FRIENDS NEARS FINALE The penultimate episode of Friendsdrew top ratings Thursday night, drawing an 18.3 rating and a 28 share and helping NBC win the night, despite intense competition from CBS. The 8:00 p.m. regular episode was followed by an 8:30 p.m. rerun that scored a 15.4/22. CBS says that it plans to air a one-hour retrospect of the series at 8:00 p.m. next Thursday, followed by a one-hour series finale at 9:00 p.m. On CBS, Survivor: All-Starsstill managed to attract a sizable crowed with a 12.2/18. At 9:00, it pulled ahead of NBC with an 18.0/26 for CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, almost as large an audience as that for the departing Friends. A one-hour season finale of Will & Grace, guest starring Jennifer Lopez, was second with a 15.1/21. NBC regained first place at 10:00 p.m. with a 16.5/26 for E.R., besting CBS's Without a Trace (12.8/19).


A federal judge on Thursday ruled that jockeys can wear advertising on their riding apparel during Saturday's running of the Kentucky Derby. Five jockeys had filed suit against the Kentucky Horse Racing Authority seeking to block the organization from enforcing a rule prohibiting jockeys from wearing ads or logos. Advertising Agereported that during the two-day court hearing, one jockey had testified that he was offered $30,000 to wear an advertising patch on his right leg. The trade publication pointed out that while the winning jock receives almost $100,000, the one who finishes last earns as little as $56. Earlier this month, following a televised exhibition game in Japan in which members of the New York Yankees were seen wearing ads for Ricoh, which sponsored the team's tour, Major League Baseball exec Tim Brosnan indicated that it may be just a matter of time before the association allows players to wear ads.


Criticism continued to mount Thursday in advance of tonight's (Friday) airing of ABC's 20/20in which a pregnant 16-year-old interviews five couples who want to adopt her baby. Boston Globecritic Suzanne C. Ryan writes in today's edition that 20/20 "is supposed to be a news magazine, not a reality show. But the host, Barbara Walters, in her zeal to educate the world about adoption, loses sight of good taste in 'Be My Baby.' Surely it's no coincidence that the May 'sweeps' period started yesterday." Attorney Mary Bissell writes in an Op-Ed piece in today's Washington Post: "Portraying adoption as a game undermines our humanity and makes all of us struggling with these issues losers." Although following earlier reviews and protests by adoption groups of promos for the show, ABC removed references to TV reality programs in its ads, critics pointed out that their review copies contained numerous references to such programs, including one in which a prospective adoptive parent remarks, "It's kind of like The Bachelor." But in an interview with the St. Petersburg Times, Al Tompkins of the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, himself an adoptive parent, points out that there is a significant difference between the 20/20feature and reality TV. "Reality TV is make-believe and contrived. ... There are not these people who landed on a tropical island by mistake; they were chosen and placed there and paid," said Tompkins. "What's very different, theoretically, about this adoption story, is that we're watching something that would have taken place if the cameras weren't there."


Complaining that ABC appeared to be "motivated by a political agenda designed to undermine the efforts of the United States in Iraq," Sinclair Broadcasting on Thursday ordered its six ABC affiliates not to air tonight's (Friday) edition of Nightlinein which host Ted Koppel intends to read aloud the names of over seven hundred U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq. "While the Sinclair Broadcast Group honors the memory of the brave members of the military who have sacrificed their lives in the service of our country, we do not believe such political statements should be disguised as news content," the statement said. The statement went on to question why ABC had not read "the names of the thousands of private citizens killed in terrorist attacks since and including the events of Sept. 11, 2001." In reply, the network said that the broadcasts was intended to be "an expression of respect which simply seeks to honor those who have laid down their lives for this country." It went on to note that "on the first anniversary of 9/11 ABC News broadcast the names of the victims of that horrific attack."


Advances in computer-generated animation may now allow television production companies to churn out disaster films that look every bit as impressive as those that once cost the big studios an arm and a leg (and other assorted body parts, depending on the depicted disaster), but, according to reviewers of NBC's upcoming 10.5miniseries, the spectacle of crashing buildings is rarely enough to overcome a weak script. Comments Robert Lloyd in the Los Angeles Times: "It is clearly bad on a particularly large scale. Except to connoisseurs of the misbegotten, who will find their plate full, there is little here to recommend." Phil Rosenthal in the Chicago Sun-Timesremarks, "It's a 10.5 all right -- on a scale of 1 to 100." Robert Bianco in USA Todaysays that it's "laughably written, indifferently portrayed, badly directed and ineffectively produced." Vince Horiuchi in the Salt Lake Tribunecalls it "more than a disaster film -- it's a catastrophe in entertainment," while Mike McDaniel in the Houston Chronicle dismisses it as "no great shake."


Staving off a repeat of last month's collapse of negotiations between EchoStar and Viacom that resulted in Viacom-owned networks being yanked from EchoStar's DISH satellite service, EchoStar and Turner Broadcasting reached a deal on a new contract Thursday. An EchoStar spokesman cautioned that although an agreement in principle had been reached, details had yet to be worked out. Turner had been seeking rate increases to carry some of its channels, including CNN and TCM (Turner Classic Movies).


CSI star William Petersen has renewed his complaints over CBS's decision to produce spinoff versions of the original. Referring to the current CSI: Miamiand the upcoming CSI: New York, Petersen tells Bob Costas on HBO's On the Recordtonight: (Friday): "I just think that it went too fast. There wasn't enough time [to make] these shows different than our show." Petersen, who was quoted in a Playboyarticle last month as saying that he wanted to leave the series, said that he intended to remain "as long as we can keep making it better and different." He added, however, "Now with the landscape sort of littered, it's hard to make that choice."


