ABC: OFF WITH THE HEADS Catching many in the industry by surprise, coming as it has only weeks before the networks' unveiling of their fall schedules to advertisers, the Walt Disney Co. fired ABC Entertainment Television Group Chairman Lloyd Braun and Entertainment President Susan Lyne Tuesday. Touchstone Television chief Stephen McPherson was named President of ABC Entertainment, while ESPN and ABC Sports President George Bodenheimer and ABC Cable Networks President Anne Sweeney were named co-chairs of the company's Media Networks division. Braun's position became extinct. While Bodenheimer's job remains essentially unchanged, Sweeney will now add all of the ABC TV Network to her responsibilities. Her appointment raised eyebrows within the industry, since it had been expected that the company would look to someone on the outside with a solid track record as a top-flight programmer to man the rudder of the fourth-place network. In an interview with today's (Wednesday) Los Angeles Times, Disney President Robert Iger acknowledged that he had pursued other candidates for the job. The newspaper quoted one unnamed source as saying that "Disney won't be able to bring someone in from the outside and really change things as long as Bob Iger [has a direct hand in making creative decisions]." While Braun's firing had been expected -- he was said to have had a testy relationship with Iger -- Lyne's was not. Today's Wall Street Journalcommented that "Lyne had been expected to remain as a symbol of stability." Just last month Iger had told an investors conference: ""I believe in Susan strongly, and I think she has the goods to turn [the network] around." Several analysts were scratching their heads over McPherson's promotion, since at Touchstone TV, he had developed and was in charge of production of many of the shows that had flopped on the network.


The finale of Mark Burnett's The Apprentice, starring Donald Trump, produced towering ratings for NBC Thursday night and gave the network a rare win for the week. The show, in which Trump hired Bill Rancic to oversee a stalled Chicago skyscraper project, was watched by more than 28 million people. Moreover, Trump's Miss USA beauty pageant, which had been dumped by CBS because of low ratings and had then been picked up by NBC, attracted its biggest audience since 1998. NBC averaged a 7.6 rating and a 13 share for the week. CBS slid to second place with an average 7.1/12. Fox, whose American Idolfranchise was displaced by President Bush's news conference, dropped to a 5.2/9, while ABC trailed with a 4.8/8. The top ten shows of the week according to Nielsen Research:1. The Apprentice, NBC, 17.2/27; 2. CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, CBS, 14.8/22; 3. American Idol (Wednesday Performance Show), Fox, 13.9/23; 4. Survivor: All-Stars, CBS, 11.6/19; 5. Without a Trace, CBS, 11.2/18; 6. Friends, NBC, 110./18; 7. Law and Order, NBC, 10.6/18; 8. American Idol (Thursday Results Show), Fox, 9.4/16; 9. Law and Order: Criminal Intent, NBC, 9.1/14; 10.CSI: Miami, CBS, 8.9/14.


Mel Gibson's Icon Productions is experiencing the same sort of rejection from the major television networks that it endured from the major movie studios when it first began shopping The Passion of the Christ. The Associated Press reported Tuesday that ABC has acknowledged publicly that it turned down the movie and executives of the other networks, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that it was doubtful that the film, which graphically depicts the violence of Christ's crucifixion, would wind up on their schedules. AP indicated that the film appears to have a slight chance of airing on Fox. (The company's corporate siblings distribute the movie overseas and are releasing it on home video.) The network's entertainment chief, Gail Berman, told the wire service that she is waiting to hear from its broadcast standards department (the network censor) before making a decision.


FCC Chairman Michael Powell indicated Tuesday that the commission has no intention of spelling out what constitutes "indecent speech" on television. Speaking during a question-and-answer session at the NAB convention in Las Vegas, Powell told the broadcasters: "You don't want the government to write a red book of what the government says you can and cannot say." He said that the commission would likely rely on the definition that "has been around for decades," that is, any description of "sexual or excretory activities or organs in a patently offensive manner as measured by contemporary community standards for the broadcast medium." In recent weeks, the commission has ruled that both the Janet Jackson breast-baring incident during the Super Bowl telecast and the utterance of the expression "f***ing brilliant" by Bono during the Golden Globes telecast were indecent. Powell said that the commission's decision to crack down on broadcast indecency was a "direct response to the concerns of the public."


