IT'S "MUST SEE" NIGHT FOR NBC AGAIN Thanks to the burgeoning fascination surrounding NBC's reality series The Apprenticeas it heads towards next week's finale, NBC retrieved its Thursday night crown, averaging an 11.7 rating and a 19 share versus CBS's 11.3/18. The night remained a two-network race. ABC barely got out of the gate with a 3.8/6. Fox fared even worse -- with a 3.0/5. CBS's loss in the tight Thursday competition could partly be blamed on the fact that it aired reruns between 9:00 and 11:00 p.m. Its one all-new entry, Survivor: All-Starsat 8:00, which scored an 11.8/20, easily beat the episode of NBC's Friends(8.9/16) that viewers had voted was their all-time favorite, and an episode of Will & Grace (8.9/15). But at 9:00, The Apprenticetook over the lead with a 13.5/21, while a repeat of CBS's CSI Crime Scene Investigationproduced a 12.5/20. NBC remained ahead at 10:00 as E.R.scored a 12.9/21 to CBS's rerun of Without a Trace,which captured a 9.5/16.


Media critics on Thursday branded as "checkbook journalism" the tactic used by some TV news operations to hire notable newsmakers as "consultants" and then bar them from appearing on competitors' programs. The issue arose anew as ABC News restricted the appearance of Richard Clarke, President Bush's onetime counterterrorism coordinator, to its own programs following the appearance of National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice before the commission investigating the 9/11 attacks. Clarke, who was hired by ABC News as a consultant and has already appeared exclusively on several ABC News programs dealing with the President's response to the attacks, was interviewed by ABC News anchor Peter Jennings only minutes following Rice's testimony. Jennings identified him as a paid adviser for ABC News. He declined to be interviewed by any other broadcast reporter but did grant interviews to print media. ABC has refused to divulge how much it has paid Clarke to become its consultant.


Peter Bogdanovich, once praised by critics for such films as The Last Picture Showand Paper Moon, but reviled in recent years for such flops as Illegally Yours, The Thing Called Loveand the recent low-rated ABC-TV flick The Mystery of Natalie Wood, has agreed to direct Hustle: The Pete Rose Storyfor ESPN. The Time Warner-owned sports cable network plans to air the movie on Sept. 25. It is scheduled to go before the cameras in Toronto next month.


In what could wind up costing Viacom's Infinity Broadcasting unit millions of dollars, the FCC announced Thursday that it has instructed its enforcement bureau to open an investigation into a Howard Stern radio program broadcast last April that included three alleged violations of the FCC's rules on indecent utterances. Infinity is Stern's syndicator and carries the program on 35 of its stations. On Thursday, the same broadcast resulted in each of Clear Channel Communications' six stations that carried it being fined $81,000 or a total of $495,000. If the same fine is meted out to Infinity's 35 outlets, it could wind up costing them a total of $2.9 million. The FCC did not indicate whether other stations that carried the Stern show would also be targeted. However, Commissioner Michael J. Copps said in a statement that in handing down the fine to Clear Channel, "the Commission makes clear that its indecency enforcement will address not only the station that is the subject of the complaint, but also any other station that aired the same programming." Clear Channel quickly announced that Stern, who had been suspended from its stations, would now be permanently removed.


Clearplay, the Salt Lake City, UT company that aroused Hollywood's anger when it began removing scenes of sex, violence and swearing from its customers' home videos, now has a new weapon in its arsenal -- a $79 DVD player, manufactured by RCA and sold in Wal-Mart stores that has been programmed to skip over or mute possibly objectionable scenes in over 500 movies. Although producers of the movies had previously maintained that Clearplay had violated their copyrights by bowdlerizing their movies, the new player does not alter the product at all. Clearplay argues that the new technology simply provides viewers with a different way to play movies they already own and is no different from a fast-forward button.

