NBC'S BEST DEAL YET

NBC made it four nights straight Thursday -- winning the 8:00 hour with the new nightly game show Deal or No Deal as it captured its biggest audience of the week and recorded an 8.3 rating and a 15 share. That represented an especially strong victory for the network since CBS overtook it on Thursday nights, the night NBC once called Must-See-TV night. CBS, however, regained the lead at 9:00 p.m. and 10:00 p.m. with CSI: Crime Scene Investigation and Without a Trace outdrawing all their competition combined.

SHOWTIME'S SLEEPER PLAYS DEAD

Although war movies may have been big box-office draws during those days before television brought the tragedy and terror into American homes every night, such movies are being shunned by TV viewers today. That fact seemed evident from the poor showing of Showtime's two-hour finale of the critically praised Sleeper Cell, which drew 309,000 viewers. The series, about a black Muslim FBI agent who infiltrates a terrorist cell that is plotting an attack on an American city, had previously averaged about 205,000 viewers per episode. It was nominated last week for a Golden Globe award in the "best miniseries or motion picture made for television" category. The failure of Sleeper follows the recent cancellation of Over There, which aired on the FX network and which dealt with the lives of servicemen in Iraq. It, too, had received considerable praise from critics.

COMCAST TO OFFER "FAMILY TIER" PACKAGE

Comcast, the nation's largest cable company, has joined Time Warner Cable to offer a "family tier" of cable networks to subscribers. The cable companies are seeking to undercut efforts by some conservative family and religious groups to persuade Congress and the FCC to order the cablers to "unbundle" TV channels and offer them instead on an à la carte basis. In fact, all of the channels that will be available on the "family tier" are also available on Comcast's "expanded basic" at a lower cost, and Comcast is expected to remind subscribers that they can block any potentially objectionable programmers by using technology provided by Comcast or by using the so-called V-chip that are wired into most sets sold since 2000.

CBS EVENING NEWS PRODUCER PREDICTS IT WILL BECOME NO. 2 BY FEBRUARY

Outgoing CBS Evening News executive producer Jim Murphy has predicted that the news program will be No. 2 in the ratings by the end of February. In an interview with the Philadelphia Inquirer, Murphy said, "If they stick to the broadcast the way it is, it will happen. People like the program; they like [anchor] Bob [Schieffer]; and they're doing it right." Rome Hartman is due to take over as executive producer of the nightly news program on Jan. 9. Murphy said he rejected another assignment from CBS News President Sean McManus "because I need to do more than this place could offer me. ... I'm ready for something else. I've got bigger fish to fry."

DID 6-YEAR-OLD ALTER OUTCOME OF APPRENTICE?

The 6-year-old granddaughter of a judge on the Martha Stewart edition of The Apprentice reportedly revealed the name of the winner to the contestants on the show just before the live broadcast Wednesday night, "sending the producers into crisis control," according to the New York Post's "Page Six" column. Jennifer Koppelman Hutt -- whose grandfather is Charles Koppelman, the former record company exec who currently is board chairman of Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia and was a judge on the show -- reportedly blurted out that finalist Bethenny Frankel was going to win because "Martha didn't like Dawna [Stone]'s fashion show." According to the Post, which cited unnamed on-set insiders and a former contestant, the cast members were quickly sequestered in separate rooms while the producer told the studio audience that last-minute changes were made in the script. The former contestant continued: "As far as we knew, Bethenny was the winner. But when they returned to live broadcast, the mood had definitely shifted. That's when all three judges voted for [Stone.]"

TRAFFIC JAM AT BOX OFFICE

In what several box-office analysts have suggested is the biggest flood of new box-office entries over the Christmas holiday in recent memory ("Pix Overstuff Xmas Stocking," headlined Daily Variety), five new films are debuting wide this weekend, two are expanding wide, and five are opening in limited release. Several analysts were at a loss to explain the decision by studio distribution execs to open the floodgates -- particularly inasmuch as none of the new films appears to stand a chance against last weekend's two leaders, King Kong and The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, which appeared to have a lock on first and second place (with Narnia given the edge for the top spot, given its widespread church backing).

