NBC RATINGS GET HIGH WITH HELP FROM FRIENDS Two weeks away from splitsville, Friendsshot to the top of the Nielsen list with an original episode last week. (A rerun also made the list.) Nevertheless, it was not enough to win the overall ratings leadership for the week. CBS ranked first with a 7.8 rating and a 13 share, edging out NBC's 7.3/12. Fox placed third with a 5.6/9, while ABC trailed with a 4.7/8. Meanwhile, the return of Mark Burnett's The Restauranton NBC suggested that Burnett, who also created the hit reality shows Survivorand The Apprentice, doesn't always have his finger on the audience's pulse. The show bombed with a measly 3.7/10 representing 6.5 million viewers. And in the latest round of bad news for CNN, Nielsen reported that for the first time, MSNBC's Hardball with Chris Matthews, which averaged 476,000 viewers last weekbeat CNN's Anderson Cooper 360,which attracted 461,000 viewers. It marked the first time since it was launched in 1996 that MSNBC had overtaken CNN during any primetime period. (Both shows were trounced by the competing Fox News Channel.) The top ten shows of the week according to Nielsen Research:1. Friends(8:00 p.m.), NBC, 14.4/24; 2.American Idol (Tuesday), Fox, 14.0/23; 3. CSI: Miami, CBS, 13.9/23; 4. CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, CBS, 13.2/21; 5. E.R., NBC, 13.0/21; 5. Friends (8:30 p.m.), NBC, 13.0/21; 7. American Idol (Wednesday), Fox, 12.6/20; 8. Survivor: All-Stars, CBS, 12.1/20; 9. Law and Order, NBC, 11.4/19; 10. Will & Grace, NBC, 10.8/17.


Viacom President and COO Mel Karmazin has again come to the defense of Howard Stern, telling a New York audience that Stern is merely exercising his constitutional rights to free speech. Asked by The New Yorker's Ken Auletta whether it was proper for Stern to discuss such matters as anal sex on his program, Karmazin replied: "We are fighting in Iraq for freedom. ... If it doesn't appeal to you, shut the radio off. Just because you don't like the words 'anal sex,' doesn't make it indecent." Stern's program is syndicated by Viacom's Infinity Broadcasting unit. Meanwhile, it was reported Tuesday that Stern's radio show finished No. 1 in Los Angeles last week for the first time since 1995 and that it also finished first in New York for the first time since 2000.


Elton John has added his voice to the growing hubbub over last week's surprise audience vote that resulted in Jennifer Hudson being banished from American Idol. John, who appeared on the program recently and met the contestants, attributed Hudson's ouster to racism. "The three people I was really impressed with ... just happened to be black young female singers, and they all seem to be landing in the bottom three," John told a New York news conference. "They have great voices. The fact that they're constantly in the bottom three -- and I don't want to set myself up here -- but I find it incredibly racist." On Tuesday night's show, teenage singer John Stevens, whose abilities have been called into question by the judges but who has nevertheless managed to attract the votes of the audience, received a compliment from judge Simon Cowell for taking "every bullet thrown at you like a man." Cowell then went on to tell Stevens that he and Latin music go together "like chocolate and an onion." The show drew a sensational 15.0 rating and a 23 share.


NBC is charging -- and apparently getting -- Super Bowl-like prices for the final episode of Friends,scheduled to air on May 6. Published reports said Tuesday that the network is selling 30-second spots for $2 million each, versus $2.3 million for those that aired during the Super Bowl. Pepsi, Hewlett-Packard and the Walt Disney Co. have all plunked down that amount, with NBC expected to realize $40 million from the episode. Although some 50 million viewers are expected to tune in, TV writers observed that such a number would represent only half the number who tuned into the final episode of M*A*S*H on CBS in 1983 and about two-thirds the number who watched the series finale of NBC's Cheers.


Only five days after the series finale of NBC's Friends on May 6, Warner Home Video will release the episode on DVD, Video Storemagazine reported Tuesday. The trade publication said that the $14.97 disc will also include unaired footage as well as the original pilot of the series -- plus a music video of The Rembrandts' "I'll be There for You," the show's theme.


ABC is being deluged with complaints about a planned 20/20telecast with Barbara Walters on Friday in which five couples will be shown competing against one another to adopt the baby of a 16-year-old. Described on the air last week as "the ultimate reality show," by co-host John Stossel, the show was criticized by the A Child's Waiting adoption agency in Akron, OH, which participated in the production. Jennifer Marando, co-director of the agency, told today's (Wednesday) New York Post, "We chose to participate in order to educate people on open adoption. But it's not an educational piece at this point -- it's an entertainment piece made into a reality-show theme." ABC has reportedly dropped the initial promo, replacing it with a less sensational one. ABC spokesman Jeffrey Schneider told the Post: "Clearly, the first promo that ran was leaving people with the wrong impression of what this hour is all about." However, New York Daily NewsTV critic David Bianculli commented today: "There are moments during this ABC show that are so intimate, so personal, they should not be shown on television," especially a scene in which the teenage mother is shown the transfer contract as she holds her baby in the hospital. "Tears flood out of her, dropping directly on the child," Bianculli writes. "That's something I didn't need to see, something so private I don't think anyone outside that room necessarily needs to see, either."


