"ABSOLUT HUNK" SUES ABSOLUT
Raising the question, when does a product placement become a commercial?, actor Jason Lewis has sued the Absolut Spirits Co. and the Ketchum public relations firm, claiming that they used his appearance on Sex and the City in a fictitious ad for Absolut vodka to promote the product elsewhere. Advertising Age had hailed the use of the fictitious ad on the show, in which Lewis posed naked on a bed with a bottle of vodka placed between his legs, as "a wildly successful product placement." (He played an actor-model dating Kim Cattrall's character, whose naked photo appears on an Absolut billboard in Times Square.) Lewis says that Absolut immediately began using the fictitious ad on the Internet, referred to him in a press release as the "Absolut Hunk," and then published the recipe for an Absolute Hunk cocktail. The suit said that Lewis's contract specified that the fictitious ad would not be used outside of the series without his consent and that it would not be published in magazines or where young children had access. In another product-placement development, actress-singer Jessica Simpson has sued the Motorock auto racing company claiming that she was not paid the $140,000 they had agreed to shell out for her to wear a T-shirt promoting the company on the video for her single "With You."

NETWORKS ADMIT UPFRONT BUSINESS IS DOWN

The broadcast networks acknowledged Thursday that it was unlikely that they will conclude the upfront buying rush with as much as they earned last year -- some $9.3 billion. Nevertheless, they said, they were doing a brisk business and in some cases actually nailing down rate increases for some time periods. Today's (Friday) Los Angeles Times indicated that cable companies are "siphoning off" some of the money that would ordinarily have gone to the networks and are expected to see a $1-billion rise in sales to $5.4 billion.

TRIBUNE JOINS ALLIANCE AGAINST NIELSEN PEOPLE METERS

Tribune Co. has joined CBS, Fox and Univision in their opposition to Nielsen Media Research's plan to roll out its people meter system in local markets. The four media companies, together with an advocacy group called Don't Count Us Out, are seeking block the introduction of the ratings system, which they say undercounts minorities.

CNN SUES TO GET A LOOK AT FLORIDA'S FELON LIST

CNN has sued the Florida Division of Elections after the agency refused to provide it with a list of registered voters identified as convicted felons who should be barred from voting in the coming elections. The state has conceded that some of those who are included in the list have had their sentences reduced or may have the same name as a convict or may have been granted clemency. It said that the list is provided to county elections officials to determine which of those on it should be removed. But CNN maintains that the list is a public record that voters have the right to review -- and challenge if need be. In the 2000 presidential election, many Florida voters claimed that they were not allowed to vote even though they were not felons. In its filing, CNN said that "there is enormous public interest in scrutinizing the potential disenfranchisement of such a large pool of citizens."

O.J. SIMPSON RETURNING TO TV

O.J. Simpson is returning to television again on the tenth anniversary of his double-murder case, appearing tonight on NBC's Dateline, in an interview with Katie Couric, (additional parts of the interview are expected to air on NBC's Today show on Monday), on Wednesday in an interview with Court TV's Catherine Crier, and in an upcoming edition of Fox News's On the Record with Greta Van Susteren. In the Van Susteren interview, Simpson said that he's involved in the production of a reality show, similar to MTV's Punk'd, in which he would pull off pranks involving celebrities.

ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT GETS CRITICS' TOP NODS

The Fox comedy series Arrested Development garnered five nominations from the Television Critics Association Thursday for their annual TCA Awards -- more than any other series. The show received nods for Program of the Year, Outstanding Achievement in Comedy, Outstanding New Program, and Individual Achievement in Comedy (Jason Bateman and Jeffrey Tambor). Comedy Central's The Daily Show and HBO's The Sopranos received four each. Only a single reality series received a nomination -- NBC's The Apprentice, for program of the year. Winners are expected to be announced in July.

ISRAEL VS. THE BBC

The Israeli foreign ministry has accused the BBC of paying nuclear whistleblower Mordechai Vanunu for an interview, thereby breaking the terms of his release. The interview, which was broadcast Sunday night, charged that the BBC interview "was planned and conducted in a clandestine manner, with the express intent of bypassing the law." Vanunu had served 18 years in prison after being found guilty of leaking Israel's nuclear secrets to the London Sunday Times. He is barred from speaking to foreign journalists. The BBC observed that the interview was conducted by Yael Lotan, an Israeli, and that Vanunu was not paid by the BBC for it. It added: "The BBC was fulfilling its duty to report world events fairly and impartially. Mr Vanunu's story is of legitimate world interest and it would have been remiss of the BBC not to cover it."

