IS FRIENDS: NBC'S ONLY MUST-SEE?It seemed clear Thursday night that when NBC loses Friendsnext season, it is also likely to lose any hope of retaining Thursday-night ratings superiority. The long-running comedy pulled a 17.9 rating and a 26 share in last night's outing at 8:00 p.m. and provided some ample coattails for Will & Grace, which followed at 8:30 p.m. with a 14.6/21. Nevertheless, CBS's Survivoroffered strong competition, averaging a 13.5/19 in second place. CBS took over in first place at 9:00 p.m. as its CSI: Crime Scene Investigationdrew a 20.9/29, making it the highest-rated show of the night. The competing NBC show The Apprentice, settled for a 13.6/19. At 10:00 p.m., NBC again move out in front as E.R.pulled a 16.3/25, but CBS's Without a Trace continued to close in on its rival, recording a 14.9/22. Overall, CBS won what NBC used to call Must-See-TV night with an average 16.4/24 in households. NBC was second with a 15.4/22. ABC was well behind in third place with a 5.2/7, recording its highest rating (5.5/8) with a Diane Sawyer interview with Ozzie Osbourne for Primetime at 10:00 p.m.


Stanley P. Gold, the former Disney board member who with Roy Disney is leading a campaign aimed at ousting Disney Chairman Michael Eisner, has suggested that the Comcast hostile takeover bid ought to be "the stimulus that finally stirs the Disney board to awake from its acquiescence [to Eisner]." In a letter printed in today's (Thursday) Wall Street Journal, Gold said that Comcast President Steve Burke correctly enumerated the reasons why Disney is falling short of its potential. "Comcast's analysis of where and how Disney management has dropped the ball virtually mirrored our own critique," Gold wrote. Noting that Burke himself was once a senior Disney executive, Gold commented that he is "one of the many talented people who left the company during Mr. Eisner's tenure. Indeed, the fact that someone like Steve Burke is currently on the outside looking in, rather than on the inside making things happen, tells you everything you need to know about what is wrong with the way Disney is being run these days."


There is no "for sale" sign hanging on the front door of the Walt Disney Co., its No. 2-man, Robert Iger, said Thursday. Appearing on CNBC, Iger said that the company would always be open to a merger proposal, but, he added, "There is a difference between being open to proposals that come along and having a for sale sign on the door. A big difference for that matter."


The judge who presided over the Rosie O'Donnell/G+J USA Publishing trial in which each side accused the other of breaching their contract to produce Rosiemagazine ruled Thursday that neither side is entitled to receive damages or attorneys' fees. The initial lawsuit, for $100 million, was filed by G+J after O'Donnell quit the publication, an offshoot of her popular TV talk show at the time, claiming that the magazine did not reflect her creative vision. O'Donnell countersued, claiming that G+J was beset with management problems, citing in particular alleged efforts by the company to inflate newsstand circulation figures. The revelations eventually led to the firing of G+J President and CEO Dan Brewster. In a statement on Thursday Cindi Berger, O'Donnell's spokeswoman, portrayed the ruling as a vindication of O'Donnell's stance. "When you're sued for $100 million and you don't have to pay anything, clearly that's a win," she said. G+J, while saying that it is "exploring its options," following the ruling, nevertheless said that is "happy to be putting this matter behind us."


ESPN, renowned for its ability to extract rate hikes of 20 percent or more from cable companies come renewal time, signed long-term distribution agreements with the Cox and Charter companies on Thursday reportedly calling for a tapering scale that averages 7 percent over nine years. The agreement came as Cox was threatening to drop ESPN from its basic service package rather than take another big hit. ESPN currently charges Cox $2.61 per subscriber per month.


