WINTER OLYMPICS SALES HEAT UPAlthough earlier reports had indicated that NBC was experiencing slow ad sales for the 2006 Winter Olympics, the network said over the weekend that it had already sold $800 million worth of spots, representing 90 percent of its total "avails." The figure for the Torino event already has surpassed the $740 million total earned by the network for the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City. The current total was no doubt swollen by the network's decision to expand coverage. Speaking with reporters, Peter Lazarus, senior VP sales and marketing at NBC Olympics, said, "In the last month or so, we've been able to move the needle in terms of Olympic sales to create a pretty healthy Olympic marketplace." He acknowledged however that "many advertisers are coming into the marketplace later than in previous years," including movie studios, pharmaceutical companies and financial institutions.


NBC, which has been struggling for two seasons to come up with a major hit, goes the million-dollar game show route tonight (Monday) as it launches Deal or No Deal, with plans to run it at 8:00 p.m. each night through Friday. TV critics have mercilessly drubbed the show, pointing out that, unlike most game shows, there's no chance for the audience to play along at home. Writing in the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, TV columnist Tom Jicha commented caustically, "No knowledge or skills are necessary [for contestants] to make a $1 million score, making the show ideal for a dumbed-down America." Indeed, Matthew Gilbert compares the game show to the children's card game Go Fish. "It doesn't challenge its contestants' intelligence or the scope of their knowledge. It just tests their nerve as it pushes them to gamble with money they don't have," he writes. MediaWeekwriter A.J. Frutkin suggests that the show is not likely to boost NBC's fortunes whether or not it's a ratings success. "Advertisers want something that makes everything else around it stronger. What NBC needs is a solid show to start building a night. And I just don't see this being that show," he remarked.


After 25 years at CNN, Robert Novak has signed a deal to appear on Fox News Channel, published reports said over the weekend. Novak was suspended by CNN last August after swearing on the air and storming off the set. Also, in a syndicated column in July 2003, Novak identified Valerie Plame as a CIA agent, thus putting into motion the so-called Plamegate investigation into the leak. In an interview with Sunday's Los Angeles Times, Novak said, "I have a great deal of sentiment for CNN. ... They treated me very nicely and I worked very hard for them. All things come to an end, and I have no grievances." As for last August's incident, he said, "I'm sorry that was my last appearance on the network." Fox confirmed that Novak will become a "general contributor," but did not spell out what that would entail.


Producers and writers of The West Winghave begun dealing with how to handle the death of John Spencer, one of the show's stars, on Friday. As today's (Monday) Hollywood Reporterobserved, Spencer's character has played a key role in the election-year story line this season, and the actor had appeared in half the West Wingepisodes completed for its sixth -- and some say, its final -- season.


Ending a fierce competition between France's two satellite TV companies that jacked up the costs of acquiring new films and sports franchises for both, Vivendi Universal announced on Friday that it had agreed to pay $9 billion to acquire Télévision Par Satellite (TPS) and combine it with its own Canal Plus. Under the deal, Vivendi will own 85 percent of the new company, while TPS owners, Société Télévision Française, and M6-Metropole Télévision will own the remaining 15 percent.MONKEY SEE; MONKEY DON'TProducers of King Kongmay have felt much the way Carl Denham, the movie-director character played by Jack Black, did when his giant ape didn't perform as expected on Broadway. Kong's performance was not completely devastating, as it was in the movie, but it certainly did not rise to great heights, earning an estimated $50.1 million over the three-day weekend and $66.2 million since it opened on Wednesday, figures that Daily Varietydescribed as "respectable." Some box-office analysts had predicted that it would take in nearly twice that amount and the industry in general had hoped that it would pull the box-office out of its yearlong slump. Universal blamed the three-hour length of the film for the diminished returns. But other analysts pointed out that women were avoiding the film, apparently repelled by its damsel-in-distress plot. (The Wall Street Journalreported that on Saturday, when attendance suddenly jumped, 47 percent of the audience was female.) Others noted that the lower-than-expected take could have been predicted if online ticket sales had been more closely examined. While last week's winner, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, earned $800,000 from advance sales, Kongreportedly registered only about $20,000. However, Universal distribution execs pointed to a huge leap in ticket sales from Friday to Saturday as favorable word-of-mouth spread. (They also noted that the film opened without the huge fan base of other big blockbusters like the Star Wars,Harry PotterandLord of the Ringsfilms.) The same pattern was evident internationally as well, as Kong opened in 55 countries with $63.4 million over the weekend, while earning only $16.7 million on Wednesday and Thursday. The only other film to open wide this weekend, 20th Century Fox's The Family Stone, took in about $12.7 million.


Far more surprising to box-office watchers than the tame debut of King Kongover the weekend was the performance of Brokeback Mountain,which packed the 69 theaters in 21 cities that it played in. In such cities as Toronto, New York, and Los Angeles, the take was more than $70,000 at each theater. Nationally, it averaged a sensational $34,194 per theater, which Daily Varietysaid was a record for any film released on more than 50 screens (except for those released in IMAX theaters, where ticket prices are substantially higher). Generally described as a gay cowboy romance, the film reportedly played well in some smaller test markets. Today's (Monday) Los Angeles Timesobserved that the film fared well in the "closely watched" city of Plano, TX. Jack Foley, Focus Films' distribution chief, told the Timesthat its debut there "was a revelation about the accessibility of this movie. ... This is not gay-dependent. Attendance at those theaters indicates the film has the attention of suburban moviegoers."


As Brokeback Mountain expanded into most major cities this weekend, critics continued to heap praise on it. Stephen Holden in the New York Timescalled it "moving and majestic" and "a landmark." But Kenneth Turan in the Los Angeles Timesremarked that Brokeback"is a groundbreaking film because it isn't. It's a deeply felt, emotional love story that deals with the uncharted, mysterious ways of the human heart just as so many mainstream films have before it. The two lovers here just happen to be men." Joe Morgenstern wrote in the Wall Street Journal: "Love stories come and go, but this one stays with you -- not because both lovers are men, but because their story is so full of life and longing, and true romance." Peter Howell in the Toronto Stardescribed it as "that rarest of things, a small picture that packs a big enough punch for Oscar consideration -- it's currently the front-runner -- but that retains all the distinctive elements that make it so unlike most multiplex offerings." Several critics, however, suggested that their colleagues had gone too far. Glenn Whipp in the Los Angeles Daily Newsfaulted the movie for being "tediously paced," and commented, "It's really a conventional love story in the mode of Gone With the Wind or Titanic." And Kyle Smith in the New York Postconcluded that the film gets "gummed up with melodrama" and "though it's sad and sobering, it's still only a rough draft of a great movie." The top ten films for the weekend, according to studio estimates compiled by Exhibitor Relations:1. King Kong, $50.15 million; 2. The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, $31.2 million; 3. The Family Stone, $12.7 million; 4. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, $5.9 million; 5.Syriana, $5.5 million; 6. Walk the Line, $3.6 million; 7. Yours, Mine & Ours, $3.4 million; 8. Brokeback Mountain, $2.4 million; 9. Just Friends,$1.95 million; 10. Aeon Flux, $1.7 million.


The National Association of Theater Owners has asked the FCC for permission to block cell phone signals in theaters. NATO President John Fithian said that the use of phones during movie presentations is one of the reasons for this year's slump in ticket sales. A Washington D.C-based cell phone lobby has already gone on record as opposing such a move on the grounds that it would prevent the use of a cell phone in case of an emergency.