FOOTBALL KICKS UP FOX'S RATINGS

Fox, which hasn't won a weekly ratings contest since last year's World Series telecasts, came close to pulling off another win last week thanks to its telecast of the NFC championship game between the Carolina Panthers and the Philadelphia Eagles, the top-rated show of the week. Unfortunately, its next-best show was 34 on the Nielsen list, an episode of the reality series The Simple Life. (Fox is likely to do better with its entertainment programming when next week's ratings results are announced, given enormous ratings this week for the new season of American Idol.) CBS produced the best overall average for the week, an 8.6 rating and a 14 share, just edging out Fox, which wound up with an average 8.3/13. NBC followed in third place with a 7.5/12, while ABC trailed with a 5.1/8. In the all-important 18-34 demo, Fox easily won with a 5.8/15, followed by NBC with a 4.5/12, CBS with a 3.8/10, and ABC with a 2.9/8.

The top ten shows of the week according to Nielsen Research:

1. NFC Championship: Carolina Panthers vs. Philadelphia Eagles, Fox, 23.2/35; 2. CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, CBS, 17.5/26; 3. Friends, NBC, 16.6/26; 4. E.R., NBC, 13.5/22; 5. CSI: Miami, CBS, 13.1/21; 6. Everybody Loves Raymond, CBS, 12.4/18; 7. The Apprentice 1/15(S), NBC, 12.2/18; 8. NFC Championship Postgame, Fox, 11.8/18; 9. Law and Order, NBC, 11.4/19; 9. Two and a Half Men, CBS, 11.4/17.

IS MALONE GUNNING FOR CONTROL OF NEWS CORP?

In a surprise move, John Malone's Liberty Media Corporation has increased its voting stake in Rupert Murdoch's News Corp to 9.1 percent, establishing it as the second-largest shareholder after the Murdoch family, which holds 30 percent of the voting stock. Malone also owns additional nonvoting shares that brings his total stake in the company to 17 percent. Today's (Thursday) New York Times observed that analysts regard Malone's move as a hostile transaction, since Murdoch was not informed of it until after it was completed. The Times quoted one unnamed media executive as saying, "It is shocking that the transaction would take place without a phone call from Malone to Murdoch." However, today's Wall Street Journal quoted a Liberty spokesman as denying that the investment had hostile implications. The move was particularly curious, some investors observed, because Malone rarely takes an active role in the operation of the companies in which he invests.

REPORT: HOWARD STERN TO HOST ABC INTERVIEW SHOW

ABC has hired shock jock Howard Stern to host a primetime interview special this spring, the New York Post reported today (Thursday). The newspaper provided few details but suggested that the network would likely give Stern full editorial control because it's "in the ratings toilet." A Stern associate told thePost: "You can bet Howard will shake up the format of the TV interview. ... Don't be surprised that after his show gets huge ratings, Barbara Walters is suddenly asking her guests about their penis size."

ELMORE LEONARD GIVES THUMBS UP TO KAREN SISCO

Quirky novelist Elmore Leonard, who created the Karen Sisco character in his novel Out of Sight (Jennifer Lopez played her in the film version), has welcomed ABC's decision to return the show in a more favorable time slot. In an interview with the Chicago Sun-Times, Leonard commented: "I'm optimistic. ... In the right time slot, it should work. If it follows Alias, I think that's a good possibility." Last season, ABC pitted the show against Law and Order, which nettled TV critics, who had heaped praise on it, but recommended that it be given a "safer" time period in which to establish itself. Asked whether the series captured Leonard's distinctive voice, he replied, "It did at times, definitely, and at other times, they're busy making a TV show and I just watch it." He was critical of the producers for dressing the Sisco character, a federal marshal played by Carla Gugino, in tank tops, and added: "I thought she was somewhat promiscuous."

DVD SALES OF OLD SHOWS BECOME ECONOMIC FACTOR FOR TELEVISION

The explosion in sales of DVDs of television shows has become an important factor in the economic condition of the television networks and the shows' producers, WB Co-chairman Garth Ancier has told the Akron Beacon Journal. "The box-set sales [of Angel] have been tremendous ... well in excess of 500,000 box sets sold at about $50 a pop. That does go into the kitty," he said. John Spencer, who plays Chief of Staff Leo McGarry on The West Wing, remarked that actors receive an intangible kind of reward from the DVD sales. Regarding the release of the first season of the presidential drama, Spencer remarked: "We were out there, we didn't know how we would be received, but we thought we were doing something very special. ... We called that 'the season in the trenches.' To have that sort of immortalized and to revisit it [is a good thing]." The increase of sales of DVDs is expected to be a hot negotiating issue during upcoming contract talks between the Screen Actors Guild and producers.