Secretary of State Colin Powell met Tuesday with the foreign minister of Qatar, Sheik Hamad Jassim ibn Jaber al Thani, to voice his objections to coverage of Iraq by the Qatar-backed al-Jazeera satellite news channel. According to today's (Wednesday) Los Angeles Times, Powell complained that the station's broadcasts had "intruded" on relations between the U.S. and Qatar, considered an ally in the Persian Gulf region. Reporting on the meeting, the Timesobserved, "The effort to curb al-Jazeera is evidence of the increasing importance the Bush administration attaches to influencing the flow of information in the Middle East at a time when anti-American sentiment is soaring."COMCAST LETS MOUSE LOOSE As expected, Comcast dropped its bid for the Walt Disney Co. today (Wednesday), saying that it had become clear that Disney had no interest in a merger. "We have always been disciplined in our approach to acquisitions," Brian L. Roberts, president and CEO of Comcast, said in a statement. "Being disciplined means knowing when it is time to walk away. That time is now." The company had been caught in a kind of lose-lose situation. Its original bid on Feb. 11 had been worth $54 billion. But Comcast shareholders showed no enthusiasm for it, causing the company's shares to fall and reducing the value of the bid. Speculation that it might raise the bid, however, caused Disney's shares to rise to a 52-week high. With Comcast throwing in the towel, the cable company's shares immediately shot up 6 percent. However, Disney's shares, which had risen to $28.41 after Comcast's bid in February, were trading at $23.60 following the Comcast announcement, down about 2 percent from Tuesday.


Following a two-day retreat at company headquarters in Burbank, the Walt Disney Company's board of directors reiterated their support of CEO Michael Eisner Tuesday. "The board continues to have complete confidence in Michael Eisner, [COO] Bob Iger and the senior management team and in their strategic growth plan to continue to strengthen the company's position as the global leader in quality family entertainment," the board said in a statement. The board also indicated that it had discussed succession issues regarding Eisner but gave no details. A source told the Los Angeles Timesthat the board is in the process of evaluating possible internal candidates for the job and has no plans to go outside the company.


Sony has sent a formal letter to MGM detailing its interest in buying the company, published reports said Tuesday. The formal request will allow Sony to pursue additional due diligence to obtain details about the operations of the company. Time Warner is also reportedly considering submitting an offer for the studio. However, in an interview with The New Yorker's Ken Auletta on Tuesday, Viacom President and COO Mel Karmazin indicated that the prices being bandied about to buy the studio are too high and that Viacom is therefore unlikely to submit a bid. Asked what price Viacom would be willing to pay, Karmazin replied that it is "not comparable to the price MGM is looking for."


Regal Cinemas, the country's largest exhibitor, is acquiring 37 additional theaters comprising 384 screens, including 30 from Signature Theatres in California and Hawaii. The company declined to disclose a purchase price but said that the deals were already signed and that the transactions would be completed no later than the third quarter. Regal currently operates 545 theaters with 6,020 screens in 39 states, representing about 17 percent of all screens in the U.S. The acquisitions were disclosed in a first-quarter earnings report on Tuesday in which the company reported a 2.3-percent rise in revenue to $540.5 million. The company had $22.8 million in net income versus $35.3 million for the comparable quarter a year ago.


Florida's state Film Commissioner Susan Albershardt has complained that Hollywood producers have chosen Louisiana over Florida for two major movies in the past two months, largely because of more enticing offers of rebates and incentives. In an interview with the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, she pointed out that one of the films, Winn-Dixieis even set in a small Florida town, but because of Louisiana's incentives, producers found it cheaper to make in that state and create a location site that looked like a Florida town. Urging legislators to increase incentive funding, Albershardt said, ""It is so incredibly important for Florida to showcase the tourism places that it has to offer. ... When Lord of the Rings shot in New Zealand, their tourism went up in two weeks by 22 percent. ... It's like free advertising."


Legendary actress Ingrid Bergman's greatest career regret was not taking a role in the original 1968 version of Planet of the Apes, daughter Isabella Rossellini has told the London publication Time Out. "I know she was tired of playing roles which wouldn't allow her to discard her regal bearing. I think she realized that all those putty muzzles the ape actors would have liberated her from her image in an instant, Rossellini said. "But she hesitated [and] the part went to someone else." Bergman, who appeared in some 50 films, landed roles in only three Hollywood features from 1968 until her death in 1982.