FCC DOES A TURN-AROUNDIn what appeared to be a 180-degree turn, the FCC on Thursday released a study concluding that an à la carte system for selling cable channels would offer consumers "substantial benefits," including a reduction in their cable bills of as much as 13 percent. In November 2004, the FCC issued a report concluding just the opposite. The current study said that the earlier one was flawed because it contained inaccurate information from a study by Booz Allen Hamilton Inc. that was funded by the National Cable & Telecommunications Assn. That study concluded that an à la carte system would result in blacking out niche networks, thereby reducing choice, and cause companies that sold advertising over a combination of channels to depend on revenue from only the surviving ones, thereby forcing them to raise their rates for those channels. Booz Allen Hamilton, while admitting that it erred "in one of our calculations" -- since corrected -- nevertheless said that it stood by its conclusions and underlying assumptions. In a statement, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who has been pushing for an à la carte system, stated: "The report confirms what I have believed for years -- if consumers are allowed to choose the channels their families view then their monthly cable bill will be less. Choice is far preferable to being forced to buy a host of channels they don't even watch." Kyle McSlarrow, president of the National Cable & Telecommunications Assn., commented, "It is disappointing that the updated report relies on assumptions that are not in line with the reality of the marketplace." The study was particularly welcomed by conservative family groups who saw an à la carte system as a way to block "indecent" programs from coming into homes. But religious broadcasters warned that such a system could shut them down. Rod Tapp, an executive with the Inspiration Networks, told today's (Friday) Chicago Tribunethat it "could represent the death knell for much of the wholesome programming available today from smaller independent channels" like his. And Geraldine Laybourne, chairman of the Oxygen network, observed in an interview with the online edition of Broadcasting & Cable: "TV viewers often don't know what they want to watch until it's there for them as an option. Who would have known to subscribe to Bravo to watch Queer Eye for the Straight guyprior to it airing? Hits come from new channels all the time. Would consumers really want to switch networks every few weeks so they can watch the newest shows on cable? And how would shows become hits if they don't have the viewers to watch them?"


One of the concessions that NBC made to Disney's ESPN in order to sign Al Michaels to do play-by-ply announcing for NBC's new Sunday Night NFL Football was to turn over a package of early cartoons created by Walt Disney to the Disney company. Rights to the original silent cartoons, featuring a character called Oswald, the Lucky Rabbit -- generally regarded as the forerunner to Mickey Mouse -- were owned by Universal Pictures. While Walt Disney produced the original 26 cartoons, cartoonist Walter Lantz, the creator of Woody Woodpecker, took over after they were released and continued to churn them out at a prodigious rate through 1943. Disney President Robert Iger said Thursday that he wanted the cartoons included in the NBC concessions package because they represented "an important part of Walt Disney's creative legacy." ABC Sports/ESPN chief Dick Ebersol indicated Thursday that the company was happy to oblige since the cartoons had "no value" in the U.S. ESPN will also get an expanded package of video highlights of the Winter Olympics starting immediately, as well as highlights from future NBC Olympics coverage. Once again, NBC said that it readily agreed to the deal because the clips would serve to promote its own telecasts. The deal will reunite Michaels with John Madden, his ABC Monday Night Football analyst, and Fred Gaudelli, who was executive producer of MNF.


The Torino Winter Olympics from Turin, Italy -- that's the way many in the news media are referring to it -- open today with more than 190 million viewers expected to tune in at one time or another. However, in an interview with the New York Daily News,NBC Universal TV Group President Randy Falco said that he expected ratings to be about 25 percent below those for 2002 in Salt Lake City. Advertisers are paing between $500,000 and $700,000 per 30-second spot, the newspaper said, amounting to a total take of about $930 million -- 20 percent above 2002's. NBC and its sibling cable networks together will aire 418 hours of programming -- up from 375.5 in 2002. For the first time, a high-definition signal will be simulcast with the standard signal, providing owners of HDTV sets more Olympics coverage than ever before.


The New York City teachers union has decided not to stage a demonstration at ABC's offices on Feb. 14 to protest John Stossel's recent 20/20feature criticizing the public education system, Stossel said in an email to viewers of the show on Thursday. "They are apparently planning something else," he wrote. "Stay tuned." Earlier in the week, Stossel said that he had been scheduled to receive an award from the union's Social Studies Conference "for the oustanding work which you have done for social causes." However, he said, after the broadcast the union wrote a letter withdrawing the invitation and the award because his program "so violates the democratic principles of open mindedness, fairness and balance we hold dear."


