COURIC TRIES TO MUTE WILL-SHE-OR-WON'T-SHE TALK
Reporters hoping to question Katie Couric about persistent reports that she is about to jump ship at NBC in order to anchor the CBS Evening News and become a 60 Minutes correspondent were stymied Thursday when Couric headed them off at the pass. During a conference call to promote the Today show's tenth consecutive year in the No. 1 spot during mornings, Couric remarked, "There's been a lot of things out there; I don't know where people are getting them, but I wanted to let you all know that so we didn't have to play games with this call, because there's really nothing to announce and nothing to report." When a reporter attempted a follow up, she responded, "I'm not discussing this ... but thanks for asking." Couric did comment on the Thanksgiving Day parade debacle in which she and Matt Lauer ignored an accident that injured two spectators. (The parade was produced by NBC's entertainment division; Lauer and Couric are employees of the news division.) After Lauer had told reporters that the press had made too much of the matter, Couric said that she would have second thoughts about hosting the parade coverage again. "It puts us into an awkward situation," she said. "We could have finessed it if we had the information. It was embarrassing."

REPORT: FCC LOOKING FOR BACK-DOOR APPROACH TO BANNING CABLE INDECENCY

Stymied in its efforts to impose indecency rules on cable TV, the FCC has warned Time Warner Cable and Comcast Corp. that they may face unwanted conditions on their proposed acquisition of the assets of the Adelphia cable company unless they agree to rein in sexually explicit programming, the Los Angeles Times reported today, citing unnamed company sources. As a result, the two cable companies are pressuring the rest of the industry to agree on a response. The FCC maneuver was reportedly conceived by FCC Chairman Kevin J. Martin, a longtime proponent of anti-indecency measures, who last week urged cable operators to offer channels on an à la carte basis. (Part of the reasoning behind the unbundling of TV channels is that, given a choice of channels, many viewers will reject cable networks that provide programs with sexual content.) Meanwhile, in a separate article, the Times reported that 84-year-old Jack Valenti has been lured out of retirement by broadcast and cable networks to help find a way of eluding new government regulations on cable content. The Times reported that on Monday, he met with some key TV, studio and cable executives ostensibly to discuss ways to improve the TV program ratings service.

NASCAR DEAL THE PITS, ANALYSTS CONCLUDE

The announcement that NASCAR had signed an eight-year, $4.48-billion deal with ABC, ESPN, Fox, TNT and Speed Channel fell flat on Wall Street Thursday. Analysts observed that many of the races will be competing against NBC's Sunday Night Football (NBC dropped out of the NASCAR bidding early, telegraphing the message that since it already landed the NFL, it no longer needed NASCAR, which was a money-loser anyway.) Moreover, despite much media attention paid to the fact that the new deal is 40-percent above NASCAR's existing $2.4-billion TV deal, analysts noted that while the old deal covered six years, the new one covers eight. Media analyst Dennis McAlpine told today's (Friday) Daily Variety that NASCAR stands to gain an average of only 4 percent a year overall and could actually lose money during the first four years of the contract. NASCAR's two principal operators, International Speedway Corp (ISC) and Speedway Motorsports each fell by double digits Thursday.

NBC TO OFFER OLDEST TV SHOW ONLINE, ON DEMAND

On the heels of NBC Entertainment's announcement that it had struck a deal to make available several of its TV shows for on-demand viewing via Apple's iTunes Music Store for $1.99 per download, NBC's news division announced Thursday that it would offer its venerable Meet the Press program online for free beginning this Sunday, Dec. 11. In a statement, host/managing editor Tim Russert said, "We are already appointment television on Sunday mornings for those who are home. Now if people are busy with their families when we are on the air, they can watch us when it is convenient for them."

WALLACE PONDERS WHETHER NETWORK NEWS WILL SURVIVE

Mike Wallace has bemoaned the state of television news in general and of 60 Minutes in particular. In an interview with the Boston Globe, Wallace remarked, "The days of Walter Cronkite and Huntley and Brinkley are gone. People still do watch, but it doesn't have the clout that it used to have. I don't know what's going to happen or if there will be an evening news 10 years from now. It's a very expensive operation to keep up." Wallace also lamented the falling ratings of his own 60 Minutes, where he has had the title of co-editor since 1968. "In the '70s, '80s, and '90s, we were always in the top 10," he said. "Now, it's different. But I think we've held onto our standards remarkably well, no thanks to me because I don't do the kinds of stuff I used to." Wallace, whose son Chris quit ABC to join Fox News Channel, also had words of praise for FNC's Chairman/CEO Roger Ailes. Ailes, he said, "is a man I admire very much. He understood there was a market that was not being served. He was right."

