AT THE CHECKERED FLAG: $4.48 BILLION
NASCAR has signed a $4.48-billion television deal with four broadcast and cable networks. The eight-year deal splits NASCAR's 36-race schedule between Fox, ABC, ESPN and TNT. (The annual All-Star race is set to air on the Speed Channel.) In a statement, NASCAR Chairman Brian France said that the deal "represents a significant reward for the competitive side-by-side racing our fans have come to expect. It also validates the marketing and production enhancements our current media partners have brought to the sport. The new broadcast partnership is also good for the fans, because they will have so much more NASCAR content from a variety of media and new media sources." The deal also includes provisions for online and videogame exploitation.

THIRD-PLACE NBC WINS TWO NIGHTS IN A ROW

NBC, which has remained an also-ran in the ratings through nearly all of the season, won both Tuesday and Wednesday nights -- but mostly by default, as its competition aired a slew of reruns and unappealing specials. With ABC re-airing an episode of Commander in Chief on Tuesday, NBC scored solid numbers against it in the 9:00 p.m. hour with My Name Is Earl and The Office. The two NBC sitcoms averaged a 7.4 rating and a 12 share, while CiC posted a 7.0/10. At 10:00 p.m. NBC's Law & Order: SVU produced the highest ratings of the night with a 10.8/17, beating out ABC's Boston Legal, with a 6.7/11. CBS's telecast of the Victoria's Secret Fashion Show produced the annual special's smallest audience yet, scoring a 6.2/10. On Wednesday, NBC's E-Ring came out on top in the 8:00 hour with a 6.0/9, beating the 5.4/9 average for ABC's George Lopez and Freddie. ABC did manage to regain the lead at 9:00 p.m. with a rerun of Lost, but its 6.9/10 represented its smallest audience of the season. NBC returned to first place at 10:00 p.m. with Law & Order, which, with an 8.4/14, beat a repeat of the usual winner of the time slot, CBS's CSI: NY, which managed only a 6.6/11. Earlier in the evening, CBS's conclusion of a two-part miniseries on Pope John Paul II produced an ungodly 4.3/7, putting the network in third place for the night.

ABC CALLS APPLE DEAL A BIG SUCCESS

Since ABC began making episodes of Lost and Desperate Housewives available online via Apple's iTunes store less than two months ago more than 800,000 copies of the shows have been sold, Disney CFO Tom Staggs told a Credit Suisse First Boston conference Wednesday. Following the session, Staggs told Media Week that he expected that the $1.99 per-episode price would stick, saying, "Right now, it looks like that price is what people are willing to pay." He also indicated that the figure had not been set by Apple. As for concerns that on-demand, commercial-free viewing would cannibalize the TV audience, Staggs told the trade publication that there has been no indication of audience loss and that some ratings have actually gone up. He said that he also expected downloads to rise after people purchase Apple's video iPod during the holidays.

NBC NEWS CHIEF CRITICIZES ABC'S CHOICE OF NEW ANCHORS

NBC News President Steve Capus has criticized rival ABC's decision to pass over Charles Gibson and install Elizabeth Vargas and Bob Woodruff as co-anchors of World News Tonight. In an interview with today's (Thursday) Philadelphia Inquirer, Capus indicated that he was surprised by ABC's decision, saying, "I don't know what led [ABC] to come to this decision. There's no question he's done a better job for them from a ratings point of view." (The Inquirer observed that NBC's lead over ABC expanded to 14 percent under Vargas and Woodruff from 4 percent when Gibson alternated with the pair following Peter Jennings' departure in April.) ABC News chief Jeffrey Schneider expressed outrage over Capus's remarks. "He's right that Charlie is a great anchor, and he could teach Steve a lot about how to be a gentleman," Schneider said, adding, "With an anchor [Katie Couric] threatening to jump ship [to CBS] you'd think that's where Steve's focus would be right now."

O'REILLY URGES NEWS MEDIA TO AVOID CRITICIZING U.S. WAR MOVES

Fox News commentator Bill O'Reilly suggested Tuesday that American TV news outlets refrain from airing reports that would depict the U.S. unfavorably as it carries out its war against terrorism. Referring to an ABC News report that the CIA had moved detainees out of secret prisons in Europe prior to the arrival there of Secretary of State Rice, O"Reilly remarked, "I would not have reported what ABC News reported. I would not have done it. I did not put Abu Ghraib pictures on this broadcast, the only television journalist not to do so. I do feel that the press has a responsibility to help the government in the war on terror." O'Reilly's comments came during his interview with former Army intelligence officer Ralph Peters, author of New Glory: Expanding America's Global Supremacy, who said that reports like ABC's "are putting our programs at risk. ... But worst of all, Bill, it's killing American soldiers."

SATIRICAL BLOG COMMENT PICKED UP AS NEWS

A facetious remark by a Hollywood blogger about Mel Gibson's planned Holocaust drama Flory was picked up as fact Wednesday by Rupert Murdoch's newspaper The Australian. The Defamer blog had twisted the name of Gibson's Icon Productions and imagined the movie ending like the finale of Gibson's Braveheart, "with thousands of Jewish and Nazi combatants rushing at each other across an open field." The Australian duly reported: "Gibson's Con Artist Productions reportedly clinched the deal with a breathtaking pitch for a climactic 'Braveheart-style' battle scene where thousands of Jewish and Nazi combatants rush at each other across an open field." The lively Defamer blog took note of the newspaper's report Wednesday and concluded: "We invite The Australian's tireless reporters to scan the rest of our site for story ideas, and look forward to tomorrow's hysteria-inducing headline about Angelina Jolie's nefarious plan to invade the capital of Cambodia with an army of deadly, mohawked orphans."

