APPRENTICE RUNS TO SAFETY

After being trumped by Fox's American Idol on Wednesday night, NBC's reality series The Apprentice, featuring Donald Trump, was quickly moved back to the relative safety of Thursday nights. The Fox talent show achieved its highest ratings ever Wednesday night. "The Apprentice is a burgeoning hit and it would be unfair to the show to run it against American Idol, NBC exec Mitch Metcalf acknowledged Thursday. The network also said that it will return Scrubs to its Tuesday time slot.

MARKETWATCH CO-FOUNDER QUITS IN FACE OF SEC PROBE

CBS MarketWatch founding editor Thom Calandra has stepped down as chief commentator of the cable network, citing the stress of an SEC investigation into his trading activities. The company had also launched an internal probe and reported Thursday that he turned in his resignation after missing a Thursday-morning deadline to turn in his trading records to the company. The cable network said that the investigation of Calandra was part of an ongoing effort by the SEC to determine whether newsletter editors improperly profit from trading stock in companies they write about. Calandra resigned as editor-in-chief of CBS MarketWatch last year to write a five-times-per-month subscription newsletter The Calandra Report. CBS MarketWatch has removed it from its online store, where it was being hawked for $159 a year.

POWELLS SAYS HE'S GETTING BIPARTISAN SUPPORT ON DIRTY WORDS BAN

FCC Chairman Michael Powell said Thursday that he is receiving bipartisan support of his efforts to block the use of indecent speech on radio and television stations at times when children may be listening. Speaking to the Reuter News Agency in Davos, Switzerland, where he is attending the World Economic Forum, Powell said that "the political environment is increasingly becoming less tolerant" of the use of foul language on the air. Meanwhile, singer Bono, who sparked the latest to-do over verboten words when he used the words "f***ing brilliant" in accepting a Golden Globe award last year, promised that he would watch his words if he receives another Golden Globe Award on Sunday. "I swear I won't swear," he told Reuters, adding that he had never meant to offend anyone.

TV ACADEMIES END THEIR FEUD

The long-running rift between the two television organizations that ostensibly join together only to stage the annual Emmy awards appeared to be coalescing Thursday as they announced that they would begin meetings in hopes of establishing an alliance. Under a 1977 agreement, the West Coast Academy of Television Arts & Sciences (ATAS) dispenses the primetime and Los Angeles-area Emmys, while the East Coast National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences (NATAS) hands out the awards for daytime, sports and news programming. Leaders of the two sides said Thursday that they had not yet discussed reunification. They split in 1976 amid much rancor.

SO IS FRIENDS NOT THE BEST COMEDY EVER?

After watching the hackles rise on the backs of some of its biggest comedy stars, NBC has yanked a promo in which it refers to Friends as the "best comedy ever." NBC spokeswoman Rebecca Marks told the Associated Press Thursday: "They were just trying to hype it and went overboard. ... It ran once and it won't run again."

NEARLY A THIRD OF PRIMETIME IS NOW AD TIME

A recent study by PhaseOne Communications has determined that every three hours of primetime programming includes 52 minutes of commercials and promotions, up from an average of 28.5 minutes in the 1980s and 38 minutes in the 1990s. PhaseOne's Terry Villines told the online edition of TV GuideThursday that the current figure is 8 percent higher than it was four years ago. "We thought back then that networks had reached the breaking point," he said.

SURVIVOR -- WITH A SCRIPT

If Survivor had a script, it might appear much like the outline of Eden, an upcoming one-hour dramatic series to be produced by Survivor producer Mark Burnett and writer Douglas Day Stewart (Blue Lagoon, An Officer and a Gentleman). According to an NBC news release, the program, titled Eden, "centers around a group of young people from a mosaic of wildly different backgrounds who are thrown together on a summer study cruise that goes horribly wrong during a major storm," causing them to be marooned on a desert island. Burnett said in the NBC statement that the "series will be shot in an exotic remote island location, similar to a feature film, which will make it a powerful television event."

STERN WANTED TO BE A FULL-FLEDGED ABC NEWS STAR

Howard Stern told his radio audience Thursday that he had asked ABC to make him a full-fledged member of its news division when he was negotiating a deal for him to host a primetime interview special. He said that network execs had replied that "there would be a revolution inside ABC News" if that occurred and that ABC News stars would exit. Stern said that he told the execs: "That yenta [shrew] Barbara Walters, she's nine-million years old _ she's like the crypt keeper. She's not going anywhere. Peter Jennings. You guys pay him way too much money. He isn't leaving." The New York Post reported today (Friday) that when it asked an ABC spokesman about the tirade, he replied: "Whatever. ... that sounds like Howard being Howard."

JAPANESE RATINGS FIRM SUES TV PRODUCER

The Japanese ratings firm Video Research filed suit Thursday against a producer for Japan's NTV network who has admitted rigging the ratings for his shows by hiring a detective agency to track down some of the households involved in the surveys and paying them to say that they watched his shows. Video Research said it had located 18 households who had received bribes from the producer, Masafumi Ando.

