NFC TITLE GAME TOPS, BUT HOUSEWIVES BEATS IT
What Sunday night's NFC title game between the Seattle Seahawks and Carolina Panthers may have lacked in excitement, it made up for in ratings. The game scored a whopping 17.6 rating and a 25 share in primetime, according to Nielsen overnights, well ahead of the 14.0/24 for last year's contest. Nevertheless, ABC also finished strongly with an average 10.8/16, thanks largely to a 15.3/22 for Desperate Housewives in the 9:00 p.m. hour, which beat the 14.9/20 for the final hour of the football game. The game peaked at 7:00 p.m. with a 19.6/30, then declined to an 18.2/26 at 8:00 p.m.

ECHOSTAR CLAIMS LIFETIME HAS ENDED TALKS

EchoStar Communications, which operates the DISH satellite service charged today (Monday) that Lifetime Television had broken off talks over a new carriage agreement. Earlier, EchoStar had yanked Lifetime from its system, claiming that women's channel's demands for a fee increase were unreasonable and would result in higher costs for the satellite service's customers. Echostar said at the time that Lifetime was demanding a 76-percent increase, a figure that Lifetime denied. In its statement today, Echostar said that it "continues to challenge Lifetime Television to disclose the actual numbers behind its outrageous rate demand so the public can judge for themselves, but Lifetime has refused." For its part, Lifetime, which is jointly owned by the Walt Disney Co. and the Hearst Corp., said Sunday that its fee request amounted to only "pennies" per subscriber and that EchoStar was actually demanding "Draconian cuts" in the fee.

WING CLIPPED

The West Wing will see the inauguration of a new president at the end of the current season, but he will not return to preside over his first term. NBC announced Sunday that the series, now in its seventh season, will end on May 14, preceded a week earlier by a retrospective. The Associated Press reported Sunday that producers are negotiating the return of Rob Lowe for the finale but that series creator Aaron Sorkin does not plan to return. Meanwhile, NBC announced that this will also be the final season for Will & Grace and that several shows, including The Apprentice, Las Vegas, and Law & Order, will be moving into different time slots following the Winter Olympics next month, and that the game show Deal or No Deal will be given a regular spot on the network's schedule on Monday nights.

OLYMPICS CREATES STRANGE BEDFELLOWS

In an unprecedented arrangement between two rival broadcasting companies, ESPN.com, owned by the Walt Disney Co., has agreed to feature NBC's peacock on its website, which will link to NBCOlympics.com's online coverage of the Winter Games in Turin, Italy. ESPN.com, in turn, will offer NBC video highlights from the previous day as well as a special wrap-up video narrated by NBC's chief Olympics broadcaster, Bob Costas. In an interview with Florida's Sun-Sentinel, Gary Zenkel, president of NBC Olympics, said that the Internet deal "was good for us, and it was good for them. ... I don't think the fact that we compete on certain levels as television networks was a factor in deciding we could broaden our Internet audience."

LOST CAST MEMBERS BECOME INSTANT MILLIONAIRES

The members of the cast of ABC's Lost have found wealth. The Hollywood Reporter reported today (Monday) that Disney's Touchstone Television has offered them almost $80,000 per episode to return for a third season, up from about $20,000 to $40,000 this season. The trade publication observed, however, that the producers gave the cast no guarantees about how they would be compensated if their characters were bumped off, an occupational hazard of the series.

BROKEBACK: A SURE BET FOR OSCAR VICTORY?
Coming down the stretch towards the Oscars on March 5, Brokeback Mountain increased its lead Sunday night by winning top honors from the Producers Guild of America. ("No film is even second," remarked Time magazine film critic Richard Corliss in the current edition.) Diana Ossana and James Schamus received the Darryl F. Zanuck producer of the year award. The PGA also handed out its first animated feature award to Claire Jennings and Nick Park for their Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, released by DreamWorks. After winning most of the top awards from critics' groups, Brokeback now begins to compete for the guild awards, usually the most accurate predictors of Oscar winners, since many of the guild members are also members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the group that hands out the Oscars.

