WILL ABC DITCH MONDAY NIGHT FOOTBALL?

ABC, which carries Monday Night Football as a kind of loss leader -- it's the network's highest-rated program, but represents a $150-million annual loss -- may decide not to renew its contract with the NFL when it expires next year, the Los Angeles Times reported today (Monday). Sports marketing consultant Neal Pilson, who once headed CBS Sports, told the newspaper: "I don't think [ABC will] continue to absorb the kind of financial losses that Monday Night Football has sustained." The network currently pays the NFL $550 million for rights to the football telecasts, but only a portion of that can be covered by advertising. With Disney, ABC's owner, under intensive pressure to restore profitability to the network, dumping the games might go a long way towards that end -- especially since the NFL is likely to demand a significant raise during renewal negotiations. Currently the network is losing about $250 million each year, 60 percent of which can be attributed to the football telecasts.

OLYMPICS RATINGS DIP

NBC continued to score golden numbers with its coverage of the Summer Olympics Friday and Saturday as the contests moved into their second week -- even though they were off from Wednesday and Thursday's record levels. On Friday, led by swimming competition, the network scored a 14.1 rating and a 26 share. The other networks produced barely a blip, with ABC coming in second with a 3.9/7, followed by CBS with a 3.5/6 and Fox with a 2.3/4. Olympic coverage peaked in the 9:00 p.m. hour with a 15.3/27 -- far outdistancing CBS's preseason NFL game, which scored a 3.6/6 during that hour, to come in second. Saturday's ratings for the Olympics took a dive -- just like the main competition for the night, diving -- as the network averaged a 12.5/24, peaking in the 10:00 p.m. hour with a 14.9/27. Sunday ratings were not available at deadline.

INTERACTIVE MILLIONAIRE SCHEDULED

Contestants on the syndicated version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire will have an opportunity to "ask the audience" for help via America Online's Instant Messenger feature beginning next fall. AOL IM users who agree to participate ("Just add 'MillionaireIM' to your Buddy List and you're instantly part of the show," the producers advise on its website) will see their IM screen pop up with a multiple choice question during the taping of the show if a contestant decides to use the audience "lifeline" feature. Host Meredith Vieira will then announce the tally of the at-home voters and the in-studio audience to the contestant. After the contestant responds, AOL Instant Messenger users will be IM'ed with the correct answer.

ALDA RETURNING TO SERIES TV

Alan Alda will return to series television as a regular character when he joins the cast of NBC's The West Wing in the fall. Although Alda appeared in a story arc on E.R. in 1999, his role as a Republican senator with presidential aspirations will mark his first series commitment since the finale of M*A*S*H* 21 years ago.

FILM ABOUT 9/11 HIJACKERS SPARKS CONTROVERSY

The Hamburg Cell,

a $3.6-million film focusing on the lives of three of the terrorists involved in the 9/11 attacks, including interviews with their families and friends, is due to air on Britain's Channel 4 network on Sept. 2 and could air on a U.S. network in the near future, the London Independent reported Saturday. According to the newspaper, which described the program as a docudrama (actors play the terrorists), American backers pulled out of the project early. "There was a very strong sense in America that it was a very hot potato," Peter Dale, head of documentaries at Channel 4, told the Independent. Meanwhile, Channel 4 appears to be courting additional controversy with its apparent decision to air the novel Sugar Rush, about a lesbian relationship between two teenagers, as a weekly series. The original novel by British columnist Julie Burchill was aimed at teen readers. The controversy that erupted after its publication was dismissed by Burchill, who remarked at the time: "I think there's more girl action going on in the changing rooms at schools than there is in a million West End nightclubs where girls are trying to shock and attract footballers." However, a Channel 4 spokeswoman told The Stage magazine: "We are at an early stage of development with Julie about adapting her book in to a drama series but it has not been fully greenlit and commissioned at this stage."

VETERAN DIRECTOR DANIEL PETRIE SR. DEAD AT 82

Eight-time Emmy Award-winning director Daniel Petrie Sr., whose TV career dates back to the Golden Age of TV drama, when he directed episodes of Studio One, and who directed episodes of such classic series as The Defenders, East Side/West Side, Ironside, Marcus Welby M.D. and specials like Eleanor and Franklin, The Dollmaker, Kissinger and Nixon, and Inherit the Wind, has died of cancer in Los Angeles at the age of 83. His movies included A Raisin the Sun, Fort Apache the Bronx, Lifeguard, and Cocoon: The Return. He was the father of Writers Guild of America President Daniel Petrie Jr.