IT'S HARRY VS. SHREK
Harry Potter is destined to take Shrek prisoner at the box office over the weekend, and the only question is, how completely? Warner Bros.' third film in the wizard series, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, will make its debut on 3,855 screens, only slightly fewer than the all-time widest release set by Shrek 2 two weeks ago, when it opened on 4,163 screens. (It expanded to 4,223 screens last week but slips to 4,131 this weekend.) Box-office analysts are predicting that Potter will rake in between $95 million and $105 million over the three-day weekend and probably top the $95.7 million that Shrek 2 earned over the four-day Memorial Day holiday last weekend Shrek 2 is expected to sink to between $35-40 million, according to analysts' forecasts, pushing it over the $300-million mark. The Day After Tomorrow, meanwhile, is expected to drop to $30-35 million. The big question is whether parents of small children will be taking their kids to see the Potter film following warnings by several critics that it is "darker" and more intense than the previous two. On Wednesday Australian film censors gave the film an M15+ rating, noting that it is not recommended for anyone under 15 because of "horror elements."

Movie PictureMOVIE REVIEWS: HARRY POTTER AND THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN

Movie critics disagree about whether Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is better or worse than the original two. Roger Ebert in the Chicago Sun-Times concludes: "Not quite. It doesn't have that sense of joyously leaping through a clockwork plot, and it needs to explain more than it should. But the world of Harry Potter remains delightful, amusing and sophisticated." Kenneth Turan in the Los Angeles Times argues that the film doesn't really come alive until the final hour. "The key difficulty that has to be overcome ... is that there is too much standard Harry Potter stuff the film seems compelled to include, material that both swells the running time to that counterproductive two hours and 21 minutes and detracts from the story's intrinsic drama." Ann Hornaday in the Washington Post gives the film its most negative review by a major newspaper critic, writing: "This is one long sit, made all the more so by a turgid story, a dour visual palette and uninspiring action." But A.O. Scott in the New York Times writes: "This is surely the most interesting of the three Potter movies, in part because it is the first one that actually looks and feels like a movie, rather than a staged reading with special effects." Geoff Pevere in the Toronto Star confesses that he found the original Potter movie "drab" and passed over the second film completely, but he found the new film "visually imaginative ... glorious." Christy LeMire observes for the Associated Press: "Purists may balk that this is an art-house version of Harry Potter -- and with any revered pop culture phenomenon, fans are likely to get riled about something. But "Azkaban" is by far the meatiest, most magical film in the series thus far." Much of the credit for the artistic success of the new film is assigned to director Alfonso Cuarón. "By portraying its central characters more realistically as adolescents with an array of serious emotional issues -- and even putting them in more contemporary clothes in some scenes -- Cuaron makes the magic that much more magical," writes Lou Lumenick in the New York Post. Mark Caro in the Chicago Tribune says that Cuarón "shakes the candy coating off of the franchise without violating its spirit." And Joe Morgenstern concludes in the New York Post: "Alfonso Cuarón's style relies on trust. He trusts the intrinsic power of movie magic, and the eagerness that keeps kids scanning movie screens like astronomers searching the heavens for new stars."

VALENTI WANTS TO QUIT -- NOW!

Jack Valenti has urged studio chiefs to stop dragging their feet and find a successor to take his place as head of the Motion Picture Association of America before the November elections. According to Daily Variety, Valenti suggested that the studios may be waiting to see which party winds up in power -- and then select a Republican or Democrat accordingly. "I certainly hope this thing can be settled shortly," Valenti told the trade paper, although noting that he would keep his promise to remain on the job until a successor is named. He suggested that the studios forget about political affiliations. "Power passes, power changes," he said. "You can't have someone different come in here every four years. You have to have the right person."

KISS OFF?

Although production has only just begun on the movie Brokeback Mountain, which concerns two cowboys, played by Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger, who fall in love, controversy has already arisen over published reports that director Ang Lee intends to delete a scene in which the two actors kiss. In an interview with the Malaysian Star, Gyllenhaal said, "We were all talking about the kissing in the movie just recently. Clearly, it's pretty challenging material, but Ang said two men herding sheep was far more sexual than two men having sex on screen." His remarks were derided on several gay-oriented Internet chat sites. (Gus Van Sant, the director originally attached to the film, had directed Keanu Reeves and River Phoenix, who played male hustlers, in a kissing scene in the 1991 film My Own Private Idaho.)

THAILAND WOOS BOLLYWOOD

The government of Thailand has begun courting Indian film and TV producers by organizing a tour of Thai studios and locations for a Bollywood delegation beginning June 5th and lasting through June 12th. In a news release, the All India Association of Industries observed that the objective of the tour was "to promote Thailand as a favored shooting location among Indian film producers, as the Thai government realizes that India is recognized worldwide as the largest, single film producing country."