JACKSON'S SPOKESMAN QUITS -- OR WAS HE FIRED?

Stuart Backerman, Michael Jackson's chief spokesman, quit Monday, a day after the singer's appearance on 60 Minutes, over "strategic differences with the way things are going." In an interview with Reuters, Backerman declined to specify his differences with Jackson and other members of the team handling his defense against child molestation charges. "The one thing I will say is that I love Michael Jackson and his fans," Backerman said. Today's (Tuesday) New York Daily News quoted a lawyer for Jackson's family, Brian Oxman, as saying that Michael himself had fired Backerman, and Jackson defense attorney Mark Geragos claimed that he himself had delivered the pink slip "for talking when I told him not to." Neither specified the differences with Backerman that resulted in the split.

JACKSON: HIS WORST ENEMY?

Commentators generally agreed Monday that Jackson's 60 Minutes television appearance Sunday night probably did him more harm than good. Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, said that although Jackson may escape conviction on the criminal charges leveled against him, "he has convicted himself in the court of public opinion. Any lingering doubts--held by even the most morally obtuse--were erased when Michael Jackson decided to make his case on 60 Minutes." Similarly, Washington Post writer David Segal commented: "Whatever the merit of the allegations against him, the guy is just too peculiar, too creepily fragile and too egomaniacal to effectively defend himself in person." Wendy Murphy, a CBS legal analyst, told the New York Daily News that the appearance was "an unmitigated disaster" for Jackson, adding that Jackson defense attorney Mark Geragos "must have taken leave of his senses to let that interview take place."

ABC LUXURIATES IN RATINGS FOR LIFE OF LUXURY

Champaign wishes and caviar dreams ruled the airwaves Monday night, as Life of Luxury, an ABC special presented by Robin Leach, scored a first-place 7.7 rating and a 12 share in the 8:00 p.m. hour. The second part of ABC's miniseries Dreamkeeper couldn't retain Leach's audience however, as ratings dropped to a 6.0/9 from 9:00 p.m. to 11:00 p.m. Without competition from Monday Night Football, a repeat of CBS's Everybody Loves Raymondrecorded a 10.7/16 at 9:00 pm. The winner of the 10:00 p.m. hour, as usual, was CBS's CSI: Miami, with a 10.1/16.

MSNBC TOSSES VENTURA'S SHOW OUT OF THE RING

Just two months after it was launched, MSNBC has decided to pull the plug on its weekend Jesse Ventura's America. Originally intended as a weeknight offering that would compete against the heavy hitters at Fox News Channel and CNN in primetime, the show, featuring the former wrestler/governor was originally shunted into a Saturday-night spot, ostensibly for fine-tuning -- but never attracted a significant number of viewers. MSNBC said that Ventura would continue to offer his comments on the political scene on other programs presented by the channel.

HEADS MAY ROLL AT BBC

A high-level BBC executive has indicated that some senior BBC executives may resign when the report of the Hutton inquiry is released early next year. The inquiry looked into the death of weapons expert David Kelly, who took his life after he was revealed as the source of a BBC report claiming that a spokesman for Prime Minister Tony Blair had ordered a dossier "sexed up" to include a warning that the regime of Saddam Hussein could deploy weapons of mass destruction against the West on 45-minutes notice. Caroline Thomson, the BBC's director of policy and legal affairs, said in a radio interview that the report by BBC journalist Andrew Gilligan did not meet the standards of truth and accuracy that the BBC requires. She suggested that the fate of several BBC executives would probably hinge on what the Hutton report concludes.

NEW SUPER WATCHDOG TAKES OVER IN BRITAIN

Britain's Ofcom (Office of Communications) officially opened its doors Monday, taking over the operations of five broadcasting regulators, the Broadcast Standards Commission, the Independent Television Commission, the Radio Authority, the Office of Telecommunications, and the Radio Communications Agency.

ACTOR EARL HINDMAN DEAD AT 88

Earl Hindman, best known as the half-hidden face of Tim Allen's neighbor Wilson on Home Improvement, died Monday of lung cancer at the age of 61.

KING IS KING BUT PAN DOESN'T PAN OUT

Box office returns competed with traditional holiday gift returns on Sunday, resulting in somewhat lower ticket sales than the studios had estimated. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King took in $50.6 million versus the $51.2 million that New Line, its studio, had predicted on Sunday. (The film grossed $22.3 million in 12 days equaling the amount that Spider-Man earned in 10.) The new Steve Martin comedy, Cheaper by the Dozen, opened in second place with $27.6 million compared with a forecast $28.2 million. The biggest disappointment was the poor performance of the new Peter Pan remake, which opened in seventh place with just $11.1 million. Parents may have been put off by reviews referring to the "sensual" relationship between Peter and Wendy in the latest film version of the J.M. Barrie tale.

The top ten films over the weekend, according to final figures compiled by Exhibitor Relations (figures in parentheses represent total gross to date):

1. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, New Line, $50,598,104, 2 Wks. ($222,268,708); 2. Cheaper By the Dozen, 20th Century Fox, $27,557,647, 1 Wk. ($3,5397,241 -- From Thursday); 3. Cold Mountain, Miramax, $14,574,213, 1 Wk. ($19,079,727 -- From Thursday); 4. Something's Gotta Give, Sony, $13,816,638, 3 Wks. ($55,902,582); 5. Paycheck, Paramount, $13,462,374, 1 Wk. ($18,615,272 -- From Thursday); 6. Mona Lisa Smile, Sony, $11,351,439, 2 Wks. ($31,226,270); 7. Peter Pan, Universal, $11,139,495, 1 Wk. ($14,627,615 -- From Thursday); 8. The Last Samurai, Warner Bros., $8,326,947, 4 Wks. ($74,324,104); 9. Bad Santa, Miramax, $4,526,000, 5 Wks. ($50,947,195); 10. Elf, New Line, $3,906,028, 8 Wks. ($16,4648,692).

GOLDWYN: HOLLYWOOD'S NOT TURNING OUT STARS

Producer Samuel Goldwyn Jr. has faulted the movie industry for failing to develop a system for star-making like the one that existed in his father's era. "In an industry that spends billions each year on marketing, practically nothing is spent in the area of developing what is considered the most important aspect of a film," Goldwyn told the Wall Street Journal. Studios, he said, "would far rather overpay than truly create the asset they ultimately value the most. The tragedy of this is that the life span of stars working today has become shorter and shorter, almost like football players." Goldwyn also fretted over the quality of writing in most films today. "We don't do enough to encourage good writing," he said. "One of the things you had at the old studios was great writing. Now it's about the concept."

ONLINE FILM CRITICS GIVE 11 NODS TO KING

Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King has garnered 11 nominations from the Online Film Critics Society for their 2003 awards. Close behind was Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill with 10.

OSCAR BALLOTS GO OUT EARLY

The 5,803 voting members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will receive their ballots earlier than most of them had anticipated. They were mailed out on Monday, five days ahead of the official schedule, because AMPAS executives had decided to give employees a day off on Friday, Jan. 2, the day originally set for the mailing. The ballots must be returned by 5:00 p.m., Jan.17. Nomination results are due to be announced on Jan. 27.

ACTRESS PATRICIA ROC DEAD AT 88

British actress Patricia Roc, who starred in some 25 feature films in the U.S. and the U.K. in the 1940s, died of kidney failure in Locarno, Switzerland early today (Tuesday) at the age of 88.