FRIGHT FEST AT BOX OFFICE

Exorcist: the Beginning was as green as pea soup at the nation's box office over the weekend as it took in $18.2 million to win a scary-movie battle with Alien Vs. Predator, which took in $12.5 million and fell to fourth place place, and Open Water, a $500,000 indie, which expanded wide and took in $11.75 million, to wind up in fifth place. The comedy Without a Paddle opened in second place with $13.7 million, slightly ahead of the third week of Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement, which dropped modestly to $13.2 million. Some box office analysts expressed skepticism over the estimate for the Exorcist prequel, noting a steep decline in ticket sales between Friday and Saturday as negative word-of-mouth appeared to circulate.

The top ten films for the weekend, according to studio estimates compiled by Exhibitor Relations:

1. Exorcist: The Beginning, $18.2 million; 2. Without a Paddle, $13.7 million; 3. Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement, $13.2 million; 4. Alien vs. Predator, $12.5 million; 5. Open Water, $11.75 million; 6. Collateral, $10.5 million; 7. The Bourne Supremacy, $6.6 million; 8. The Manchurian Candidate, $4.2 million; 9. The Village, $3.7 million; 10. Garden State, $3.2 million.

Movie PictureMOVIE REVIEWS: EXORCIST: THE BEGINNING

Critics finally got a look at Exorcist: The Beginning on Friday night and confidently predicted that it would kill off the Exorcist franchise. Manohla Dargis in the New York Times forecast that it will one day be known as Exorcist: The End. "Thrills rarely get cheaper or more loathsome," she concluded. It's the ideal film for masochists, Stephen Hunter in the Washington Post suggested. "It manages a trifecta of pain: It's dull, it's grim, it's stupid. How's that for a recommendation?" he wrote. "If you're looking for groundbreaking badness, you needn't look much further than the new Exorcist prequel, which is one interminably grisly waste," commented Wesley Morris in the Boston Globe. Nevertheless, several critics remarked that the movie is not really so horrific as they had expected, given its notorious history and the studio's decision not to screen it for them. (They had to purchase tickets at the box office Friday night just like everyone else.) Jack Mathews in the New York Daily News said that he had expected "something unwatchable." However, he remarked, "It's not despicable. It is merely boring." Lou Lumenick in the New York Post commented that it is "merely very bad, not epically awful." Bob Townsend in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, while calling the film "an unholy mess," nevertheless concluded his review by remarking: "To be fair, this isn't quite the Golden Turkey it might have been." And Kevin Crust in the Los Angeles Times, admitting that he went to see the film with "lowered expectations," concluded: "For the most part it's a satisfyingly knock-down, drag-out clash with blunt theological overtones, equal parts WWE [wrestling], Beetlejuice and [televangelist] Dr. Gene Scott."

PRIZE-WINNING FILM AIMED AT TEENS GETS AN R

A film that received this year's Humanitas Prize for its "honest exploration of making difficult and life-changing choices" faces an uncertain future after receiving an R rating from the MPAA, thereby preventing it from being viewed by most its target audience, teenagers, the Los Angeles Times observed today (Monday). The movie, Mean Creek, which opened in New York and Los Angeles Friday, was dealt the R rating because of what the Times described as "a virtual glossary of four-letter words and up-to-date teenage put-downs." "We make what we consider an authentic teen movie, and yet, because of the use of language that every teenager in America uses, a film that has a strong, positive message is given an R," producer Rick Rosenthal told the newspaper. Paramount Classics, according to the Times is taking the extraordinary approach of promoting the film to teachers and parents groups in the hope that members will take their kids to see it. Susan Johnson, another of the movie's producers, described what occurred at a recent preview screening: "This group of under-18 kids tried to get in and the theater manager said, 'I can't let you in unless I get permission from your parents.' ... So all six of the kids whip out their cell phones -- only in L.A., right? -- and got their parents to give permission to the manager."