CBS has fired four top news employees -- but not its news chief, Andrew Heyward, and not Dan Rather -- after reviewing findings by the independent panel looking into Rather's discredited 60 Minutesreport about President George W. Bush's National Guard service. The four include senior vice president Betsy West, 60 Minutes (Wednesday) executive producer Josh Howard and his deputy, Mary Murphy, and Mary Mapes, who produced the story. CBS chief Les Moonves said in a statement, "The bottom line is that much of the Sept. 8 broadcast was wrong, incomplete and unfair." Rather did not come off unscathed, the report saying that he had been unwilling to consider that those who researched the National Guard story might be wrong. He thereby made "the same errors of credulity and over enthusiasm that beset many of his colleagues,'' the statement said. Meanwhile, Rather, who is stepping down in March as anchor of the CBS Evening News, has told the New York Times that he had experienced "conflicting undertows" covering the tsunami disaster in Southeast Asia. In a telephone interview, Rather said, "Flying out, I'm saying to myself, 'They're talking about death tolls that are practically impossible to imagine.' At the same time, you're saying to yourself, 'What a story.' There is no place else I'd want to be. ... I literally say a prayer of thanks every day in order to have this work. A story like this is why you get in the business." Commenting on Rather's remarks, the Timesobserved that Rather clearly "does not want the National Guard story to be his epitaph."


A leading black conservative commentator has acknowledged that his "judgment was not the best" when he accepted $240,000 from the Bush administration to promote its No Child Left Behind education plan and to feature Education Secretary Rod Paige on his TV and radio shows. Following the revelation of the payment the commentator, Armstrong Williams, was dropped as a columnist by Tribune Media Services. CNN, which has frequently featured Williams as a guest contributor, told the Associated Press that it "will consider very seriously this issue before booking him as a guest again." TV One, a cable channel aimed at African Americans told the Washington Postthat it had taken Williams' show off the air while it investigates the matter. Williams told the newspaper that he had disclosed his contract with the channel. Details of the contract were first published by USA Todayon Friday, which said that under its terms Williams was to use his influence to persuade other black journalists to support No Child Left Behind and that he arranged to have Secretary Paige interviewed twice by Steve Harvey, host of the WB's Steve Harvey's Big Time.


For the first time, the commercial-free pay-TV channel HBO has signed a deal that will allow the commercial-free over-the-air Public Broadcasting Service to show three HBO films dealing with biological warfare, genocide and AIDS, the New York Timesreported today (Monday). In an interview with the newspaper, HBO Chairman Chris Albrecht said, "We are taking some risk in doing this, from the point of view of our brand -- if people say to themselves, 'here we are paying for HBO for something we can see later on free television.'" However, he noted, the films could receive additional exposure than HBO can give them (only a third of American homes subscribe to the service), and they might give PBS viewers an idea of what they are missing on HBO. "They may decide that this is a cool brand," Albrecht told the Times.


Demonstrating yet again that the best promotion for a controversial show may be produced by those seeking to have it canceled, the BBC's production of Jerry Springer: The Opera Saturday night attracted 1.8 million viewers -- representing 20 percent more viewers than ordinarily tune into the channel during the 10:00 p.m. time period on Saturdays. In advance of the show, the BBC received nearly 50,000 complaints about it and the TV watchdog OFCOM, another 7,500, mostly from members of Christian groups who primarily objected to its use of four-letter obscenities and who called it blasphemous. One BBC exec went into hiding after receiving death threats when his home address and telephone number were posted on the website of the group Christian Voice. Veteran British talk-show host and commentator Joan Bakewell told the London Sunday Times: "The Christian right is seeing what's happened in the U.S. and copying it."


BBC correspondent Simon Wilson is likely to be barred from reporting in Israel following his interview with scientist Mordechai Vanunu, who blew the whistle on Israel's nuclear weapons program in an interview with the London Sunday Times and subsequently served 18 years in prison after being convicted of treason and espionage at a closed trial, Britain's Guardiannewspaper reported today (Monday). After being interviewed by Wilson, Vanunu was rearrested for breaking a condition of his parole that he not give media interviews and that he receive official permission before speaking to foreigners. According to the Guardian, Israeli police have launched a criminal investigation into Wilson's interview.