NARNIA RIVALS: ADULTS ONLY?
No one doubts that Disney's The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe will be the big winner at the box office this weekend. The only question is, how big? Studio executives are hoping that at the very least it will show that audiences will flock to theaters despite higher ticket and concession prices, more advertising, and more rude behavior -- all of the things they've blamed for this year's 6-percent fall-off in box-office revenue. The only other film opening wide this weekend is Warner Bros.' George Clooney starrer Syriana, which has received generally outstanding reviews but is not likely to make a big impact on the box office. Two other films being touted for their Oscar worthiness are also opening in limited release this weekend -- Sony's Memoirs of a Geisha and Focus Films' gay cowboy drama Brokeback Mountain. Both films are premiering not only in the usual locations of New York, Los Angeles, and Toronto but also in San Francisco -- Geisha, to attract that city's large Asian population and Brokeback to attract its large gay population. (We intend to provide summaries of reviews for both of these movies when they open wide. Summaries of reviews for Narnia ran earlier this week.)

MOVIE REVIEWS: SYRIANA

Syriana is obviously Warner Bros.' attempt to counterprogram Disney's The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, which is aimed primarily at children, with a movie for adults. It's "a movie that demands and rewards close attention," writes A.O Scott in the New York Times. "The mental labor of figuring out just what is going on is part of what makes the film such a rich and entertaining experience," he observes, adding that it "succeeds in being one of the best geopolitical thrillers in a very long time." Nevertheless, several critics complain that such mental labor left them exhausted and confused. Jack Mathews in the New York Daily News writes that the plot is as "inscrutable" as Einstein's theory of relativity. But after thinking about it a few days, Mathews writes, he concluded that "the movie adds up to one of the smartest and most ambitious political thrillers in years. But if you find a more difficult movie to follow this year, it will be in Mandarin without subtitles." Roger Ebert in a four-star Chicago Sun-Times review that may be as complex as the movie itself, concludes, "The movie's plot is so complex we're not really supposed to follow it, we're supposed to be surrounded by it. Since none of the characters understand the whole picture, why should we? If the movie shook down into good guys and bad guys, we'd be the good guys, of course. Or if it was a critique of American policy, we might be the bad guys. But what if everybody is a bad guy, because good guys don't even suit up to play this game?" Kenneth Turan in the Los Angeles Times praises it as "a fearless and ambitious piece of work, made with equal parts passion and calculation, an unapologetically entertaining major studio release with compelling real-world relevance, a film that takes numerous risks and thrives on them all." A handful of critics, however, pan the movie. Michael Sragow in the Baltimore Sun calls it "an exercise in futility posing as a modernistic thriller" and writes that it "comes together like a nihilistic jigsaw puzzle -- with a few pieces removed for that special, indefinable dash of pseudo-density." Peter Howell in the Toronto Star, while remarking that "Syriana has the potential for greatness," nevertheless remarks that he got "the impression that [writer/director Stephen] Gaghan doesn't really know what he's making a movie about. ... It leaves us ... scratching our heads and wondering if we've seen something truly important or something that just thinks it is." Similarly, Amy Biancolli concludes in the Houston Chronicle: "Syriana is an ambitious edifice, built with conviction and skill. But I'm not sure I understand it, and I'm not sure I care."

VIACOM MAY ADD DREAMWORKS TO ITS PORTFOLIO

Viacom's Paramount Pictures is preparing a bid for DreamWorks SKG, the live-action studio (the animation unit was spun off earlier this year) headed by Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg, and David Geffen, the Wall Street Journal reported today (Friday), citing people close to the situation. According to the newspaper, Viacom's board approved a bid on Thursday on condition that outside investors be rounded up to put up most of the money. The studio has let it be known that it will not consider a bid of less than $1 billion plus assumption of debt.

RENT MOVIE MAKES RENT STAGE SHOW A HIT ALL OVER AGAIN

Although the box-office performance of Rent has been largely described as a disappointment, Jeffrey Seller, who produced the stage version of the musical and was co-executive producer of the movie, has a far different take on the film's performance. In an interview with Playbill, Seller remarked. "The movie has already done $24 million! Just do the math. That means over three million people have seen this movie. Do you know how long it takes me to get three million people into the Nederlander Theatre? We get 400,000 a year. We're talking about 5-6 years [of business] in two weeks of a movie. Let's say when this movie is all said and done in the movie theaters, six million people have seen it. That'll be more people than have ever seen it [on stage]!" In addition, Seller noted that the film has also substantially boosted ticket sales for the stage version at the Nederlander Theatre on Broadway. "This movie is going to feed this show forever," he said.