In what critics are likely to decry as a further blurring of the line between news and entertainment, the Todayshow, which is produced by NBC News, is planning to stage a competition among eight NBC interns. Modeled after Donald Trump's Thursday-night reality show The Apprentice, the interns will be assembled into two teams, with one member being fired by Todayshow hosts Katie Couric and Matt Lauer each day until four are left. Their "prize" will be to accompany the Todayshow team on a special assignment. The stunt is being staged at a time when Todayshow staffers have become so upset about the direction of the show that a consultant has been hired to listen to their gripes and suggestions, according to the New York Daily News.PASSION SET TO BECOME A SUPERSTARMel Gibson's Icon Productions and independent distributor Newmarket Films announced Thursday that they will open the controversial The Passion of the Christin about 2,800 theaters and perhaps as many as 4,000 screens on February 25, Ash Wednesday. At least one multiplex near Dallas has announced that it will initially be showing the film on all 20 of its screens 24 hours a day. Spokespersons for both companies acknowledged that the controversy surrounding the film has boosted interest in it. Advance ticket sales have reportedly exceeded $10 million, and box-office analysts are predicting that the film will earn more than $40 million in its first week, reportedly the amount that Gibson sank into it. Meanwhile, it was reported that Anti-Defamation League Chairman Abraham Foxman met Thursday with Vatican officials asking them to restate the church's teachings on the crucifixion. However, Archbishop John Foley, head of the Vatican's social-communications office, said later that Foxman's appeal had been rejected, and he dismissed the notion that the film could inspire anti-Semitism.


A former FBI agent who specialized in cases of child sexual abuse has come to the defense of the documentary film Capturing the Friedmans after two men who claimed that they were abused by Arnold and Jesse Friedman sent an open letter to motion picture academy voters asking them not to vote for the Oscar-nominated film. Kenneth V. Lanning, who has written numerous publications for the Justice Department on sexual abuse, including Child Molesters, a Behavioral Analysis, said in a statement on Thursday that in his 30 years with the FBI, he had "not seen many films or programs on the topic that are as objective and balanced as Capturing the Friedmans." He noted that besides presenting the views of the Friedman family, "the filmmakers went to great lengths to include alleged victims in the film and to deal with them in a respectful and professional manner. ... I am grateful that we have a film that presents many sides of a complex issue and encourages meaningful debate."


Sony Pictures will produce its first computer-animated feature, Open Season, featuring the voices of Debra Messing, Martin Lawrence, and Ashton Kutcher, the company announced Thursday. The company, which established an animation division in May of 2002, said that it expected to release Open Seasonin 2006. It said that the movie was "inspired by the humor of syndicated cartoonist Steve Moore," the creator of the sports-themed cartoon "In the Bleachers." Meanwhile, rumors spread Thursday that Sony may attempt to acquire Pixar animation for $4.1 billion or $75 a share. The rumors sent shares in Pixar up $2.30 to $68.11.


In recent interviews, Ray Romano has worried aloud whether his first movie, Welcome to Mooseport,might be received poorly by critics and his TV fans and end up wrecking his career. So far as the critics are concerned, Romano ought to feel relieved. Not that he's receiving much praise from them; it's just that they have concluded that the film is mostly inoffensive and often quite pleasant. "Terminally mild," is how Dave Kehr describes it in the New York Times.John Anderson in Newsday calls it "mild as milk." Chris Kaltenback in the Baltimore Sun regards it as "determinedly genial and relentlessly bland." "At best it's innocuous. Your friendly living room TV set already offers plenty of that," comments Ed Bark in the Dallas Morning News.What the film has going for it, the critics seem to agree, is a first-rate cast, including Romano, Gene Hackman, Marcia Gay Harden, and Rip Torn. Of these, the critics also seem to agree, Romano, who they say is playing pretty much the same sort of role that he plays on television, may emerge a bit the worse for wear. Writes Megan Lehman in the New York Post: "Hackman's effortless command of the weak material serves to emphasize just how out of his depth bland TV star Romano is in his first film role." On the other hand, Kevin Thomas in the Los Angeles Times, again displays his contrarian viewpoint, not only applauding the performances but calling the film, "a handsome production ... a most welcome treat."


Critics seem to agree that Against the Ropes, starring Meg Ryan and Omar Epps, splashes a plethora of clichés onto the screen. Steve Rea in the Philadelphia Inquirer,for example, calls it "a riotously awful biopic rife with stereotypes and boxing movie clichés." Writes Michael Wilmington, in the Chicago Tribune: "Flabbergastingly, Against the Ropes hauls out almost every boxing movie and feminist workplace comedy cliché you can imagine." Many of the critics describe it much the way Eleanor Ringel Gillespie does in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution: "Pretty much Erin Brockovichmeets a Rockysequel." Nevertheless, a few critics indicate that the clichés work nonetheless. Roger Ebert in the Chicago Sun-Timesenumerates some of them in his review (he gives the movie three stars), then observes that the movie "relies on those ancient conventions, and they pull it through."