NO MEA CULPA FROM COMEDY CENTRAL
Comedy Central has contradicted boasts by conservative religious groups that they were responsible for pressuring the Viacom-owned cable network to yank an episode of South Park from its regular rotation. The episode, titled "Bloody Mary," which originally aired on Dec. 7, concerns the father of one of the South Park tykes who visits a statue of a bleeding Virgin Mary in the hope that it can cure him of his drinking habit. The statue is also visited by the Pope who refuses to affirm it as a miracle, saying, "A chick bleeding out her vagina is no miracle. Chicks bleed out their vaginas all the time." Protesters took their case to Viacom board member Joseph Califano, a former Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare, who called the episode "appalling and disgusting" and said that he would discuss it with Viacom chief Tom Freston. But on Monday, Comedy Central executives insisted that they had not yanked the episode, but had only removed it from the annual South Park marathon "in deference to the holidays." In a letter to viewers who expressed outrage that the channel had caved in to pressure, the executives said: "Despite misleading claims from those who would like to claim victory, we have not permanently shelved the 'Bloody Mary' episode from future airings due to outside pressure, nor will we exclude it from future DVD releases. ... As satirists, we believe that it is our First Amendment right to poke fun at any and all people, groups, organizations and religions and we will continue to defend that right."

TWO MORE STATIONS REFUSE TO AIR DANIEL

Two more NBC affiliates decided not to air the premiere of The Book of Daniel Friday night, NBC disclosed Monday. The two were KBTV in Beaumont, TX and WGBC in Meridian, MS. It had previously been reported that KARK in Little Rock and WTWO in Terre Haute and also opted out. An NBC spokesperson said that the four affiliates accounted for less than 1 percent of NBC's total audience. Ratings for the episode were only so-so but were better than those the network had drawn for previous programs airing in the time period this season. Several conservative Christian groups have mounted a campaign against the show, which features an Episcopal priest as the head of a dysfunctional family, who regularly carries on conversations with a character resembling the poster pictures of Jesus.

MNF REPLACEMENTS THROW ABC FOR A LOSS

ABC clearly fumbled the ball with its replacements for Monday Night Football, and CBS quickly scooped it up, winning every half hour of primetime Monday night. ABC's Emily's Reasons Why Not and Jake in Progress in the 9:00 p.m. hour put the network in fourth place in that hour. Ratings did not improve for ABC at 10:00 with The Bachelor:Paris, either, and the network would have remained in fourth place but for the fact that Fox does not air network programs during that hour.

SATURDAY NIGHT CAN NOW BE ANY NIGHT

Fans of Saturday Night Live will be able to watch classic skits from the show any night of the week by paying $1.99 to download them through Apple's iTunes Music Store, NBC said Monday. They can be viewed on personal computers or on Apple's video iPod. NBC had originally provided SNL's spoof rapper video Lazy Sunday for free downloading on the iTunes store after copies of it were uploaded illegally onto numerous websites following its broadcast on Dec. 17.

CBS TAKES OVER FROM NBC AS TOP BROADCAST EARNER

CBS became the top-grossing network in 2005, tallying up $4.7 billion in revenue versus $4.4 billion in 2004, an increase of 5 percent, according to Broadcasting & Cable magazine. NBC, last year's champ, dropped to fifth place with $3.9 billion, against $5.06 billion a year earlier, a 23-percent decline, the magazine said. Every other network in the magazine's list of 25 top earners increased its total sales. Surprisingly QVC, which does not sell advertisements but instead sells products over the air, came in second with $4.5 billion, 8 percent above 2004's $4.1 billion. Disney's ESPN and ABC also showed strong growth, with the sports channel coming in fourth with $4 billion, 13 percent ahead of 2004's $3.6 billion. ABC jumped 11 percent to $3.9 billion versus $3.5 billion in 2004. In the cable news wars, CNN came in at No. 16 on the list, showing a 6 percent gain to $794 million, while Fox News reported earnings at $574 million to come in at No. 24.

NEW DOCUMENTS REVEAL RUSSERT'S ROLE IN PLAMEGATE

Meet the Press moderator Tim Russert was aware that Vice President Cheney's top aide, Scooter Libby, was lying when Libby testified that he first heard that Valerie Plame was a CIA agent from Russert during a telephone conversation in July 2003, but Russert initially declined to discuss that conversation with the special prosecutor probing the leak of Plame's name, according to court documents released on Monday. Russert, who is also Washington bureau chief for NBC News, had argued that he should not have to testify about the conversation with Libby because it would harm his relationship with other sources. Ordered by a federal judge to do so and released by Libby from any promise of confidentiality, Russert eventually told a grand jury that Plame's name did not come up in his conversations with Libby.

BBC NEWS CLIPS TO AUGMENT ABC'S ONLINE

The BBC will augment ABC News's Internet service with about 40 news clips daily that can be accessed in the U.S. and Canada online or on cell phones, ABC said Monday. It did not indicate when the additional content will be available, nor did it say whether viewers will be required to pay for it. In an interview with the Associated Press, Bernard Gershon, general manager for the ABC News Digital Media Group, said that the enhanced news service was being implemented as part of the two broadcasters' drive "to reach consumers anytime, on any device and anywhere across the globe."

