OLYMPIC RATINGS SKID DOWNHILL
The Winter Olympics' ratings slide could turn out to be costly for NBC if it continues unabated through next week, several analysts have commented. The network guaranteed advertisers a final average rating of between 12 and 14. As of Thursday, the average stood at 12.5. If viewers continue to flee the telecasts, the network will have to provide "make goods" to advertisers -- free ads in other NBC programs. Meanwhile, ABC and Fox continue to challenge the games with strong original programming. (CBS is the only network airing mostly reruns.) Paul Swangard, managing director at the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon, told today's (Friday) Washington Post: "The competitors saw a vulnerable Games and are programming against it deliberately." And in an interview with today's New York Times, Fox's chief scheduler, Preston Beckman, confirmed: "We just decided we weren't going to lay down this time. We're just sticking to our knitting." Next week, the network plans to air Idol on three consecutive nights. The fact that CBS was continuing to air repeats on Thursday night -- the night it usually dominates -- enabled NBC to win with its Olympics coverage. Nevertheless, ABC won the 8:00 hour with Dancing With the Stars (also beating CBS's Survivor), which averaged an 11.7/17 to the Olympics' 9.6/14. For the night, NBC averaged an 11.7 rating (still below that required 12-14) and a 19 share, topping CBS's 10.5/16. ABC placed third with an 8.9/14, while Fox, without the benefit of American Idol in its lineup, placed fourth with a 3.4/5.

BRITISH HIT FOOTBALLERS WIVE$ TO BE OGLED ON GOOGLE

The BBC America channel has signed a deal with Google giving the Internet search engine exclusive rights to offer the season debut of the hit drama Footballers Wive$. The show, which the channel describes as "the deliciously trashy, utterly addictive primetime soap," is available free at video.google.com/bbc (until Feb.26), and has actually been uploaded before it airs on Sunday. Footballers Wive$ is produced in the U.K. by the BBC's commercial rival, ITV.

WILL TIME WARNER BUY UNIVISION?

Time Warner Chairman Richard Parsons says he is looking into the possibility of acquiring the Spanish-language network Univision. In an interview with today's (Friday) Wall Street Journal, Parsons said, "Firstly, something that big and that significant, you have to take a look at it. Secondly, the big selling point for Univision is they address what has been an under-addressed, under-represented yet fastest growing part of the population. That's a big plus." However, Parsons added, he is concerned about the long-term growth prospects for Univision, given the changing entertainment market brought about by the Internet. "My problem with it is that it is fundamentally a broadcast network," he said. "I am not that keen on the broadcast business. I can see the growth in Univision for the next three to five years. But it does seem to me at some point in time it flattens out ... and I don't know where the growth comes from after that."

WOODRUFF MAKING PROGRESS, SAYS ABC NEWS CHIEF

In a message to his staff Thursday, ABC News President David Westin said that World News Tonight co-anchor Bob Woodruff continues "to make progress" in his recovery from injuries received from a roadside blast in Iraq last month. The message included a note from Woodruff's brother David saying that the team of medical personnel treating him "continue to be pleased with the progress he makes each day and they are optimistic about his recovery." Meanwhile, Maj. Mike Jason, lead advisor to the Iraqi Army unit that Woodruff was reporting on at the time of the explosion, has credited the Iraqi soldiers with protecting Woodruff as they exchanged gunfire with insurgents. In an interview with Stars and Stripes, First Sgt. John McFarlane, who was close to Woodruff at the time of the attack, denied speculation that he was injured because the vehicle he was traveling in was "lightly armored." McFarlane said that Woodruff and cameraman Doug Vogt were hit because they were standing up in the vehicle hatch to film a report. "He wanted the Iraqi perspective," McFarlane said. "And he got the Iraqi perspective."

ECHOSTAR DISHING OUT PREPAID CARDS

EchoStar Communications, which operates the DISH home satellite service, has created a new option that allows customers to purchase a prepaid card, much like those sold to cell phone users. It is aimed at users who ordinarily would be unable to pass a credit check and to those without permanent addresses, like students and immigrants. In an interview with today's (Friday) Wall Street Journal, William Kidd, an analyst at Ladenburg Thalmann & Co. in New York, said that what makes EchoStar Chairman Charles Ergen unique is his "ability to focus myopically on really small markets. ... If he can find a subscriber that's even remotely profitable he will go after them."

ICAHN CAN'T
Corporate raider Carl Icahn, who rarely backs off from a fight, appears to be doing so in his effort to gain control of Time Warner. Published reports said today (Friday) that Icahn and top officials of Time Warner have met and that a settlement is likely to be reached that will put one or more Icahn supporters on the Time Warner board. Other reportsspeculated that Time Warner may have also agreed to more aggressively slash costs by about $1 billion and to buy back additional shares, as Icahn had demanded. But the primary reason that Icahn is abandoning his fight, analysts suggest, is that he simply hasn't found sufficient backing among Time Warner shareholders for his plan to break up the company into four distinct units.

