Rob Lowe will return to NBC's The West Wingfor at least five episodes next November, syndicated columnist Liz Smith reported today (Friday). According to Smith, who cited no sources, Martin Sheen is responsible for negotiating Lowe's return. "Sheen was very unhappy when Rob left the show in a dispute over salary and story line," Smith wrote, adding, "The dotted line has not yet been signed, but the pen is hovering." When Lowe left The West Wingin 2003, it was explained that his character, Deputy Communications Director Sam Seaborn, had left the White House to run for a seat in the House of Representatives. In real life, Lowe starred in two TV series, The Lyon's Den and dr. vegas, each of which quickly flopped.


NBC's Today show may still hold a slight lead over ABC's Good Morning America in the Nielsen ratings, but a new poll by Zogby International shows that Good Morning Americahas moved ahead of Today and that both shows are losing viewers to Fox News Channel's Fox & Friends. According to the poll's results, GMAis preferred by 20 percent of morning viewers; Today,by 19 percent; Fox & Friends, by 13 percent, and the CBS Early Show by 5 percent. The poll also showed that more Republicans watched the FNC program than any of its rivals.


Consumers may still prefer to buy analog-only midsize TV sets than those capable of receiving both analog and digital, but the FCC ruled unanimously Thursday that manufacturers won't be able to continue turning them out after March 1 and must reduce the number of analog-only sets they produce to no more than half on July 1 of this year. The ruling affects sets that range from 25 inches to 36 inches. Consumer Electronics Association chief Gary Shapiro expressed disappointment with the FCC's decision, noting that sets with digital tuners cost $200 to $300 more than analog-only sets. He also roundly criticized an FCC proposal to require all TV receivers with screens larger than 13 inches to have digital tuners by Dec. 31, 2006, the date set for TV stations to turn off their analog transmitters if 85 percent of households have the capacity to receive digital transmissions. "You're talking about doubling the price of a [13-inch] TV set," he said.


While ad revenue for most media groups saw little growth during the first quarter, Spanish-language TV and, to a lesser extent, cable TV soared during the period, Nielsen Research reported on Thursday. Spanish-language TV saw a growth spurt of 19.3 percent during the quarter over the same period a year ago, while cable TV increased 12.4 percent. Network TV increased 4.4 percent, but spot sales in the top 100 markets dropped a whopping 4.3 percent, presumably due to the lack of political ads. For the first time Nielsen also tracked product placements on network shows, noting that NBC's The Contenderfinished with 2,823 occurrences during the quarter, followed by Fox's American Idolwith 2,373, UPN's Road to Stardom with 1,560, and CBS's The Amazing Racewith 1,140.


The BBC appeared to have averted a second union walkout Thursday after agreeing, among other things, to put on hold for a year its decision to cut some 4,000 jobs and to turn over production of some of its programming to outside producers. Union spokespersons greeted the decisions warmly and indicated that they would receive a positive reception from their members. BBC Director General Mark Thompson called the tentative agreement "a good base from which to work."


There's hardly a review of Mr. & Mrs. Smith that doesn't mention the "chemistry" between Brad Pitt an Angelina Jolie. Roger Ebert in the Chicago Sun-Timesargues that it's all important to the movie. "I think they have it," he writes, "and because they do, the movie works. If they did not, there'd be nothing to work with." Bob Strauss in the Los Angeles Daily Newsargues that their "visual appeal and edgy chemistry salvage a number of scenes that would otherwise simply collapse from the weight of their own preposterousness." Claudia Puig in USA Today comments that the "The best moments in the action-packed romantic comedy are when the couple exhibit their considerable chemistry." Gene Seymour in Newsdaywrites that the stars' "on-screen chemistry, even at moderate boil, is so combustible that you're tempted to put warning stickers on every frame they share." But the headline over Eleanor Ringel Gillespie's review in the Atlanta Journal-Constitutionreads, "The stars have chemistry, the script doesn't."