MURDOCH WRESTLES WITH THE WEB
Rupert Murdoch indicated Monday that his News Corp divisions are grappling with the opportunities and threats posed by the Internet. Speaking to the Citigroup entertainment, media and telecommunications conference in Phoenix, AZ, Murdoch suggested that producers may one day skip the studios when they realize that they can easily distribute films themselves directly to viewers. Discussing the high costs studios like his 20th Century Fox face in making, marketing and distributing films, Murdoch said, "It's an expensive game ... especially if filmmakers can bypass studios for broadband." He said that for that reason Murdoch is considering moving into Internet broadband itself via its DirecTV satellite service. Earlier attempts at delivering broadband services via home satellite systems like DirecTV and DISH failed because of numerous, seemingly insurmountable problems, particularly slow upload speeds. Rumors have spread recently that News Corp is considering setting up WiMax transmitters that can blanket relatively large areas of communities with broadband service, but Murdoch did not specify how News Corp plans to move forward, saying only. "You'll be hearing from us within two months on a very clear plan what will happen, and it's not as expensive as you might think." He also indicated that he was going to make "millions" of videos available shortly through his newly acquired MySpace.com , although it was not clear whether these would simply be music videos or also include feature films.

THEATER CHAIN AGREES TO ADAPT STADIUM SEATING FOR DISABLED

National Amusements, which operates theaters in 12 states, has agreed to alter 86 of its stadium-style auditoriums in Massachusetts, New York, Ohio, Michigan, and Iowa to provide better seating for people in wheelchairs. The agreement came as part of a settlement with the Justice Department, which charged in 2001 that the Dedham, MA-based company had violated the Americans with Disabilities Act by failing to give disabled persons seating comparable to what it gives the general public. In a statement, U.S. Attorney Michael Sullivan said, "We are pleased that National Amusements has decided to join in this proposed consent order and to provide the accommodations necessary for its patrons with disabilities." It is the second such settlement the government has reached with theater owners; last June, Regal Entertainment, the nation's largest theater chain, agreed to alter nearly 1,000 of its stadium-seating auditoriums.

HOSTEL SLASHES LION AND APE

Hostel, a slasher movie that cost only $4.5 million to make, beat out The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and King Kong, which each cost around $200 million to make, to win the box-office crown over the weekend. Final figures released by Exhibitor Relations on Monday showed that the Lionsgate movie earned $19.6 million, dropping Disney's Narnia to second place with $15.6 million and Universal's Kong to third with $12.6 million. Meanwhile, Narnia continues to perform spectacularly overseas, registering a worldwide gross of $530 million, nearly $70 million ahead of King Kong, Daily Variety reported today (Tuesday). The trade publication observed that Narnia is $130 million away from overtaking The Sixth Sense, which would then make it Disney's biggest-grossing live-action film ever. The top ten films over the weekend, according to final figures compiled by Exhibitor Relations (figures in parentheses represent total gross to date):
1. Hostel, Lionsgate, $19,556,099, (New); 2. The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Disney, $15,643,135, 5 Wks. ($247,777,824); 3. King Kong, Universal, $12,622,285, 4 Wks. ($192,678,805); 4. Fun With Dick and Jane, Sony, $11,918,995, 3 Wks. ($81,077,547); 5. Cheaper by the Dozen 2, 20th Century Fox, $8,432,616, 3 Wks. ($66,553,553); 6. Munich, Universal, $7,566,075, 3 Wks. ($25,350,740); 7. Memoirs of a Geisha, Sony, $6,111,193, 5 Wks. ($39,861,859); 8. Brokeback Mountain, Focus, $5,726,662, 5 Wks. ($22,436,190); 9. Rumor Has It, Warner Bros., $5,702,435, 3 Wks. ($35,202,061); 10. Family Stone, 20th Century Fox, $4,607,787, 4 Wks. ($53,175,323).

IMAX HAS ITS BEST YEAR EVER

Canadian-based IMAX saw ticket sales at its giant-screen theaters soar 35 percent in 2005, largely due to the success of blockbuster films that had been converted to the IMAX format, the company said Monday. IMAX's success was all the more remarkable given an overall 6 percent drop at the domestic box office. Leading the field for IMAX was Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, which earned $16 million on 89 screens, just edging out Batman Begins: The IMAX Experience, which took in $15.9 million. Both films were produced by Warner Bros. Analysts observed that since moviegoers have thereby indicated that they are willing to pay a premium for IMAX screenings, studios will no doubt be releasing additional movies in the IMAX format. Eric Wold, an analyst at Merriman Curhan Ford & Co. in San Francisco, told today's (Tuesday) Toronto Globe & Mail: "Most theaters can't really compete against each other. They all offer the same movies at the same times, the same theaters and the same popcorn. They have to offer something else."

MORE AWARDS FOR BROKEBACK

The producers of Brokeback Mountain added more awards to their collection Monday as the film was voted best film of the year at the Broadcast Film Critics Assn.'s 11th annual Critics Choice Awards. The film's director, Ang Lee, also won the best director award. Co-star Michelle Williams tied with June Bug's Amy Adams for best supporting actress. The best actor award went to Philip Seymour Hoffman for his performance in the title role of Capote. Reese Witherspoon claimed the best actress award for her performance in the Johnnie Cash movie, Walk the Line. And Paul Giamatti was named best supporting actor for his role in Cinderella Man.