WEDDED (AND RATINGS) BLISS

Some 17 million people tuned in to ABC Wednesday night to watch what one wag described as the most expensive wedding video in history. (The floral decorations alone reportedly cost $250,000.) Trista and Ryan's Wedding recorded a 10.5 rating and a 16 share in the 9:00 p.m. hour, rising to a 13.1/21 in the 10:00 p.m. hour, according to overnight Nielsens. Earlier in the evening, ABC's My Wife and Kids and It's All Relative averaged a better-than-usual 7.0/11 in the 8:00 p.m. hour. Overall, ABC averaged a 10.2/16 for the night, finishing well ahead of NBC's 8.2/13. Fox, which aired the Billboard Music Awards, finished third with a 6.3/10, while CBS trailed with a 5.7/9.

ESPN CHIEF ACCUSES COX OF LYING

The public clash being waged on the Internet and in the press between cable operator Cox Communications and Disney's ESPN over ESPN's rate increases took a new turn Wednesday as the sports channel's president charged that some of Cox's claims are "flat-out not true." Speaking to a New York investment conference, George Bodenheimer particularly took exception to Cox's claim that ESPN was seeking to raise its rate to Cox by 20 percent. He said that the actual increase is "significantly less than that." Referring to Cox's Internet site , Bodenheimer said, "By and large, I view this as a negotiating tactic." He nevertheless added that he was "optimistic we will reach an agreement." Some media analysts have suggested that Cox has contrived the public battle with ESPN in order to justify a further rate increase to its subscribers.

VARNEY TO MAKE COMEBACK -- ON FOX

Stuart Varney, who reportedly quit CNN in 2001 after failing to gain greater control over Moneyline, the program that he co-anchored (with Willow Bay), has been hired by Fox News Channel. Varney, a devout Christian, reportedly was outraged when CNN founder Ted Turner called staffers who wore ashes on their heads on Ash Wednesday "Jesus freaks," (Turner later apologized). Turner has been a virulent critic of Fox News's owner, Rupert Murdoch. Varney told today's (Thursday)Hollywood Reporter that he has been an admirer of Fox News Chairman Roger Ailes, adding: "I'm from that side of the fence that says there is such a thing as a liberal establishment, and it is alive and well in American media outlets." He maintained that Fox News "moves everyone back toward the center."

CORN GROWERS ASK: LEND ME YOUR EARS

The Corn Refiners Association, representing companies that produce corn syrup, and the National Corn Growers Association have condemned Monday's Peter Jennings special on obesity on ABC, which in part criticized corn subsidies, claiming that they contributed to the "overproduction" of inexpensive corn products, which have helped to bring on America's obesity problem. In a statement, Audrae Erickson of the refiners group said, "This report was little more than a subjective attack on the tens of thousands of hard-working Americans in the corn growing and refining industries who provide our families with the safest, most abundant and affordable food supply in the world." And Dee Vaughan of the growers group commented, "We now find ourselves being blamed for not only providing too much food at affordable prices but also for the choices the consumer makes in regards to diet and exercise. ... What has happened to taking personal responsibility for choices made?"

ABC BUYS NEWS FOOTAGE FROM MURDOCH'S DAUGHTER

ABC News has again broken its usual policy barring the use of news footage produced by outside companies by including an interview with the parents of Michael Jackson in Friday's 20/20. The interview was conducted by Daphne Barak, who works for a company headed by Elisabeth Murdoch, daughter of Rupert Murdoch, chairman of News Corp, one of ABC's competitors. In April, during a Primetime special, the network aired an interview with Michael Jackson himself, conducted by Martin Bashir for his U.K. company, and the following month, it included another British documentary, Millionaire: A Major Fraud, about a scandal involving the British version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, in another edition of Primetime. ABC released excerpts from the interview with Jackson's parents on Wednesday. Both maintain that Michael is motivated by a desire to help children, particularly those who are ill.

BBC GIRDS ITSELF FOR CRITICISM FROM LORD HUTTON

In what was described as a case of acting beforehand to head off expected criticism later, the BBC on Wednesday appointed a senior executive to vet news reports and tackle criticism of its reporting. Mark Byford, currently head of the BBC World Service, was appointed deputy director general and charged with ensuring that the broadcaster have "the highest standards of editorial compliance." His appointment comes weeks before the expected January release of the Hutton report on the BBC's handling of a story that claimed that the British government had "sexed up" an intelligence report on Iraq in which it was claimed that Saddam Hussein could deploy weapons of mass destruction against the West on 45-minutes notice. David Kelly, the source of the story, later committed suicide.

KEEPING IT BETWEEN FRIENDS

Warner Bros. is already instituting security precautions to prevent information about the plot of the final episode of Friends from leaking out before it airs in May. It is due to be taped sometime next month. Several Internet sites devoted to searching for clues have discovered some in casting sheets being circulated to actors agents in Los Angeles and New York. Today's (Thursday) New York Post indicated that the studio has apparently engaged in a "misinformation" campaign to throw off reporters and Internet gossips.

DEPARTED DISNEY DIRECTORS LAUNCH WEBSITE

Former Disney directors Roy Disney and Stan Gold and their Shamrock investment company launched a website "devoted to those concerned about the welfare of the Walt Disney Company and its future direction." Both men have called for the resignation of Disney Chairman Michael Eisner and are encouraging Internet users to post their views about the direction of the company on the new website. One headline writer described it as "." It is expected that the site will particularly attract religious activists who object to the R-rated films produced by Disney's Miramax division and to "gay days" at the company's theme parks.

NEW SONY FILM CHIEF A SURPRISE CHOICE

Surprising many analysts, Sony appointed a company outsider Wednesday to head its U.S. media unit, Sony Pictures Entertainment. Michael Lynton, who once headed Disney's now defunct Hollywood Pictures, then went on to become head of AOL Europe, will share duties with Amy Pascal. Under the arrangement, Pascal will be primarily responsible for overseeing the company's movie business, while Lynton will manage the company's TV, technology and business operations. They will both report to Sony Corporation of America Chairman and CEO Howard Stringer.

NEW LINE RECORDS ITS BEST YEAR EVER

New York-based New Line Cinema, which appeared to be facing extinction following the merger of its corporate parent, Turner Broadcasting, with Time Warner in 1997, will see its profits triple in 2003, a top studio exec told today's (Thursday) New York Daily News. "It will be the most profitable year for any independent studio," Michael Lynne, New Line's co-chairman and co-CEO, told the Daily News in a telephone interview. The company expects to record $300 million in revenue, half of that coming from the holiday hit Elf. It is also due to take in a heap of money during the final two weeks of 2003 following next week's release of the final stanza of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. As recently as two years ago, the viability of New Line was again being questioned after several flops like Little Nicky and Town and Country even as Time Warner's principal film studio, Warner Brothers, was leading the industry in box-office revenue.

PIRATES VIDEOS SAIL OUT THE DOORS AT RENTAL OUTLETS

Disney's Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl tallied up $19.5 million in booty after its first five days in rental outlets, Video Store magazine reported Wednesday. Rental revenue was reported a day after the video's distributor, Disney's Buena Vista Home Video, had said that the film had set a first-week record for a live-action video, with 11 million copies sold.