CRITICS' FAVE CRUSHED IN THURSDAY BATTLE

Original episodes of NBC's E.R. and CBS's Without a Trace, which air opposite one another at 10:00 p.m. on Thursdays, both wound up in the Nielsen top ten last week. The two networks utterly dominated the Thursday ratings, with NBC's The Apprentice making its best showing to date against CBS's powerhouse CSI: Crime Scene Investigation (and in fact, beating CSI for the first time ever in the 18-49-year-old demographics). The two networks' dominance was so overwhelming that the critically acclaimed Fox drama Wonderfalls, after being shunted to Thursday night, wound up near the bottom of the Nielsen list and was canceled. (Meanwhile, horror writer Stephen King has expressed his horror over ABC's decision to switch his Kingdom Hospital to Thursday nights at 9:00. "It's kind of like where shows go to die," he told today's New York Daily News.) For the week, CBS remained on top with an average 8.5 rating and a 14 share. NBC placed second with a 7.4/12. Fox followed with a 5.1/8, while ABC trailed with a 4.8/8. (Among adults 18-49, however, NBC took top honors.)

The top ten shows of the week according to Nielsen Research: 1. CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, CBS, 16.2/25; 2. American Idol (Tuesday), Fox, 15.2/24; 3. American Idol (Wednesday), Fox, 13.1/21; 4. The Apprentice, NBC, 12.9/20; 5. CSI: Miami, CBS, 12.8/21; 6. Survivor: All-Stars, CBS, 12.6/20; 7. E.R., NBC, 12.5/21; 8. Law and Order, NBC, 12.3/21; 9. Without a Trace, CBS, 11.7/19; 10. NCAA Basketball Championships (Saturday), CBS, 10.5/20.

Responding to widespread complaints -- coming from groups ranging from minority organizations to the Fox TV network -- Nielsen Media Research, the TV industry's primary ratings provider, has postponed introducing its "local people meter" system for two months. In a statement on Tuesday, Nielsen said that it would use the period to look into allegations that use of the computerized meters would result in undercounting minority viewers. Nielsen said that the launch of the computerized system, originally set for this week, would be put off until June 3. In an interview with Reuters, Nielsen spokesman Jack Loftus suggested that threats by News Corp's Fox Broadcasting unit were principally responsible for the postponement. "They told us they would do everything they could do to discredit us, raise hell in the marketplace and go to the Hispanic and African-American communities," Loftus said.

to move News Corp's official home country of incorporation from Australia to the U.S., Rupert Murdoch told an Australian interviewer that he is backing George W. Bush for reelection. Murdoch, whose media company owns the New York Post and the Fox News cable network, among other holdings, said that the U.S. electorate "completely" backs the president on his handling of the Iraq war and the U.S. economy. "He's going to walk it in," he said in an interview with Sydney radio station 2GB. Murdoch's British newspapers also backed Tony Blair in 1997 and were regarded as a major factor in his victory.

Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ may have been a stupendous success at the box office, but 4.4 million viewers -- equally stupendous by cable TV standards -- tuned in to watch last week's episode of South Park, titled "The Passion of the Jew." It was the highest ratings the Comedy Central show has received since 1998 and was the top-rated cable telecast last Wednesday in the 18-49-year-old demo.

CBS and the New York Times shared a big "get" Wednesday night as they conducted a joint interview with Ruth Jordan, identified as "juror number four" in the trial of Tyco chief Dennis Kozlowski. After it was reported that Jordan was a holdout for acquittal and that she had made an OK sign towards the defense team, the judge in the case declared a mistrial. In the interview, which was carried by CBS's 60 Minutes II, Jordan, 79, denied that she had ever made any such sign. "I would never do that. It's contrary to what I'm supposed to do as a juror. It's unbelievably stupid." Jordan also denied reports that she had received a threatening letter and phone call (she said the letter was "disturbing" but not threatening) and said that she was not personally at odds with other jurors as other news reports had claimed.