MOVIE REVIEWS: MUNICH

One thing critics agree on about Steven Spielberg's Munich: it will give audiences something more than popcorn to chew on. Whether they can swallow it is another matter. "Mr. Spielberg has been pummeling audiences with his virtuosity for nearly as long as he has been making movies; now, he tenders an invitation to a discussion," writes Manohla Dargis in the New York Times. Although her review mentions some of that discussion -- much of it angry -- that the film generated even before its release, she nevertheless remarks, "It would do a disservice to Mr. Spielberg to linger too long on the preemptive attacks on the film: more than anything, Munich is a slammin' entertainment." Still, Spielberg's point of view of the Arab-Israeli strife in general and Israel's hunt for the Palestinians who assassinated the Israeli Olympic team in 1972 in particular is at the heart of the movie, as critics dutifully point out. Roger Ebert, who calls Spielberg, "the most successful and visible Jew in the world of film," notes that the movie has been attacked by Palestinians and Jews alike. "By not taking sides, he has taken both sides," Ebert writes in his Chicago Sun-Times review, which concludes: "As a thriller, Munich is efficient, absorbing, effective. As an ethical argument, it is haunting. And its questions are not only for Israel but for any nation that believes it must compromise its values to defend them." Lou Lumenick in the New York Post worries that the attack on the film by some notable Israelis "might keep audiences away from one of the year's most thoughtful and entertaining movies." Steven Rea in the Philadelphia Inquirer predicts an Oscar nomination for Spielberg. "Munich,' he writes, ricochets all over the place, but it hits its target dead-on." Ty Burr in the Boston Globe describes it as Spielberg's "finest film in years ... a stunningly well-made international thriller and a drama of deepening moral quicksand." And Kenneth Turan in the Los Angeles Times writes that Spielberg's broad purpose appears to be to encourage its audience to "recognize that killing that starts out in righteousness can end up in madness" and that the film amounts to "a desperate plea for peace." But the film's naysayers make their case forcefully as well. Steven Hunter in the Washington Post writes: "The problem with Munich is simple: It asks hard questions and finds easy answers." Jack Mathews in the New York Daily News judges the film a "failure" and concludes: "One admires Munich for its look and ambitions, but at 164 minutes, it feels like the longest movie of the year, and one with greater impact on your behind than on your intellect." And Joe Morgenstern in the Wall Street Journal faults Spielberg for bending over "every which way to be even-handed" and writes that the movie is "for better and worse, a vivid, sometimes simplistic thriller in which action speaks louder than ideas."

MOVIES: MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA

Like Munich, Memoirs of a Geisha also aroused angry controversy before anyone ever saw it. Japanese commentators denounced the producers for hiring non-Japanese in principal roles. Chinese commentators denounced Chinese actors for agreeing to appear in a film that treated their hated enemy sympathetically. By and large, those issues are sloughed off by most critics, who suggest that Geisha is not really so much an Asian film but a typically Hollywood one. "It's not such a big deal that Chinese women are playing Japanese roles. It's just showbiz," writes Jami Bernard in the New York Daily News. Indeed, the slick production is at the center of most of the criticism of the film. "Full of falling rain, fluttering silk, John Williams's music and whispery voiceover, Memoirs of a Geisha is one long oxymoronic exercise in attempting to show delicacy through overkill," writes Liam Lacey in the Toronto Globe & Mail. Fellow Torontonian Peter Howell of the Star, concludes: "This is a movie for the ear and the eye, not the brain and the heart." Likewise Claudia Puig writes in USA Today: "With its gorgeous cinematography, costumes and production design, Geisha is a visual feast, but it lacks emotional heft and leaves the viewer strangely unsatisfied." Carina Chocano in the Los Angeles Times comments, "If the book was celebrated for its meticulous attention to historical detail, the movie's heart belongs strictly to Hollywood." And Steven Rea in the Philadelphia Inquirer offers what he admits is a "cheap joke" when he describes the film as "pretty as a picture and soulless as a Hollywood producer."