With The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl in 3-D, it's the "in 3-D" part of the title that's getting the critics' primary attention. Roger Ebert in the Chicago Sun-Timescalls the movie "an innocent and delightful children's tale that is spoiled by a disastrous decision to film most of it in lousy 3-D." (The film uses a 60-year-old technique in which audience members wear cardboard glasses with one lens colored blue, the other, red.) It's "a little like seeing Christmas through the double vision of a wino," comments Jan Stuart in Newsday.Mike Clark in USA Todayremarks that "as in the '50s, the optical novelty wears out its welcome fast." "Besides," notes Bruce Westbrook in the Houston Chronicle, "Who needs it? Today's computer animation looks wondrous enough without adding a gimmick from the 1950s. Enough with 3-D _ get on with the show." Ty Burr in the Boston Globesays that watching the movie "is an experience akin to seeing the world through dung-colored glasses. ... On the evidence here, Planet Drool should have been called Satellite Crud." On the other hand, Kyle Smith writes in the New York Post: "The digital landscapes of Planet Drool showcase wild imagination, delightfully enhanced by the 3-D effects." And Carina Chocano in the Los Angeles Timesdescribes Planet Drool as "a lavender and gray 3-D Eden of milk-and-cookies landscapes, talking bubbles, roller-coaster rides and more terrible puns about the subconscious than you'd hear at a Friar's Club roast of Sigmund Freud." Nancy Churnin in the Dallas Morning Newsnotes that the film is based on a story Director Robert Rodriguez's eight-year-old son dreamed up. "It's all accentuated by the 3-D, which juts these part-dream, part-nightmares straight into viewers' faces." On Good Morning America, critic Joel Siegel offered the filmmakers a quote: "The Best Movie I've Ever Seen. Not from me. From my son, Dylan, who's seven. ... It was like he was watching his own imagination come to life on the screen."


Those in search of a family film that presents the work of a more sophisticated imagination may be drawn to Hayao Miyazaki's animated Howl's Moving Castle, an enormous hit overseas (where it has already earned more than $200 million). A. O. Scott in the New York Times praises the film as an "animated tour de force. ... Admirers of his work, which is wildly imaginative, emotionally intense and surpassingly gentle, will find much to appreciate in this film because it demonstrates, once again, his visual ingenuity and his sensitivity as a storyteller. For newcomers to his world, Howl's Moving Castle is a fitting introduction to one of modern cinema's great enchanters." Michael Sragow in the Baltimore Sunclearly relished Miyazaki's work in this film, writing "It's rare for a cartoon or a live-action feature to meld action and metaphor with such galvanizing fullness ... achieves it every time out." Michael Wilmington in the Chicago Tribunegives it four stars an writes: "This wondrous movie probably shouldn't be put in age brackets at all. It's perfect for anyone with a youthful heart and a rich imagination." Lou Lumenick in the New York Postcalls it "stunningly beautiful and beguiling." Joe Morgenstern in the Wall Street Journalsays it "offers a feast of visual delights." Jami Bernard in the New York Daily Newscomments: "It's magic." Carrie Rickey in the Philadelphia Inquirerdescribes it as "an eye-popping, mind-bending phantasmagoria from one of the greatest living film artists. I won't pretend that I fully understood it, but my 8-year-old did." The film, cautions Kenneth Turan in the Los Angeles Times, "follows a through line that is emotional, not logical, becoming a story beyond words we understand with our hearts more than our minds." But Stephen Hunter in the Washington Postacknowledges at the beginning of his review, "I never feel so utterly fraudulent as when I review a movie whose charms impress all in the world and I simply do not get it." He predicts that he is "about to be nailed as the man who disliked Howl's Moving Castle. Lord, give me strength! Also, IT, please disconnect the e-mail thing." Hunter has company. Roger Ebert in the Chicago Sun-Times writes that despite "animation of astonishing invention and detail ... the underlying plot grows murky and, amazingly for a Miyazaki film, we grow impatient at spectacle without meaning."


Both critics who love the updated movie version of the classic Jackie Gleason series The Honeymooners and those who hate it (and there are far more of the latter than the former) agree that the movie has little in common with the TV show. "Change may be good for the characters, but not necessarily for the audience," writes A.O. Scott in the New York Times.And it's not just that the movie has an all-black cast, headed by Cedric the Entertainer. "Badly paced and leadenly scripted, with jokes that only register because characters pause for the expected laughter (almost nonexistent at the screening I attended), The Honeymooners is one of the biggest disappointments of this still-young movie year," writes Chris Kaltenback in the Baltimore Sun. "The Honeymooners doesn't work because of an extremely lame script attributed to four writers, which takes a concept that would barely have supported one of the original 'Classic 39' episodes and stretches it to a 90-minute feature that ... feels at least twice as long," comments Lou Lumenick in the New York Post.Glenn Whipp in the Los Angeles Daily News doesn't mince words. "This new version of The Honeymoonersstinks," he writes. "There is no reason for it to exist other than cashing in on a brand name." Wesley Morris of the Boston Globe, one of a handful of black film critics, begins his review by remarking, "An uncle of mine used to joke that he'd know racial parity had been achieved in Hollywood when black people started making movies as bad as white people's. I always thought his joke aimed too low. But according to his logic, the predominantly black update of The Honeymooners would be an achievement. It's not as bad as the average Hollywood movie, it's stupendously worse." However, Roger Ebert in the Chicago Sun-Timescalls it a "surprise and a delight, a movie that escapes the fate of weary TV retreads and creates characters that remember the originals, yes, but also stand on their own."