HOAX ATTRACTS STRONG RATINGS IN U.K.

A British reality series in which contestants have been led to believe that they are being trained for a trip into space at a Russian space academy was launched Wednesday and quickly nabbed 11 percent of the TV audience during the 9:00 hour. The Channel 4 show, titled Space Cadets, averaged 2.6 million viewers, regarded as a solid start -- especially given the fact that it was competing against one of the U.K.'s hottest reality series, ITV's I'm a Celebrity ... Get Me Out of Here!, which drew 7.6 million viewers, or 31 percent of the total audience. The elaborate hoax will eventually see the contestants supposedly blasting off from earth and conducting experiments "in space."

THE NARNIA WATCH
More reviews are appearing in major-market U.S. newspapers today (Thursday) of Disney's The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, in advance of Friday's official premiere, and although most may not be so exuberantly praiseful as those that appeared Wednesday in the British press, they are nonetheless overwhelmingly positive. Roger Ebert in the Chicago Sun-Times concludes: "This is a film situated precisely on the dividing line between traditional family entertainment and the newer action-oriented family films. It is charming and scary in about equal measure, and confident for the first two acts that it can be wonderful without having to hammer us into enjoying it, or else. Then it starts hammering." Claudia Puig in USA Today remarks that Narnia is an "engaging and exciting family film that at times feels a bit like The Lord of the Rings Jr." Bob Longino in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, writes that while Narnia may be no Rings, "it'll do. The film works on just about every level. "Narnia" has grandeur, imagination, mostly believable special effects, a war-of-the-world battle, heart and teary-eyed heartbreak." In the New York Daily News, Elizabeth Weitzman remarks that the movie "deserves the zillions it's bound to make: The first live-action film from Shrek director Adamson is a thrilling success in its own right, a generation-spanning journey that feels both comfortingly familiar and excitingly original." On the other hand, Lou Lumenick in the rival New York Post is unimpressed, writing, "This overlong, poorly paced and woodenly acted film isn't as well made as those franchises, though it probably contains enough moments of wonder to please most children -- and to insure a very handsome return on a reported investment of as much as $170 million." Michael Phillips in the Chicago Tribune calls Narnia a "disappointing inaugural effort" and goes on to say that it tells the C.S. Lewis story "in a predictable, visually cautious way. You keep waiting to be transported, yet in cinematic terms, the transportation never arrives."

MOVIE WINDOW SHRANK IN 2005

The window between the theatrical release of a movie and its DVD release shrank by an average of 15 days this year to 129 days versus 144 days in 2004, according to a study by Monterey, CA-based Kagan Research. Kagan analyst Wade Holden said that despite talk by some studio executives that the window ought to shrink further, he doubts that it will. Doing so, he said in a statement, "would encroach on the box office. ... And that would be counterproductive to the distributors' total economic returns, because what's lost in theatrical probably won't be fully made up in home video."

TRADITION BUSTED: NBR WON'T BE FIRST OUT WITH MOVIE AWARDS

The Los Angeles Film Critics' Association -- not the National Board of Review -- will be the first organization to announce winners for film awards this year. The NBR, which traditionally has been first to honor films during the awards season, said that it had erroneously sent an incomplete eligibility list to its members that omitted key names. After receiving complaints, the 150 members who had already mailed in their votes were went a new list and asked to vote again. A spokesman said that the winners will be announced on Monday, two days after the L.A. film critics announce their selections.

DOCUMENTARY ABOUT RATINGS BOARD RATED NC-17

In an ironic twist, the MPAA ratings board has assigned an NC-17 rating to a documentary film about the ratings board itself. The documentary was funded by the Independent Film Channel (IFC). In a news release on Wednesday announcing that the documentary, This Film Is Not Yet Rated, had been chosen to premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, IFC said that it learned that the ratings board had slapped it with the most stringent of all ratings because of "some graphic sexual content." IFC said that it nevertheless plans to air the documentary uncensored and uninterrupted in the fall of 2006, following its theatrical run. In its statement, IFC also took a swipe at the ratings board, charging that it "is so secret, virtually no one can discern its rules and regulations. ... We decided to pull back the curtain and dare ask the question, "Why?"

ANIMAL ACTIVISTS ASK MPAA TO HALT USE OF APES IN FILMS

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals is praising Peter Jackson for his decision to use only computer-generated animals in the making of King Kong. The organization, which opposes the American Humane Association's position that properly supervised use of animals is acceptable in film production, pointed out in a statement that brutal methods are often used in training apes and chimpanzees and that they often suffer horrendous neglect after their film "careers" are over. The current issue of The Village Voice quotes animal activist Holly Hazard as saying, "We're talking about an animal suffering incredibly for a laugh. The Voice said that more than a dozen animal-rights groups have sent a letter to MPAA president Dan Glickman demanding that he support their cause and declare a moratorium on the use of apes in movies.