MARTIN BASHIR: THE NEXT BARBARA WALTERS?
British television interviewer Martin Bashir, famous in the U.S. for his controversial interviews with Princess Diana and Michael Jackson, has been hired by ABC and will be groomed to replace Barbara Walters as the network's top celebrity interviewer, Britain's Guardian newspaper reported today (Thursday). According to the newspaper, Bashir was wooed away from Britain's ITV by an offer of $1 million a year (a pittance compared to Walters' reported annual salary of $12 million). The report of Bashir's hiring came just two days after the Royal Television Society named Bashir's Living With Michael Jackson, which aired on Granada television and on ABC's Primetime newsmagazine, Program of the Year (2003). Bashir is expected to join ABC when his current ITV contract expires in July, the Guardian indicated. Walters has said that she will step down as co-host of ABC's 20/20 in September. It had been expected that her colleague, John Stossel, would replace her as sole host of the show.

BACHELORETTE HOT; IDOL HOTTER

ABC interrupted its nightly Super Millionaire skein of specials this week with a two-hour season finale of The Bachelorette Wednesday night. The show drew strong ratings, an 8.6/16 in the first hour at 9:00 p.m. and a 9.6/15 at 10:00 p.m. But Fox's American Idol continued to dominate, scoring a 13.2/20 in the 8:00 hour and giving Fox the lead for the night. Although ABC was the No. 2 network in the total number of viewers Wednesday, CBS edged it out in the overall ratings. NBC placed fourth.

CLEAR CHANNEL CLEARS OUT HOWARD STERN

In the latest backlash to Janet Jackson's breast-baring during the Super Bowl halftime show, Clear Channel Communications, the nation's largest radio owners, said that it will remove Howard Stern's program from the six Clear Channel stations that carry it. The broadcaster cited its own "zero tolerance" policy on indecency and indicated that it had decided to dump Stern after the shock jock broadcast an interview with Rick Salomon, the man in the Paris Hilton porn video that is being distributed over the Internet. Stern's radio program is produced by Infinity Broadcasting, a division of Viacom. In the past, Viacom President and COO Mel Karmazin, Infinity's founder, has defended Stern against the FCC and religious groups that have railed against him. (The American Family Association said Wednesday that it will ask its members to file indecency complaints against Infinity if it does not immediately fire Stern.) During a recent conference call, Karmazin said, referring to the Jackson incident: "This company won't be a poster child for indecency." Viacom's other properties include MTV, which produced the Super Bowl halftime show, and CBS, which broadcast it.

MTV RETRIEVES ITS SEXY VIDEOS

MTV, which had removed many of its steamier videos from daytime and primetime presentation, is bringing most of them back. Today's (Thursday) New York Post quotes an MTV spokeswoman as explaining: "We decided to take a temperature check, we listened to the audience, we wanted to make sure we still felt good about the images on MTV. ... The audience decided they wanted o see these artists."

CNN REVAMPS INTERNATIONAL PROGRAMMING WITH BUSINESS EMPHASIS

CNN is planning to expand its morning and primetime programming for the U.K. and Europe from its London studios beginning next Monday, March 1, it announced Wednesday. It said that it will launch a new four-hour morning newscast, CNN Today, that will air between 5:00 a.m. and 9:00 a.m. London time, to be co-anchored by Richard Quest and Hala Gorani. Quest is a former Wall Street correspondent for the BBC; Gorani also has focused on financial reporting. In addition, the cable news network said that it plans to enhance its business reports during primetime with the half-hour World Business Today being moved to 7:30 p.m. and Business International to 10:00 p.m. In a separate announcement CNN said that its international channel will be streamed live on the powerful new Nokia 7600 cell phones in Austria.

MORISSETTE TO HOST CANADIAN MUSIC AWARDS

Alanis Morissette has been named host of the 2004 Juno Awards, Canada's version of the Grammys, during televised ceremonies on April 4. The addition of Morissette, arguably Canada's biggest pop music star of recent years, is expected to boost the profile of the music awards event. Terms of the deal with the singer were not disclosed, although it is doubtful that she will paid anything close to what a Grammy host receives. "I see this as the least I can do in the way of gratitude for a show and a country that has supported and propelled me over the last few years," Morissette said in a statement.