SKY'S ARE CLOUDY FOR DISNEY ANIMATION

The mediocre opening of Disney's Home on the Range is likely to sound the death knell for hand-drawn cartoon features, analysts predicted Tuesday. Or, as Britain's Guardian newspaper observed today (Wednesday), it "lowers the curtain on an era that began with Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (sic) in 1937." The company had already slashed its animation staff, closed down satellite animation studios in Florida and overseas, and put all hand-drawn projects on hold. (It takes at least two years for an animated feature to be completed.) Several analysts, however, are panning the studio's apparent decision to abandon the process. Rick Aristotle Munarriz, a writer for The Motley Fool website, commented Tuesday that "Blaming the medium instead of the messenger is akin to blaming your tailor because you gained a few pounds. ... Would Home on the Range have been a box-office blockbuster if the barnyard critters were dolled up on high-end Silicon Graphics machines? Nope." Munarriz went on to point out that while there are plenty of computer-animated TV shows being produced "the favorites are hand-drawn," like SpongeBob SquarePants and Rugrats. "It's not pixels versus inkblots. It's the story."

Only days after James Bond star Pierce Brosnan revealed that writers have been stymied in their efforts to come up with a script for a new 007 thriller and suggested that they return to a more character-driven plot like the one in the original Casino Royale novel, Quentin Tarantino has indicated that he would like to remake Casino Royale -- with Brosnan in the starring role. In an interview with the online Sci-Fi Wire, Tarantino indicated that he had had a positive meeting with Brosnan about his proposal but that he had only a "thin chance" that MGM and the Bond film producers would go for it. "I don't see that they have anything to lose at all," Tarantino said. "They've got this gigantic franchise, they can't do anything wrong with it. Pierce Brosnan's only going to do one more movie for them, if that, so ... go my way and do it a little differently. I won't do anything that will ruin the series." (The 1967 film version of Casino Royale was a virtual spoof of Bond movies, featuring a number of actors, including David Niven and Peter Sellers, playing Bond in multiple "disguises.")

Warner Bros. and Imagine Entertainment have been forced to scrap plans to produce a movie in Toronto about a 1999 fire that claimed the lives of six Worcester, MA firefighters. Firefighter unions had vowed to organize massive pickets at shooting locations and had persuaded Canadian firefighters, who had been expected to participate in the production, not to cooperate. The firefighters had complained that the movie would force the families of the victims to relive the tragedy. "I'm glad these six brave firefighters are going to be able to rest in peace," Denise Brotherton, the widow of one of the victims, told the Boston Herald Wednesday. Another widow, Michelle Lucey, said that a movie about such a tragedy could serve no entertainment purpose. The film, titled 3000 Degrees, was to have been based on a book by former Herald reporter Sean Flynn.

Sony Films has sold the landmark Culver Studios, which still warehouses the statue of Charles Foster Kane used in Citizen Kane, and the voodoo props used in King Kong, to a private investment group for $125 million. The Culver City plant, built by Thomas Ince in 1919, has changed hands numerous times and, when owned by producer David O. Selznick, served as the site for the filming of Gone With the Wind in the late 1930s and, when owned by Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, served as the site for the filming of dozens of TV shows in the 1960s. The partnership buying the studios calls itself Studio City Los Angeles and includes Lehman Brothers, Pacific Coast Capital Partners, and Pacifica Ventures. Sony Films, which is headquartered in the onetime MGM site down the street from Culver Studios, will remain a major tenant.

In a bold tactic to put DVD pirates out of business in Russia, two U.S. home video distributors there, Sony's Columbia TriStar and Time Warner's Warner Home Video, have slashed prices of their product by as much as half, the New York Times reported today (Wednesday). "The idea is to get Russian consumers used to buying licensed material, but at a price that most of the population can afford," Vyacheslav Dobychin, general director of Columbia TriStar's Russian licensee, told the newspaper. But MPAA chief Jack Valenti is among those who believe that the tactic is unlikely to be successful. Valenti told the Times: "You can never compete on price with a pirate." He urged stepped-up enforcement of Russia's anti-piracy laws.