To augment its overseas coverage, the BBC has asked readers of its website to contribute further details. Following the clash last week between Syrian police and gunmen in Damascus, the BBC added the following message to its online report: "Are you in the Damascus area? Did you witness the blasts? Send us your comments using the form below." By the end of the day, five readers had submitted eye-witness accounts. It was not clear whether the comments had been edited or whether a BBC fact-checker had ascertained the validity of their observations.SAG WANTS TO CURTAIL NEW MEMBERSHIP The Screen Actors Guild's board decided to raise its initiation fee more than 65 percent in order to discourage new actors from joining, thereby reducing competition for roles. In a letter to its membership on Thursday, President Melissa Gilbert and Secretary-Treasurer James Cromwell said that it was necessary to "curtail the amount of new members joining SAG by raising the initiation fee from $1365 to $2085. There are too few jobs to go around and more members just make matters worse." The comment was contained in a letter that outlined the board's previously announced decision to raise dues all around to offset budget deficits and produce a strike fund to strengthen the union's hand in upcoming contract negotiations with producers. The SAG membership is due to vote on the increases after May 7.


MGM on Thursday reported that its first-quarter loss narrowed to $21.3 million from a loss of $464 million in the same quarter a year ago. It attributed the improvement to a 44 percent jump in sales of DVDs and the success of the movie Barbershop 2: Back in Businesswhich cost just $18 million to produce but brought in $63.8 million at the domestic box office.


Few critics appear to have been attracted by Laws of Attraction, starring Pierce Brosnan and Julianne Moore. Megan Lehmann in the New York Postwrites that "Brosnan is impossibly suave; Julianne Moore is faultlessly lovely. But the heat they generate together couldn't spark a Boy Scout's campfire." Jami Bernard in the New York Daily Newsagrees. "More chemistry between the leads would have helped. But Laws of Attractionstill would have had a tough case making a jury believe these two unlikable characters belong together, except as a way to take them out of circulation," she writes. A.O. Scott in the New York Timesconcludes that there's not much in the film to lift it "above the cautious banality of a midseason replacement sitcom." Wesley Morris in the Boston Globealso pans the film, but notes, "I saw more than one woman turn to her friend on the way out of the theater and say, "It was cute." In other words, if you tolerated the D-grade screwball comedy of Ally McBeal, then the D-grade screwball afoot here might hit the spot." But in the New York Observer,Rex Reed takes a swipe at his colleagues in his review, in which he calls the movie "a slick, lushly appointed romantic comedy which will not appeal to ... critics desperately trying to prove how young and hip they are, but which does provide an element of the one word that has disappeared from the world of movies. Remember the word 'entertainment?'"


Saturday Night Live 's Tina Fey might well have a hit on her hands, judging by the critical reaction to Mean Girls, which she wrote. "In a wasteland of dumb movies about teenagers, Mean Girls is a smart and funny one," Roger Ebert writes in the Chicago Sun-Times. Ann Hornaday in the Washington Postdescribes it as "smart, funny, well-acted and visually lively." Bruce Westbrook in the Houston chronicleconcludes: "From script to performances, everything works here, like, totally." The film is produced by SNL's Lorne Michaels, who has not had much luck of late in capitalizing on his stable of talented TV comics at the box office. But Elvis Mitchell in the New York Timesobserves that Mean Girlsis "one of the few films that Lorne Michaels ... can be proud of," while Karen Heller in the Philadelphia Inquirerobserves: "Mean Girls will most likely appeal to viewers with more body fat than its target audience. It's really for twentysomethings and older who have survived high school and were weaned on SNL and the less gentle humor of Animal House."


Godsend, a horror flick that already has attracted controversy because of its plot -- about scientists who clone a dead child -- is also attracting some pretty horrendous reviews, especially surprising since its stars include Robert De Niro, Greg Kinnear and Rebecca Romjin-Stamos. In his review in the Washington Post, Desson Thomson says that he'd like to get De Niro on the phone to ask him, "Bobby, very seriously, is there anything you say no to anymore?" (Peter Howell in the Toronto Starfigures that "De Niro has been replaced by an inferior clone.) Wesley Morris in the Boston Globe describes the movie as "vile." Gene Seymour in Newsday is kinder, calling it "this soupy, tedious mess." "It's a thriller, a bad thriller, completely lacking in psychological or emotional truth," writes Roger Ebert in the Chicago Sun-Times. Lou Lumenick in the New York Post begins his review by writing, "There's no excuse for a thriller as lame, leaden and unthrilling as Godsend, which manages to take a potentially interesting subject -- human cloning -- and use it to put audiences to sleep."


Envymay star Ben Stiller, Jack Black, and Christopher Walken, but it's not getting the kind of applause these three actors usually elicit. Most of the blame for the film's failure to deliver, most critics agree, falls on director Barry Levinson, another individual who usually commands esteem. Jonathan Foreman writes in the New York Post, "The mystery here is how a director like Barry Levinson ... could make such an embarrassingly unfunny black comedy." Stephen Holden in the New York Timesreckons that this is Levinson's "attempt to match the Farrelly Brothers in adolescent goofiness." But Jami Bernard in the New York Daily Newsconcludes that the result is "a mean-spirited black comedy saturated with dog-poo jokes and only intermittent yowls of mirth." Several critics observe that during the film, which revolves around an invention called the Vapoorizer, which makes dog poo disappear, characters repeatedly ask, "Where does the poo go?" -- without ever getting a reply. "Perhaps the filmmakers figured we'd just look at the screen and draw our own conclusions," writes Mark Caro in the Chicago Tribune. Or, as Geoff Pevere puts it in the Toronto Star: "The movie itself is its best answer: You're watching it."