It was no surprise that Meet the Fockerscontinued to hold on to first place at the box office over the weekend, selling another $28.5 million worth of tickets. What wassurprising was that the number two film, White Noise, which was almost unanimously trashed by critics, took in $24 million to place second, far more than analysts had forecast. Daily Varietypointed out that the film's gross was the most ever taken in by a film debuting on the first weekend of the year -- well above the previous record holder, A Beautiful Mind, which earned $16.6 million when it opened on Jan. 4, 2002. Both Fockersand Noiseare distributed by Universal. Martin Scorsese's The Aviator rose to third place with $7.6 million, just ahead of the Jim Carrey starrer Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Eventswith $7.4 million. Rounding out the top five was the family comedy Fat Albert with $6.0 million.

The top ten films for the weekend, according to studio estimates compiled by Exhibitor Relations:

1. Meet the Fockers, $28.5 million; 2. White Noise, $24 million; 3. The Aviator,$7.6 million; 4. Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events, $7.4 million; 5. Fat Albert, $6 million; 6. Ocean's Twelve, $5.4 million; 7. National Treasure, $4.5 million; 8. Spanglish, $4.4 million; 9. The Phantom of the Opera, $3.4 million; 10. The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, $2.7 million.


Raising questions about a recently instituted change in the way it conducts its voting, the Viewers Choice Awardspresented Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 911 its trophy for favorite movie of 2004 and Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christfor favorite movie drama. The decision had been leaked last week on GoldDerby.com, a website that tracks entertainment awards. The website said that both Moore and Gibson had been tipped off ahead of time that they would win. It also pointed out that while previously winners had been conducted by a Gallup Poll, "which gave a more scientifically accurate reflection of the American people's choices," current voting is conducted online, allowing for political and religious groups to organize massive campaigns to support their favorite films. Other winners included Shrek 2, for best comedy film; Julia Roberts, for favorite female movie star; Johnny Depp, for favorite male movie star; Renée Zellweger, for leading lady; and Brad Pitt, for leading man.


Early contract talks between the two actors' unions, SAG and AFTRA, and the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers, broke off Sunday with no plans to resume them. "The parties have concluded they cannot reach an agreement at this time," the two sides said in a statement. Negotiations began on Dec. 6, nearly eight months before the June 30, 2005 expiration of the current contract. While a news blackout was imposed on the talks, it was presumed that they broke down over the actors' insistence on upping residuals for home-video sales. With no date set for a resumption of the talks, film and TV producers are expected to accelerate their production schedules in order to stockpile movies and shows in case of a strike.


In an unexpected move, the board of directors of Rupert Murdoch's News Corp has approved a plan to bid $7 billion for the rest of Fox Entertainment Group that it does not already own, published reports said today (Monday). In reporting the move, the New York Timescommented that it would "solidify Murdoch's control over some of the nation's most valuable media assets such as the Fox broadcast network and the DirecTV satellite service." Nevertheless, the move came as a surprise to some analysts who had expected Murdoch to use company resources to buy out Liberty Media's John Malone' stake in the parent company.


Outgoing Commerce Secretary Donald Evans says that when he arrives in Beijing for an official visit on Tuesday, he plans to demand that China get tougher with movie pirates. In an interview with the Associated Press, Evans said that he wants to extract pledges from Chinese leaders that pirates will be prosecuted and jailed. "We haven't seen enough evidence that this is happening yet," he told the wire service. Evans is due to speak at an intellectual property conference in Beijing on Thursday.


Despite threatening weather, all nine honorees showed up for a black-tie gala at a revitalized Palm Springs International film Festival Saturday. They included the actor honorees, Nicole Kidman, Kevin Spacey, Samuel L. Jackson, Liam Neeson and Kirk Douglas, who received a lifetime achievement award. Speaking to a star-studded crowd, Douglas said, "When I first came to Hollywood from Broadway, I was excited to see stars. But I didn't see any stars until one weekend, someone brought me to Palm Springs." Earlier, accepting the award for director of the year for Sideways, Alexander Payne remarked. "I thank you for this award, though I think there may be a problem with a world in which making small, human and humorous films is 'an achievement.' It should be the norm."