Rupert Murdoch's News Corp has sold the PanAmSat system of 29 satellites to Kohlberg Kravis Roberts for $3.5 billion plus an assumption of $750 million in debt. News Corp had originally acquired PanAmSat from GM's Hughes Electronics in the same deal that brought it the DirecTV home satellite system. FLASH FIRE Without explanation, 20th Century Fox has decided to push the Los Angeles and New York opening of the latest vengeance-is-mine flick, Man on Fire, to today (Wednesday), while the rest of the nation is scheduled to see it on Friday. In a note at the end of his review, Jack Mathews in the New York Daily Newsobserved that "until late Monday night, Man on Firewas scheduled to open on Friday. All the ads and promotion -- and the movie listings -- pointed to Friday. But after the studio showed it to writers over the weekend, executives decided to rush it into theaters two days early in New York and Los Angeles." A. O. Scott speculated in his review in the New York Times: "Perhaps the studio reasoned that it would be unfair to make moviegoers in the nation's two largest cities, their blood lust aroused by Kill Bill: Vol. 2and The Punisher, wait an entire week for the next round of righteous killing." (Excerpts from their reviews will be included in our Friday edition.)


The director and producer of the movie version of Douglas Adams' The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy have defended their decision to cast rap singer Mos Def in the lead. In an interview with Britain's Empiremagazine, director Garth Jennings denied that he intended to turn the character of Ford Prefect into a jive-talking oddball. "I think that would be the most appalling thing ever in the history of the world," he said, adding: "I didn't know much about Mos Def before I met him and didn't think that he was going to be right. But that's why I say, when you meet him, he's the most wonderful actor first and foremost but he's also incredibly funny, incredibly clever. He just fits the brief in a most unexpected way really." Def starred on Broadway in the Pulitzer Prize-winning play Top Dog/Under Dog. As for criticism that the movie appears likely to stray from the original Adams novel, producer Nick Goldsmith remarked that the movie is not intended as "a literal adaptation." He explained: "It's not like Lord of the Rings, where you have a book and you want to turn that into a film which is as faithful to its source as possible. There is no single definitive Hitchhiker's Guide story, and never has been."


The strong performance of its movie studio was one of the primary factors in Sony Corporation's announcement Tuesday that it had raised its forecast of annual net profit by 60 percent. Nevertheless, Sony's expected net of $813 million would still be down 23.8 percent from the previous year. In fact, Kazuharu Miura, an electronics industry analyst at the Daiwa Institute of Research, told today's (Wednesday) New York Timesthat he was not so positive on Sony "because the reason for the revision was not electronics, but rather movies. If the reason for the revision had been improvement in the electronics division, that would have been very positive."


Marking a major step towards NBC's entry into the movie business, the FTC on Tuesday gave its unconditional blessing to the GE-owned company's acquisition of Vivendi Universal's entertainment properties, which include Universal Studios. "With this important step behind us, we will move quickly toward a close of the acquisition," NBC Chairman Robert C. Wright said in a statement. The combined company is to be called NBC Universal.


Customs agents at Malaysia's Kuala Lumpur airport, suspicious of 49 boxes labeled "Educational Material," found that they contained 36,000 pirated DVDs and confiscated them last Thursday, according to a report by Malaysia's Bernama news agency today (Wednesday). The report said that no arrests were made, although an investigation has been launched. The customs seizure follows the discovery of 75,000 pirated disks at the same airport two months ago.


For the first time in 11 years, a German film will be included in the competition at the Cannes Film Festival this year, the festival's artistic director, Thierry Fremaux, announced in Paris today (Wednesday). Hans Weingartner's Die Fetten Jahre Sind Vorbei (Happy Days Are Gone) will compete against 18 other films, including three from the U.S. for the Palme d'Or at the festival, which opens on May 12 and closes 11 days later. The American films include the recently released Coen brothers movie The Ladykillers, Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11,and DreamWorks' animated Shrek 2. (The original Shrekwas also screened in competition at the festival in 2001.) Another animated feature, Innocenceby Japan's Oshii Mamoru of Japan, is also entered -- marking the first time that two animated films have been included in the Cannes competition.