ANOTHER HORROR MOVIE WINS BOX-0FFICE TITLE

Demonstrating yet again that there's nothing so reliable as a cheap horror flick to turn a quick profit at the box office, Sony Screen Gems' Underworld: Evolution debuted in first place over the weekend with a higher-than-expected $27.6 million. (The film, which was not screened for critics, got royally trounced by them after it opened. Jeannette Catsoulis in the New York Times commented, "Maybe one day, Hollywood will figure out that pouring acting-challenged starlets into black neoprene and sticking them in front of a blue screen do not a movie make.") Hoodwinked, the Weinstein Co.'s animated spoof of the Little Red Riding Hood tale remained in second place with $11 million, while last week's winner, Glory Road, fell to third place with $9.14 million. Paramount's Last Holiday dropped to fourth place with $9.1 million. But once again the real sensation was Focus Features' Brokeback Mountain, which nearly doubled the number of theaters in its seventh week and saw its ticket sales rise by more than a third to $7.83 million. Besides Underworld, the only other new film to make the top ten was End of the Spear, promoted by Christian groups. It took in an estimated $4.7 million, good enough for eighth place. But Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World found few lookers as it grossed $455,000 at 161 theaters. The top ten films for the weekend, according to studio estimates compiled by Exhibitor Relations:
1. Underworld: Evolution, Sony, $27.6 million; 2. Hoodwinked, Weinstein Co., $11 million; 3. Glory Road, Disney, $9.1 million; 4. Last Holiday, Paramount, $9.1 million; 5. Brokeback Mountain, Focus, $7.8 million; 6. Fun With Dick and Jane, Sony, $6.1 million; 7. The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Disney, $6 million; 8. Hostel, Lions Gate, $4.3 million; 9. The New World, New Line, $4.2 million; 10. End of the Spear, Rocky Mountain, $4.2 million.

SUN SHINES ON SUNSHINE AT SUNDANCE

Little Miss Sunshine, the film that has generated the most buzz -- some say the only buzz -- at the Sundance Film Festival, was bought by Fox Searchlight over the weekend for a reported $10 million following intense bidding. Daily Variety reported that the Fox specialty unit also agreed to pay the producers ten percent of the film's gross. "This is what Sundance is all about," Searchlight President Peter Rice told the trade publication after signing the deal. "The film got a rapturous response. People broke into applause during the movie, and people were crying and laughing. For first-time directors, the film is made with such an assured hand."

DISNEY BOARD TO CONSIDER BUYING PIXAR

The members of Disney's board of directors convened for their regular meeting on Sunday and were expected to hold another session today (Monday), at which the members reportedly will take up the proposed buyout of Pixar animation. Several news reports, citing people familiar with the situation, said that a deal between Disney and Pixar could be announced as early as this week. Analysts observed that such a deal would instantaneously make Pixar chief Steve Jobs the largest Disney shareholder but would also raise certain conflict-of-interest issues since Jobs is also chairman of the Apple Computer Co. They question how Jobs might view a major strategic partnership between Disney and one of Apple's rivals, like Microsoft or Hewlett-Packard.

REDFORD DEPRESSED OVER PROPOSED BUTCH CASSIDY REMAKE

Robert Redford has told a British interviewer that he found the idea of a remake of his 1969 film Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid depressing. Speaking to the Independent on Sunday, Redford said, "There is no shortage of good, original ideas, and there's just no point to remakes. ... Why do they have to mess with things that were perfect the first time around. The British newspaper said that Redford was responding to reports that Ben Affleck and Matt Damon are planning a new version of the film, with Damon in the Redford role and Affleck in the Paul Newman role.

CANNES SMILES ON THE DA VINCI CODE

The Cannes Film Festival announced over the weekend that it had chosen Sony-Columbia's The Da Vinci Code, based on the Dan Brown best-seller and starring Tom Hanks,to open the festival on May 17. The film, directed by Ron Howard, will screen out of competition. Meanwhile, the conservative Catholic group Opus Dei, which figures prominently in the Dan Brown tale, has threatened to take legal action against Columbia and the film's producers. In a statement, the group said: "To present a member of Opus Dei as a killer when we devote our lives to helping others is unfair. We are also pained at how Opus Dei is presented as a secretive cult. This film portrays us as criminals who have kept secret a lie for 2,000 years. This isn't true."