MOVE OVER, BRITNEY; NBC'S INVESTIGATORS ARE COMING
NBC News, which like other network news divisions has been increasingly criticized for devoting too much attention to crime and entertainment stories (it recently devoted an entire Dateline special to an interview with Britney Spears) and lifting its investigative reports from books and newspapers, announced Wednesday that it plans to double the size of its Investigative Reporting Unit. In a statement, Steve Capus said, "Expanding NBC News' Investigative Unit clearly demonstrates the News division's commitment to investigative journalism, and NBC's willingness to invest in stories that will have a major impact." The unit, launched in 2002, is headed by Lisa Myers and Senior Producer Jim Popkin. Popkin pointed out that many current stories "demand an investigative approach" and mentioned in particular "the NSA program to monitor Americans' phone calls." The network's premier news magazine, Dateline, has not so much as mentioned the NSA program. On Monday, Vice President Cheney called the New York Times's Pulitzer Prize-winning revelations about the program "a disgrace," and said that they had "made the job of defending against further terrorist attacks more difficult." In a separate interview with Reuters, Capus also indicated that NBC News plans to increase its overseas coverage because "It's the right thing to do at this time."

STAR STRUCK AT THE VIEW

In what is fast becoming the most talked about firing of a broadcast personality since radio talk-show host Arthur Godfrey fired popular singer Julius LaRosa in 1953, Barbara Walters has barred Star Jones from ever appearing on The View again. "Star, regrettably, will no longer be on this show, except for some shows that have been prerecorded," Walters said on the air Wednesday, the day after Jones disclosed on the air that she would be departing, surprising fellow panelists and Walters, who apparently had planned a more graceful departure for Jones. "She made further announcements that have surprised us. So it is becoming uncomfortable for us to pretend that everything is the same at this table," Walters said Wednesday. Earlier, she had told reporters that she felt "betrayed" by Jones's announcement. In an interview with today's (Thursday) New York Daily News, Jones responded that "for Barbara to say she felt betrayed is the height of hypocrisy." She said that she had learned on April 21 that she was being dropped from the program. "Barbara did not call me herself ... They told me my contract would not be renewed because my approval rating had gone down. ... I was like, 'Whoa!'" Jones said that she felt further humiliated when Walters announced that she had hired Rosie O'Donnell as co-host. "Rosie had attacked me on every single evening entertainment program. ... Barbara used that week to call her and invite her to be part of a show that I helped launch nine years ago."

TALENT SHOWS RULE ON WEDNESDAY NIGHT

Talent contests ruled during primetime Wednesday night as Fox's So You Think You Can Dance won the 8:00 p.m. hour with a 4.9 rating and a 9 share, then captured a 6.4/11 at 9:00 p.m. The second hour of the contest, however, was edged out in the ratings by NBC's America's Got Talent, which won the 9:00 p.m. time period with a 7.5/12. NBC also took the 10:00 p.m. hour with a repeat of Law & Order, which drew a 6.7/11 and helped give NBC a lead for the night among overall viewers.

MURDOCH MAY SELL FOX TV STATIONS TO MALONE

Rupert Murdoch has indicated that News Corp may buy John Malone's 18 percent stake in the company by selling him some Fox-owned TV stations for stock. In an interview Wednesday with the Australian Financial Review, Murdoch said, "The conversations between us have become more substantial and I am hopeful of a resolution in the next few months." A stock transaction would enable the deal to go forward tax-free. Currently Fox's 35 television stations are licensed personally to Murdoch, because at the time they were acquired Murdoch was an American citizen, while News Corp was an Australian entity. U.S. law does not permit foreign ownership of radio or TV stations. However, last year News Corp became a U.S. corporation, thereby allowing Murdoch to transfer the stations to the company. A deal with Malone, therefore, could become a three-way transaction. No major-market TV station is expected to be involved in the sale.

BROKEN TRAIL SUCCESS UNBROKEN ON SECOND NIGHT

AMC's telecast of the second part of its Broken Trail miniseries once again drew a huge audience Monday night. The show, starring Robert Duvall, attracted 9.7 million viewers, according to Nielsen Research, down only slightly from 9.8 million on Sunday. Ratings trackers, however, pointed out that some 74 percent of the audience was 50 years old or older, the demographic group that advertisers traditionally snub.

