in Vivendi Universal's alleged effort to cook the company's books in 2001 to make it appear that it was meeting earnings targets, has reached a settlement with the SEC. Under terms of the deal, in which he neither admitted not denied the SEC's charges, Luczycki, Vivendi Universal's former chief accounting officer and comptroller, will be barred from practicing as a CPA for three years. The SEC had previously reached settlements with the company's former CEO, Jean-Marie Messier, and former CFO, Guillaume Hannezo.


Theme park revenue could offset the debacle at the box office for The Alamoand Home on the Range as well as the dismal performance of ABC-TV, Disney Co. analysts observed Wednesday. In separate reports, analysts for Banc of America Securities, S.G. Cowen and CIBC World Markets said that theme park revenue appeared to be strong, based largely on reports of hotel occupancy rates in Anaheim, CA and Orlando, FL. Disney does not break out its attendance figures. Several analysts also noted that Disney is showing significant improvement with its cable networks and the previously languishing Walt Disney Stores.


With many kids out of school for spring break, Disney's animated feature Home on the Range zoomed to first place at the box office on Monday and Tuesday, taking in $1.9 million on Monday and $1.3 million on Tuesday. By contrast, the weekend leader, Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ,fell to fifth place on Monday and fourth on Tuesday behind other kids fare, including Scooby-Doo 2, Hellboy and Ella Enchanted.In fact, revenue for Home on the Rangeactually increased 6.9 percent on Monday from Sunday, a rare occurrence. Kids appeared to have little interest in Davy Crockett et al in The Alamo.It dived to seventh place on Monday, rising only slightly to fifth on Tuesday.


More good news for Disney: Only days before Friday's debut of Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill Vol. 2,the home video version of Kill Bill Vol. 1, sold 2 million copies in its first 24 hours in the store, according to Disney's Buena Vista Home Entertainment. In a statement, Miramax COO Rick Sands said, "It is an extraordinary achievement and reaffirms that Quentin's films are true movie events."


IN DEMAND, Time Warner Cable's video-on-demand unit, sent out press releases in each of the markets where it offers service on Wednesday estimating the amount of money residents in each of those cities are paying in late fees for movie rentals. Its news release in Houston, for example, noted that residents there are paying more than $17 million annually in late fees. It then quoted a local spokesman for Time Warner Cable-Houston as saying, "This is a staggering amount of money that consumers no longer have to shell out." The news release continued: "The amount spent in the Houston market on late fees was derived by iN DEMAND based upon a percentage of the amount spent nationally, which Video Store Magazine estimated at over $1 billion in 2003."


Loews Cineplex Entertainment Corp. has received at least ten offers to buy the firm for between $1.5 billion and $1.7 billion, including debt, according to the Wall Street Journal. The company is jointly owned by Toronto-based Onex and Los Angeles-based Oaktree Capital Management. Word of the auction comes three months after Onex said that it had ended merger talks with exhibitor AMC Entertainment, which is believed to be one of the current bidders.