MOVIE REVIEWS: THE RINGER

Unlike most of the films being rushed out this weekend,The Farelli Brothers-produced The Ringer has no aspirations of drawing Oscar votes. But Good Morning America's Joel Siegel does give it credit for not being either a remake, a sequel, or a sequel of a remake like the other new comedies being released over the Christmas holiday. "It is in such bad taste, no wonder it's original. No one else would have made this movie." The film, which stars Johnny Knoxville of Jackass fame as a man who pretends to be mentally handicapped in order to enter the Special Olympics, does receive a fair amount of critical applause. One of those giving it a thumbs-up is Roger Ebert in the Chicago Sun-Times, who offers this personal observation: "Although the Farrellys have made a career out of comedies in bad taste, I happen to know they have a sincere interest in mentally challenged people, because they have a good friend named Rocket who knows everything about the movies. When we were trying out co-hosts on the TV show, they called me and pitched Rocket for the job. 'For co-host?' I asked. 'Or your job,' they said. I was tempted, but afraid the audition might come across the wrong way." Elizabeth Weitzman in the New York Daily News remarks that the filmmakers have put together a film "that is not only outrageous and often very funny but -- dare we say it? -- surprisingly sweet." The Associated Press's Christy LeMire was also surprised by the film's overall effect. She remarks that it's "surprisingly funny -- often laugh-out-loud hilarious -- and yes, inspirational, without trying too hard. At least, most of the time." Nevertheless, most critics suggest that the Farrellys, intent on producing a film that will not exploit the mentally disabled, have wound up producing a relatively bland film. As Chris Kaltenbach puts it in the Baltimore Sun: "If the movie were as funny as it is well-meaning, this would be one for the ages. But it struggles so hard to be kind to its stars, many of whom are Special Olympians themselves, that it forgets to be funny. Heartwarming, yes, but not always funny."

MOVIE REVIEWS: CASANOVA

Heath Ledger, who is being touted mightily for an Oscar nomination for his performance as a tormented gay cowboy in Brokeback Mountain, portrays his inverse character in the title role of Casanova. And it's also a showy performance drawing critical attention. Kevin Thomas in the Los Angeles Times writes that it's a remarkable stretch for the actor and concludes that he's "equally engaging and convincing in both roles." A. O. Scott in the New York Times, "Mr. Ledger's status as the pansexual art-house heartthrob of the season will only be enhanced by this nimble performance." Wesley Morris in the Boston Globe observes that in Casanova, "Ledger brings a terrific blend of slyness and virility to the role of an unstoppable, bewigged libertine whose conquests include an entire nunnery." But Jan Stuart in Newsday suggests that Casanova may be a calculated career move by Ledger and those surrounding him. Stuart writes: "One can't help but feel the nudging hand of an agent behind his back-to-back roles in Brokeback Mountain and Casanova. 'Heath, baby, do all the depressed gay cowboys you want. But you gotta get back to your straight roots or there will be no Brokeback 2. Here, read this. This guy is a very famous heterosexual. He goes through women like six packs. He sleeps with nuns. But he's got class. Donald Sutherland played him, should I say more?'" The film itself is receiving mixed reviews. Michael Wilmington says it may not suit everyone's tastes, However, he writes, "if you're in the mood for baroque pleasures and the sort of romantic comedy that turns the whole world into a Venetian fireworks display, Casanova will tease and please you for the night." But Roger Ebert in the Chicago Sun-Times awards it only two stars, calling it "busy and unfocused, giving us the view of Casanova's ceaseless activity but not the excitement. It's a sitcom when what is wanted is comic opera."