PARAMOUNT LOOKING TO ROPE IN UNIVERSAL'S SNIDER

Paramount is hoping to lure Universal Pictures Chairman Stacey Snider away to head its newly acquired DreamWorks division, the Los Angeles Times reported today (Friday), citing four sources close to the situation. DreamWorks cofounder David Geffen reportedly is spearheading the effort to land Snider. The Times noted that her contract at Universal expires at the end of this year and that she has not begun renegotiating her deal. The newspaper cautioned, however, that the Paramount/DreamWorks deal is not a sure thing and that Snider could remain at Universal.

NEW BOND GIRL WILL BE "VERY MUCH AN EQUAL TO BOND"

Just one day after announcing that Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen would portray the villain in Casino Royale, the next James Bond flick, the film's producers said that French actress Eva Green had been cast as the next "Bond girl." Green, who starred opposite Orlando Green in Kingdom of Heaven (and was later linked to him romantically), will play the role of Vesper Lynd, a role played by Swiss actress Ursula Andress in the original 1967 Casino Royale spoof. In a statement, producers Michael G. Wilson and Barbara Broccoli, said: "After an extensive search we have found the perfect actress. ... She brings to the complex role of Vesper an exciting combination of enigmatic and seductive beauty." Columbia Pictures Chairman Amy Pascal added that while Bond stories are first about action, "you need to have palpable sexual tension in the movie and in casting Vesper, we really needed to up the ante, because this character is very much an equal to Bond and central to our story."

BAMBI II TURNS OUT TO BE A REAL THUMPER

Bambi unexpectedly beat the Were-Rabbit in DVD sales last week. According to Nielsen VideoScan's First Alert, Bambi II, a direct-to-video sequel of the 1942 Disney classic, sold 2.5 million copies during its first week in release. (Disney intends to pull it after 70 days.) But DreamWorks' Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, which had been favored to top the chart, debuted in third place, behind Universal's Doom.

CLOONEY FINDS HIS OSCAR "FIRST" AMUSING

During an appearance on CNN's Larry King Live Thursday night, George Clooney was introduced by King as "the first person ever to be Oscar nominated for acting and behind-the-scenes work for two different films in one year." The description appeared to amuse Clooney, who responded that King had a way of finding "very specific things to make it sound really good. You know, I think it would be 'the best former Batman nominated for things.'" King, seemingly mystified by the response, responded, "You are the best former Batman." To which Clooney then replied, "Well, I don't know. I don't even think I can pull that one off."

MOVIE REVIEWS: FREEDOMLAND

Freedomland arrives during that box-office wasteland often called mid-February -- a time, as Manohla Dargis observes in today's (Friday) New York Times "when big studios turn much of the country's movie theaters into a dump." Freedomland is just the latest trash to be thrown into it, she suggests -- "an inept, lethally dull drama," starring Samuel L. Jackson and Julianne Moore. Lou Lumenick in the New York Post refers to the movie as a "dispiriting February botch." Joe Roth, the Revolution Studios president who directs this film, is primarily blamed for its shortcomings. Roth, says Jack Mathews in the New York Daily News, "tells this story with a clumsiness unworthy of the script." Likewise Ann Hornaday writes in the Washington Post, "Freedomland is that saddest of all things in the cinema, a great story poorly told." Claudia Puig in USA Today remarks that Roth ought to "stick to his day job" as head of Revolution.

MOVIE REVIEWS: EIGHT BELOW

A film in which eight dogs are the stars is getting four-paws-up reviews from several critics. Writes Wesley Morris in the Boston Globe: "The 16 or so huskies playing the eight sled dogs in Disney's umpteenth animal adventure, Eight Below, do Oscar-caliber acting. They race, heel, attack, lick, and fall over. And at least one has a mean death scene. At nearly every turn, I swear I knew what they were thinking and how they were feeling." Steven Rea in the Philadelphia Inquirer compares the film with the old Disney "True Adventure" feature documentaries, and concludes that it amounts to "a crowd-pleasing, tear-jerking adventure yarn." Allison Benedict in the Chicago Tribune calls it "the Brian's Song of dog movies" -- "schmaltzy, feel-goody, inspired-by-a-true-story-y. It's formulaic and frequently over the top, 30 minutes too long and altogether too slow, but oh when those gorgeous, graceful pups tilt their heads just so ... love." Several reviewers advise: Bring lots of Kleenex.