EISNER SLAMMED BY KEY SHAREHOLDER
The move by former Disney board members Roy Disney and Stanley Gold to oust Michael Eisner as chairman of the company received a big boost Wednesday when the California Public Employees' Retirement System (CalPERS) announced that it would join other pension funds holding shares in the company that plan not to vote for Eisner's reelection to the board next week. CalPERS is the nation's largest public pension fund and owns about 10 million Disney shares. In a statement, Sean Harrigan, president of CalPERS' board of administration, cited Eisner's "dismal performance" during the past five years and said that the fund had lost confidence in his ability to create shareholder value in the company. "We believe shareholders should send the message loudly and strongly that it is time for Disney to get a more focused strategy," he said. Also on Wednesday the investor advisory firm Glass Lewis & Co. recommended that shareholders not vote for Eisner's reelection.

HEATED CORRESPONDENCE BETWEEN EISNER AND OVITZ UNSEALED

Shareholders who have sued Disney over the $130-million severance package paid to Michael Ovitz in 1996 were poring over documents unsealed Wednesday by a judge overseeing the case, some of them depicting an angry Michael Eisner lambasting Ovitz for assorted acts of mismanagement. As reported by today's (Thursday) Los Angeles Times, the documents include a letter written by Eisner to Ovitz in November 1996 saying in part: "When we talked last Friday I told you again that my biggest problem was that you played the angles too much, exaggerated the truth too far, manipulated me and others too much. I told you 98% of the problem was that I did not know when you were telling the truth, about big things, about small things. And while you were telling me those dishonest days were over, you were deceiving me." Eisner also complained about Ovitz's alleged lavish lifestyle, chastising him about: "Your number of secretaries, the out of control renovation of your office, your attitude to costs. What do you think our executives think when you object to paying all the costs for [your daughter's] bat mitzvah at the House of Blues, an operation owned partly by Disney? You were told you had to pay for their Saturday night lost profits. I have never checked. I hope you did." Raising new questions about Variety editor Peter Bart's relationship with the industry, the letter refers to an article written by Bart. "You told me he had sent it on to you beforehand for 'corrections and tone and editing.' That is not how we should run this company. We are the media."

MURDOCH OFFERS TO SWEETEN CHERNIN'S DEAL

Amid growing reports that the Disney chairmanship would be offered to News Corp President and COO Peter Chernin if Eisner is forced to step down, Rupert Murdoch, News Corp's chairman, has reportedly offered his second-in-command a new deal. Chernin's current contract is due to expire in October. Already, he is the company's highest-paid executive, earning $17.3 million in salary in 2003, some $3 million more than Murdoch. By way of contrast, Eisner received only $1 million plus $5 million in stock in 2002.

MOVIEGOERS PACK PASSION THEATERS

Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ may have earned as much as $20 million in its first day of release, a record for a religious-themed movie, according to early estimates. In an interview with the Associated Press, Rob Schwartz, head of distribution for Newmarket Films, the independent distributor that Gibson hired to release the movie, forecast that the film would "at least" gross $100 million. "Then again, we have to see how the rest of the weekend plays out," Schwartz told AP. "Hopefully, if we continue the torrid pace we're starting to set now, that's an achievable number." Newmarket said that it had succeeded in planting the movie in 3,006 theaters, which are showing it on 4,643 screens, more than half again as many as originally forecast.

TWO STUDIO CHAIRMEN WASH THEIR HANDS OF GIBSON

The chairmen of two major motion picture studios have told the New York Times that they will avoid working with Mel Gibson because of the contents of The Passion of the Christ and Gibson's remarks in promoting it -- particularly his refusal to distance himself from his father, who has denied the existence of the Holocaust. The Times said that neither studio head would speak for attribution, although, as one remarked: "It doesn't matter what I say. It'll matter what I do. I will do something. I won't hire him. I won't support anything he's part of. Personally that's all I can do." The Times also quoted an executive close to DreamWorks principals Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen as saying that the two men have privately expressed anger over the film. However, John Lesher, an Endeavor talent agent, told the newspaper that he doubted any backlash would be lasting. "People here will work with the anti-Christ if he'll put butts in seats," Lesher said. Meanwhile, the film continues to generate a mountain of news reports. The Google Internet search engine today listed 1,759 recent articles related to the movie.