ADL LEADER SNEAKS INTO THE PASSION

Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, has disclosed that he sneaked into a screening of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ at a Christian conference in Orlando, FL this week and had concluded that the film might indeed "fuel latent anti-Semitism that exists in the hearts of those people who hold Jews responsible for the death of Jesus." A spokesman for Gibson later acknowledged that Foxman had not signed a required confidentiality statement and that he registered as a member of the "church of truth." In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Foxman said that Gibson is "hawking it on a commercial crusade to the churches of this country. That's what makes it dangerous." A spokesman for Gibson commented: "We respect the right to freedom of expression and expect the same in return." Reuters reported from Orlando on Thursday that the film includes a scene in which the Jewish high priest strikes and spits on Jesus and other scenes in which Jewish authorities are joined by a figure meant to be the personification of the Devil. Meanwhile, PAX-TV announced plans to broadcast a one-hour special from Gibson's production company about the making of The Passion of the Christ on Feb. 22. The company's founder and chairman, Bud Paxson, told the Times: "I saw it with a Jewish rabbi and a Catholic priest, we discussed it for an hour afterward, and we found nothing wrong with the film."

THE WOODSMAN GETS A DISTRIBUTOR, AFTER ALL

The controversial film The Woodsman, in which Kevin Bacon plays a convicted pedophile, has landed a distributor at the Sundance Film Festival, despite earlier reports that it might be too hot to handle. According to reports, Newmarket Films paid $1.5 million for Nicole Kassell's entry in the dramatic competition. Ironically (in view of its subject matter), Newmarket is the same company that is also distributing Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ.

FBI POUNCES ON ALLEGED SCREENER CULPRIT

The FBI has snared the man who allegedly uploaded a number of Oscar screeners onto the Internet. The agency on Thursday said that they had taken Russell W. Sprague, Sr. into custody on a warrant charging him with copyright infringement. The feds were alerted to Sprague's Internet operation by veteran actor Carmine Caridi, the academy member who had originally received the screeners. He was said to be cooperating with investigators. According to the complaint, Sprague had obtained the films -- which included the Last Samurai, Mystic River, Calendar Girls, and Something's Gotta Give -- from Caridi by telling him that he was a film buff and only wished to view the films himself. Sprague later told the investigators that he gave the screeners to a third person in exchange for free use of his FedEx account.

WGA NAMES BEST SCREENWRITER NOMINEES

The Writers Guild of America ignored major studio releases in announcing their nominations for best original screenplay of 2003 on Thursday. Instead, the WGA focused on small, intimate independent films, all of which have received much critical applause. The films and their writers: Bend It Like Beckham,Gurinder Chadha and Paul Mayeda Berges and Guljit Bindra, Fox Searchlight Pictures; Dirty Pretty Things, Steven Knight, Miramax Films; In America, Jim Sheridan, Naomi Sheridan and Kirsten Sheridan, Fox Searchlight Pictures; Lost in Translation, Sofia Coppola, Focus Features (subsidiary of Universal Pictures); The Station Agent, Tom McCarthy, Miramax Films. Nominees for best adapted screenplay include: American Splendor, Robert Pulcini and Shari Springer Berman, HBO Films/Fine Line Features; Cold Mountain, Anthony Minghella, Miramax Films; The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, Fran Walsh & Philippa Boyens & Peter Jackson, New Line Cinema; Mystic River, Brian Helgeland, Warner Bros. Pictures; Seabiscuit, Gary Ross, Universal Pictures.

MOVIE REVIEWS: THE BUTTERFLY EFFECT

Ashton Kutcher is no doubt feeling somewhat punked out following a slew of dismal reviews for his new thriller, The Butterfly Effect. Some typical comments: Dave Kehr in the New York Times: "Staggeringly bad;" Lou Lumenick in the New York Post: "So consistently silly and overwrought that it flirts with the elusive so-bad-it's-entertaining category;" Jack Mathews in the New York Daily News: "If you approach this movie in the right frame of mind -- that is, with total contempt -- you can still enjoy it as a comedy." Ann Hornaday in the Washington Post: When it "reaches its ridiculous and unsatisfying conclusion, it's tempting to think that ... [the audience has] just been punk'd."

MOVIE REVIEWS: WIN A DATE WITH TAD HAMILTON!

Win a Date with Tad Hamilton! is receiving several nice notices. Joe Morgenstern in the Wall Street Journal provides one of them: "I was won over, just as the target audience will be," he writes. Then there's one from Claudia Puig in USA Today, who calls it "unexpectedly charming" Then there's Roger Ebert's in theChicago Sun-Times: "Because it embraces its innocence like a lucky charm, it works, for those willing to allow it. Others will respond with a horse laugh, and although I cannot quarrel with them I do not share their sentiments." Certainly the majority of major critics do not share Ebert's (or Morgenstern's). Desson Thomson writes in the Washington Post: "There are so many layers of bad when it comes to the Hollywood romantic comedy, it would take the film-reviewing equivalent of a geologist to identify them precisely." And Glenn Whipp in the Los Angeles Daily News remarks that Hamilton and director Robert Luketic's earlier film Legally Blonde "are confections that combine so many unsteady elements that they eventually blow up in your face, leaving a sticky bubble-gum residue that's hard to wash off." But many critics take the middle view typified by Bruce Westbrook's in the Houston Chronicle, who writes: "Formulaic, predictable and skimpy on characters, it succeeds, thanks to a lively, fresh cast and a director who sidesteps cornball sweetness."

BIG EXHIBITOR MERGER CALLED OFF

AMC Entertainment and Loews Cineplex announced Thursday that they had called off their planned merger. They gave no reason for the decision. The merger would have created the largest theater chain in the United States.

ANN MILLER DIES AT 81

Actress and dancer Ann Miller, famed for her starring roles in MGM musicals in the '40s and '50s, died of lung cancer Thursday in Los Angeles at age 81. She last appeared on the screen in David Lynch's 2001 mystery, Mulholland Drive.

Cinemark Movie Club