MURDOCH WINS DIRECTV

Federal regulators on Friday approved News Corp's $6.6-billion takeover of home-satellite leader DirecTV, although conditions were imposed aimed at preventing the company from gaining an unfair advantage over its cable rivals. Nevertheless, analysts predicted that News Corp chief Rupert Murdoch would wage a fierce battle against cable operators in an effort to increase DirecTV's presence in TV households from its current 20 percent. (By contrast, cable television operators now serve 70 percent of U.S. homes.) Today's (Monday) Los Angeles Times observed that News Corp executives are predicting that DirecTV will have 20 million customers by 2010, up from 12 million today. In an interview with the newspaper, Jamie Kellner, the former Fox-TV exec who later founded The WB network, commented that Murdoch will "be very aggressive in marketing" the satellite service. "He'll use all the tools he's used around the world to get a larger market share here." In an interview with Australia's The Agenewspaper, Jimmy Schaeffler, a satellite-TV analyst at Carmel Group, put it this way: "The 800-pound octopus is unleashed." News Corp currently has controlling interests in satellite services in Britain, Italy, Asia and Latin America.

TITANIC SINKS ON NBC

Titanic may have set records in the theaters for drawing repeat customers, but NBC had little luck Sunday drawing viewers for a rerun of the movie. The movie pulled a 7.1 rating and an 11 share from 7:00 p.m. to 11:00 p.m. and was thoroughly trounced by CBS's schedule, which averaged a 9.5/15 and included a 10.3/16 recorded for its new drama Cold Case at 8:00 p.m.

MARTHA STEWART'S LEGAL FEES: $9 MILLION AND COUNTING

Martha Stewart has thus far paid $9 million in legal fees since inside-trading and obstruction-of-justice charges were first leveled against her, theNew York Post reported today (Monday), citing unnamed sources. On Friday, the newspaper reported that Stewart had been more than $40,000 in arrears on maintenance fees on her New York condo, paying them only after the building's managers filed a lien against her.

SEC AND VIVENDI DISCUSS DEAL

Ahead of the completion of its acquisition by NBC, Vivendi Universal is in discussions with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission in which the SEC may allow Vivendi to pay a fine rather than be prosecuted for alleged breaches of securities laws, the London Financial Times reported today (Monday) The agreement might also allow the company to deny its former CEO, Jean-Marie Messier, his $23-million golden parachute.

"MRS. MUIR" ACTRESS LANGE DEAD AT 72

Hope Lange, perhaps best known for her starring role in the TV series The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1968), for which she won two Emmys, died in Santa Monica, CA Friday of an infection caused by colitis. Although initial news reports put her age at 70, most biographies indicate that she was 72. She also co-starred in The New Dick Van Dyke series (1971) as Van Dyke's wife.

RECORD RETURNS OF THE KING

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King lived up to expectations over the weekend as it took in an estimated $73.6 million, to bring its five-day total to $125 million. The results certified it as the biggest December opener ever. It was also the biggest five-day opening for a movie premiering on a Wednesday. Its total for the five days was 24 percent bigger than last year's second sequel, The Two Towers. It was the fourth-fastest movie to cross the $100-million mark. Far behind in second place was the Julia Roberts starrer Mona Lisa Smile, which took in a lower-than-expected $12 million. In its second week, the Jack Nicholson-Diane Keaton comedy Something's Gotta Give finished third with an estimated $11.5 million, a drop of just 28 percent. The Tom Cruise movie The Last Samurai placed fourth with a third-week sum of $11.5 million. The Farrelly Brothers' comedyStuck on You completed the top-five with $5.4 million.

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

1. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, $73.6 million; 2. Mona Lisa Smile, $12 million; 3. Something's Gotta Give, $11.5 million; 4. The Last Samurai, $7.3 million; 5. Stuck on You, $5.4 million; 6. Elf, $5 million; 7. Bad Santa, $4.3 million; 8. The Haunted Mansion, $4.2 million; 9. Love Don't Cost a Thing, $4 million; 10. Honey, $2.6 million.

THE KING COMMANDS WORLD-WIDE

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King performed as well overseas as it did in the U.S. Opening in 28 countries (including the U.S.), the film earned a total of $246.1 million in its first five days. "To have a quarter-billion-dollar gross in five days shows what a broad swath this movie cuts," Exhibitor Relations chief Paul Dergarabedian told the Associated Press. "These would be good numbers for a film to do in its entire run, but this is just the beginning." The simultaneous worldwide debut was seen as an effort to get the film into movie theaters before counterfeit DVDs could be distributed on the street. In an interview with today's (Monday) New York Times, New Line Cinema's distribution chief, Rolf Mittweg, said that "not one pirated copy" could be found on opening day, "which means we have done an extremely good security job." Nevertheless, Britain's PA News reported today that more than 2,000 fake DVDs of the movie were found in the luggage of a passenger who arrived at Heathrow airport in London from Pakistan Saturday.

DE LINE TO TAKE OVER AS PARAMOUNT'S PRODUCTION CHIEF

Paramount has named The Italian Job producer Donald De Line to the post of production chief. He had previously served as president of Disney's Touchstone Pictures from 1993 to 1998. The studio has been wracked by a series of box-office failures over the past year.

BLACK WELLESLEY STUDENTS OUT AS MONA LISA EXTRAS

In an effort to avoid charges of racial discrimination while at the same time remaining faithful to historical accuracy, the producers of Mona Lisa Smile, much of which was shot on the campus of Wellesley College in Boston, refrained from hiring black students as extras in the film but did offer them jobs as production assistants, the Boston Globe reported today (Monday). The newspaper observed that in 1953, the year in which the movie was set, only 12 black women attended the school. "The movie was in the 1950s, and everything was more uptight," Elisa McDaniel, a sophomore who landed a job as an extra in the film, told the Globe. "It's probably very close to what it was. We are very liberal now." Another extra, Debby Dowlin, added: "It's nice to see the movie and how far we have come."

SCREENERS THAT SELF DESTRUCT FOR CESARS

Sending out self destructing DVD screeners may be the next strategy by studios hoping to stymie bootleggers while at the same time courting awards voters, according to the British trade publication Screen Daily. It reported that copies of Gus Van Sant's Elephant will be sent to voters of France's C