Movie PictureMOVIE REVIEWS: THE ALAMO The defenders of The Alamoprobably stood a better chance against Mexican General Santa Anna than against the siege of the nation's film critics, many of whom are bombarding it with flak. Elvis Mitchell in the New York Timesfinds the movie "oppressively solemn" and says that after the filmmakers methodically puncture the heroic aura of the principal characters, "we're left with figures who are less than mythic but also less than human." Ty Burr in the Boston Globefigures that after months of cutting and recutting the film, the result is "a deeply compromised film, if not a broken one." Desson Thomson in the Washington Postsuggests that despite all of the filmmakers' effort to lend authenticity to the film, or perhaps because of it, "there's a distinct lack of excitement. You almost expect the Mexicans to yawn, pack up the musketry and head home." Joe Morgenstern in the Wall Street Journalputs it this way: "Commendably committed to revisionist accuracy -- among the wealth of historic details is an acknowledgement that some Alamo defenders owned slaves -- the film misplaces passion and clarity. It isn't unintelligent, just unfocused. It isn't uninteresting, simply undramatic." Still, most of the critics agree that Billy Bob Thornton's performance as Davy Crockett could very well save The Alamo. Lou Lumenick writes in the New York Post: "Thornton lends gravity, focus and humor that are otherwise in short supply in this serious-minded but meandering, talky and action-deficient epic." Chris Kaltenbach remarks in the Baltimore Sun: "So compelling is the Crockett character that audiences may wish the film was about his entire life, rather than this concluding chapter in it." And John Anderson in Newsdaysays simply: "Billy Bob Thornton is worth the ticket price." The film itself also has attracted a small band of defenders, among them Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times,who writes "This is a good movie ... [that] succeeds in taking those pop-culture brand names like Davy Crockett and Jim Bowie and giving them human form." And Eleanor Ringel Gillespie in the Atlanta Journal Constitutionconcludes that it is "a superlative character-driven epic that honors both the varied truths and the varied myths surrounding" the historic battle.


On ABC's Good Morning America this morning, critic Joel Siegel pondered why anyone would want to make "a sequel to a bad movie." Actually, he remarked: "As a sequel it works. The Whole 9 Yardswas a bad movie. The Whole Ten Yardsis worse." Similarly, Ann Hornaday remarks in the Washington Postthat the movie may be "the most un-asked-for sequel in movie history." The New York Post's Jonathan Foreman, who found the original to be "enjoyable," calls the sequel "a labor of greed that reeks of contempt for the audience." Jami Bernard in the New York Daily Newscalls it "a time waster." Peter Howell in the Toronto Star dismisses it as "astoundingly limp," while Steven Rea in the Philadelphia Inquirer brands it "artificial to the hilt, fueled on a kind of trying-too-hard hilarity that makes even good actors look bad." Or as Philip Wuntch puts it in the Dallas Morning News: "The Whole Ten Yardsis an exercise in humiliation for all concerned."


Of a slew of new movies hitting theaters over the Easter weekend, the film receiving the best notices is the family film (from Disney's Miramax division, of all places) Ella Enchanted. "This is the best family film so far this year," Roger Ebert concludes in the Chicago Sun-Times.Joel Siegel's take on it on ABC's Good Morning America: "Seasoned with a. little Shrek, a dash of Princess Bride and a whole lot of laughs, Ella Enchanted is one family film that will make the whole family feel happily ever after." Not so enchanted, however, is Glenn Whipp in the Los Angeles Daily News, who writes that the movie is the kind "that you want to like more than you actually do." And Liam Lacey in the Toronto Globe and Mail has high praise for the performance of Anne Hathaway, who stars in the title role, "The star twinkles, but the vehicle that carries her is a bit of a moldy pumpkin."


The Girl Next Door has certainly produced wildly mixed reaction by the nation's film critics, mostly, it would seem, over its plot -- about an overachieving high school student who falls for the new girl in town, a porn actress. Roger Ebert in the Chicago Sun-Times,for example remarks: "This is a dishonest, quease-inducing "comedy" that had me feeling uneasy and then unclean. Who in the world read this script and thought it was acceptable?" On the other hand, Jami Bernard in the New York Daily News,writes: "Once in a very long while, a truly memorable romantic teen comedy comes along. The Girl Next Door is one. This funny, surprising gem joins the ranks of Risky Business and Say Anything, comedies with heart and charisma."


Pixar Animation Chairman Steve Jobs has put on hold discussions with other studios about forming a new partnership until the dust settles on the battle over Michael Eisner's future as CEO of Disney, the New York Postreported today (Friday). After Pixar, the computer animation company that produced such hits as Toy Story, Monsters Inc.,and Finding Nemo, announced that it had ended its contract-renewal negotiations with Disney, it found itself ringed with new suitors. However, the Postindicated, Jobs has told associates that he would prefer to remain married to Disney if Eisner is pushed out and he can alter the terms of the relationship to his liking.


Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christshattered all existing box office records in its Wednesday premiere in Italy, the country where it was filmed, according to its distributor. The movie earned $1.48 million, beating the previous record of $1.34 million set last year by The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. Unlike most countries, which have barred children and teens from seeing it unless accompanied by adults, Italy laid down no rating restrictions on it.