Begging the question of what really constitutes a network, News Corp's Fox Television Stations announced Thursday that it plans to fill the program slots left empty on its The WB-affiliated stations by the merger of UPN and The WB with what it called "an alternative national programming service." Jack Abernethy, president of the Fox stations group, said in a memo to the stations Thursday that Fox is "talking to the best syndicators and production people from around the world, who are excited about producing first-run strip shows and bringing fresh and new ideas to broadcast primetime." Abernethy also indicated that he plans to drop affiliation agreements in four cities where Fox-owned stations are affiliated with UPN.PINK SLIPS FALL ON PARAMOUNT'S PEAKIn one fell swoop, Paramount's domestic distribution unit was virtually eliminated Thursday, with all but 20 of its 129 employees handed pink slips. They will likely be replaced by employees of DreamWorks distribution unit as part of the merger of the two studios, although DreamWorks is believed to have a far smaller distribution workforce. The combined group must be consolidated in time for the planned March 10th release of Paramount's Failure to Launch, starring Matthew McConaughey and Sarah Jessica Parker, which had originally been scheduled to be released today but was presumably delayed until after the shake-up.


The Berlin Film Festival got under way Thursday night with the screening of Snow Cake, in which Sigourney Weaver plays an autistic woman who becomes involved in a romance with a man, played by Alan Rickman, who survives a car crash. The film is competing for the top prize at the festival, the Golden Bear. Reviewing the film, Catherine Hickley of Bloomberg News concluded, "If it's a harbinger of things to come over the next 10 days, the festival should be a real treat."


Top South Korean filmmakers, angered by their government's decision that effectively doubles the number Hollywood films allowed to be shown in the country, are planning demonstrations half a world away -- at the Berlin International Film Festival, Daily Varietyreported today (Friday). The trade paper said that famed director Chan-wook Park, who has been scheduled to lecture at the festival's Talent Campus, plans to voice his opposition to the government's action during the festival. He is expected to be joined by the country's top actor, Dong-gun Jang, who is scheduled to arrive in Berlin to promote Chinese director Kaige Chen's The Promise, in which he stars.


Critics seem to agree that Steve Martin makes a better Inspector Clouseau than other previous pretenders, including Alan Arkin and Roberto Benigni, but they also agree that no one, including Martin, has been able to recreate the character that was born out of an accent that Peter Sellers created. ("When I got his voice," Sellers once remarked, "I knew exactly how he should look.") Writes Roger Ebert in the Chicago Sun-Times about The Pink Panther: "The character isn't bigger than the actor, as Batman and maybe James Bond are. The character is the actor, and I had rather not see Steve Martin, who is himself inimitable, imitating Sellers." Michael Srago in theBaltimore Sun writes that Martin becomes "the latest gifted comic actor to pale to near-invisibility before the memory of Peter Sellers." Jack Mathews in theNew York Daily News writes: "One might be moved to say that Martin's performance will have Sellers spinning in his grave." And Stephen Holden comments in the New York Times: "The good news is that [Martin's] meticulous, witty performance offers a polished, likable gloss on a classic comic figure. ... the not-so-good news is that Mr. Martin's craftsmanship can't hold a candle to Sellers's instinctive genius."


Faint praise is all that the critics are doling out to the makers ofFirewall, starring Harrison Ford. Manohla Dargis writes in the New York Timesthat it "manages to entertain mildly only be cause it traffics in all the familiar action-movie clichés, giving moviegoers ample opportunity to test their action-movie I.Q." Writes Peter Howell in the Toronto Star: "Firewall is at best a passable time waster." Several critics question the advisability of casting Ford in the leading role. Among them is Desson Thomson in the Washington Post, who writes: "Ford's brand of resolute action hero has become obsolete -- at least for him. Although the actor looks in great shape for someone turning 64 in July, the job description calls for vigor and virility." And Claudia Puig remarks in USA Today:"Harrison Ford needs a better agent. Or a sharper pair of reading glasses for perusing scripts. He just seems to keep choosing the same tired heroic roles, and ends up coming across as a caricature of his younger self."


As for Curious George: Roger Ebert makes the point that the movie is definitely a children's movie and that children would probably be more qualified that adult critics to review it. Elizabeth Weitzman in the New York Daily News adds that while Curious George may have been a "bedtime staple" for youngsters, "this animated film version may be the first time his story puts parents to sleep."