SOAP EXEC TO HEAD DISNEY
Financial analysts and shareholders-rights activists alike have generally welcomed the decision to name former Procter & Gamble exec John Pepper Jr. chairman of the Walt Disney Co., to succeed George Mitchell. The decision was viewed as a final rebuke to Michael Eisner, who had long been accused of packing the Disney board with cronies. "Eisner's era was over anyway, but this puts an exclamation point on it," Patrick McGurn, executive vice president of proxy advisor Institutional Shareholder Services Inc., told today's (Thursday) Los Angeles Times. But some Wall Street analysts called attention to Pepper's lack of media experience. "I don't see what he brings to the party," Michael Nathanson of Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. told the New York Times. In a statement, Disney CEO Robert Iger said that Pepper had "quickly immersed himself in our business" since he joined the board in January. He will take over the chairmanship of the company on Jan. 1. The decision to name Pepper to the top post ended widespread speculation that it would go to Apple Computer Chairman Steve Jobs, who, after selling Pixar Animation to Disney, became the company's largest shareholder.

SUPERMAN RETURNS WITH A BANG

Superman Returns posted a mighty $21,015,000 in ticket sales on its opening day Wednesday, including midnight screenings the previous night, according to unofficial figures posted by the industry website Showbiz Data today (Thursday). Although well ahead of last year's $15.1-million opening of Batman Begins, the figure paled compared with the $40.5 million taken in during the July 2004 opening day of Spider-Man 2, which holds the record for the biggest box-office take for a Wednesday opener. It also ranks considerably below the Wednesday opening of The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King," which debuted with $34.5 million in December 2003.

FBI CLAIMS IT SHUT DOWN HUGE PIRACY RING

The FBI said on Wednesday that it had arrested 13 members of an international movie-piracy gang that churned out 25-50 percent of all bootleg DVDs made with camcorders. Nine others were being sought. The arrests were all made in New York, although the FBI said that their ring operated worldwide, transmitting the films via file-sharing Internet networks to duplication and packaging sites in Pakistan, Singapore, Hong Kong, Malaysia and other countries, according to the Motion Picture Association of America, which assisted the FBI in its probe. Reports indicated that the feds moved in as the ring was plotting to shoot Superman Returns, which opened on Wednesday. FBI agents said that they had already printed inserts for the movie's DVD cases.

VIACOM SHAREHOLDERS' SUIT OVER EXECUTIVE PAY TO BE TRIED

A New York court has given the go-ahead to a lawsuit filed by Viacom shareholders who claimed that the company was doling out excessive and unwarranted compensation packages to Chairman Sumner Redstone and his top lieutenants, Thomas Freson and Les Moonves, even while the company was losing money. The lawsuit noted that in 2004, when the company reported a net loss of $17.4 billion, Redstone received $21.5 million and options valued at $34.4 million.

MARLON BRANDO, THE ACTION FIGURE

Not only is Marlon Brando making his final appearance in Superman Returns -- director Bryan Singer created it from outtakes from the original 1978 Superman in which Brando played Jor-El, Superman's father -- but he will also become an action figure for the first time. Mattel said Wednesday that the Jor-El character will be part of its Superman Returns toy line. A spokesman said that it's believed to be "the first time Mr. Brando's ever been immortalized in plastic." Oddly, the Brando figure will not be available until the fall, the spokesman said. Among other Superman Returns items that Mattel is introducing is a 16-inch figure that can fly, thanks to twin propellers and a controller with a 300-foot range; an "Inflato-Suit," complete with a "dedicated battery-operated fan that fills the suit with air [and] emulates the muscular physique" of Superman; and molded forearm gloves equipped with "a sound chip so that kids can simulate the crunching of a steel bar."

HIGH DEFINITION COAST-TO-COAST CASTING CALLS PLANNED

New York-based House Production and Casting has announced that it has become the first company to use high-definition video conferencing to allow directors and producers in California to audition talent on the East Coast. The company said in a statement that it had chosen Austin, TX-based LifeSize's LifeSize Room technology, which it described as providing high-definition teleconferencing for about the same price as conventional teleconferencing. LifeSize CEO Craig Malloy observed, "The subtleties of facial expressions and eye contact necessary to make a good casting choice could never happen with legacy videoconferencing systems." In the same statement, House said, "Rather than directors having to travel cross country to evaluate candidates ... they will be able to confidently meet with prospective talent over video and immediately determine if someone is well suited for a particular production."

RUSSIAN FILM INDUSTRY REVIVES

Nine years after the entire Russian domestic movie industry took in only $6 million, the business is on the rebound, rising last year to $350 million, with one film, Company 9, set during the Afghan war, making $24 million alone, the London Times reported today (Thursday). Most of the spike in ticket sales has come since 2004 and was attributed to a rising Russian economy and the construction of numerous multiplexes. Western studios have taken notice, the Times observed, noting that 20th Century Fox recently bought distribution rights to the Night Watch films, about a crew of vampire hunters, and is producing the next installment in the series.