BBC REPORTER OUTRAGED BY BBC'S ON-AIR CONDEMNATION

BBC journalist Andrew Gilligan, at the center of a contentious public debate over his report that the Tony Blair government had "sexed up" an intelligence dossier to make the case for war against Iraq, has responded furiously to a BBC documentary that, in effect, accused Gilligan of shoddy reporting and BBC editors of editorial laxity in checking his notes. "It is f***ing outrageous," Gilligan told the London Times. He was particularly indignant at not having been contacted by reporters who prepared the BBC documentary, which aired Wednesday night.

CHICAGO TV LEGEND RAY RAYNER DEAD AT 84

Ray Rayner -- a legendary figure in Chicago television, whose career spanned more than half a century -- died in Fort Myers, FL Wednesday of complications from pneumonia. He was 84. Rayner hosted numerous daytime kids shows in Chicago and for many years was so popular that, it was said, parents would write in for tickets for the show even before their kids were conceived, because the waiting time was seven years. Bruce DuMont, president of Chicago's Museum of Broadcast Communications, told radio station WBBM Wednesday, "He represented an era of children's television when it was okay to be funny and children's television performers didn't take themselves too seriously."

CAMERON RESURFACES

After a six-year hiatus during which he directed just two documentary films about the underwater inspections of the sunken ships The Titanic and The Bismarck, James Cameron has indicated that he will return to theatrical features with a science-fiction film to be produced later this year for 20th Century Fox. As reported by Daily Variety, Cameron made the announcement at a gathering of sci-fi buffs in Los Angeles on Tuesday. The trade publication indicated that Cameron provided little additional information about the project, which would be his first since his 1997 blockbuster Titanic grossed $1.8 billion at the worldwide box office. Cameron told his audience that he planned to shoot the film with high-definition 3-D video cameras and that it would include "a pile of special effects."

HUGE PRICES SHUNTING SMALLER DISTRIBUTORS ASIDE AT SUNDANCE

With films being snatched up at Sundance at prices that bring to mind the heady days of the Internet boom, some film buyers are reportedly beginning to step away from the aggressive deal making. "The numbers are very high, as high as the mountains of Utah," Think Film's Mark Urman told today's (Thursday)Los Angeles Times. He complained that the ability of studio-backed art house distributors to pay huge sums for films prices smaller distributors out of the market. Lions Gate Releasing Co-President Tom Ortenberg suggested that the bidding has become so frenzied because buyers had found little to take home with them from earlier film festivals. The Times also observed that some particularly high-profile movies were screened at the festival in its first days before reviews and word-of-mouth could affect their salability.

SONY CHANGES RELEASE PLANS FOR DEPP MOVIE

Sony has decided to move up the release of the thriller Secret Window, starring Johnny Depp, from April 23 to March 12 and promote it with an ad airing during the Super Bowl on Feb. 1. Reporting on the studio's decision, today's (Thursday) Hollywood Reporter described it as "a move that could help the film take advantage of the heat surrounding the actor." It's generally believed that Depp, who is a contender for a Golden Globe on Sunday for his performance inPirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, is also likely to receive an Oscar nomination. He has garnered nominations from the Screen Actors Guild and Britain's BAFTA. Depp also received much critical praise last year for his performance in Once Upon a Time in Mexico.

MEL GIBSON SAYS HE FEARS "THE WORST IS YET TO COME"

A day after a Vatican official close to Pope John Paul denied media reports that the pontiff had endorsed Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, the BBC reported that Gibson told a religious group meeting in Orlando, FL, "I anticipate the worst is yet to come. I hope I'm wrong. I hope I'm wrong." It was not clear whether Gibson's remarks were in reaction to the Vatican's statement or whether he was forecasting trouble unrelated to the Vatican's position regarding the film. The Washington Times reported that those who viewed the film had to sign confidentiality statements to enter, with the exception of pastors who wished to support it.

JUDGE POOH-POOH'S CLAIM BY GRANDDAUGHTER OF POOH'S CREATOR

A federal appeals court has dealt a final judicial blow to Clare Milne, granddaughter of Winnie the Pooh creator A.A. Milne, who had attempted to regain the merchandising rights to the character, which Milne had sold to Stephen Slesinger in 1929. The rights are at the center of a long-running legal dispute between the Walt Disney Co. and the Slesinger heirs, who claim that Disney has cheated them out of millions of dollars in royalty payments. Milne's action was believed to have been engineered by Disney in order to short-circuit the Slesingers' claims.

AOL BEGINS OFFERING NEW MOVIES FOR 99 CENTS

America Online today (Thursday) began offering subscribers the opportunity to download relatively recent movies for 99 cents apiece. The service, in which AOL is partnered with the online movie-rental outfit MovieLink, would allow those who download the films 30 days in which to watch them. However, they can only be viewed once. The films include such blockbusters as Pirates of the Caribbean: The Search for the Black Pearl, Finding Nemo, The Hulk, and The Matrix. The 99-cent promotion is due to end in five weeks.

Cinemark Movie Club