RATINGS SOAR FOR THE OSCARS The decision to advance the date of the Oscar ceremonies to February and to bring back Billy Crystal as host resulted in a 17-percent rise in the ratings Sunday night, according to Nielsen Media Research. The 76th Annual Academy Awards, carried by ABC, drew a 29.6 rating and a 43 share between 8:30 p.m. and 12:15 a.m., versus a 25.2/37 when it aired last March 23. Moreover Barbara Walters' annual pre-Oscars celebrity interview show scored a stunning victory over CBS's usually unbeatable 60 Minutesin the 7:00 hour, as it recorded a 9.4/14 versus Minutes' 7.7/12. With the exception of repeats from NBC's Law & Orderfranchise in the 9:00 p.m. and 10:00 p.m. hours, which drew an 8.1/11 and an 8.5/12 respectively, all shows trying to compete with the Oscars telecast were left in the dust.


The ratings boost for the Oscars was largely attributed to the return of Billy Crystal as host after four years. Most critics agreed that Crystal did not disappoint. Reuters called his return "triumphant." The BBC commented: "The emphasis was on fun all the way, helmed by Billy Crystal on a magnificent return to form." Robert Bianco in USA Todaywrote that "he once again proved that no one kicks off an Oscar night like Crystal." Mike McDaniel in the Houston Chronicleopined that the show was "exuberant, fun, warm and funny television -- about as good as an awards show can be. One of the reasons it was so good was the Return of the Host, as the evening was billed early on." But several critics expressed the opinion that Crystal was the only thing sparkling in the show's production. Tom Shales in the Washington Postwrote that "the return of Billy Crystal as host helped lift the sagging spirits of the more than 3 1/2-hour ceremony and energized an otherwise doleful and logy show." Likewise David Bianculli in the New York Daily Newsobserved: "The "76th Annual Academy Awards wasn't overly long, wasn't risque, wasn't politically contentious -- and, except for some one-liners and songs from returning host Billy Crystal, wasn't any fun." But Crystal himself was not immune to flak. Chicago Sun-TimesTV critic Phil Rosenthal remarked: "The old pro seemed more old than pro, and much of his material was older still, making for a dull Oscar night." And Adam Buckman in the New York Postconcluded: "What a bore! Last night's Oscar telecast was among the most tedious ever."


It didn't produce any stratospheric payoffs and its ratings may have dwindled on every succeeding night, but ABC's Super Millionaire, the network's revamped version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,produced its best ratings last week and as a result will be brought back again in May, the network said Friday. The show's executive producer, Michael Davies, told today's (Monday) New York Times, "The ratings were solid, not spectacular, solid. ... I'm sure in their wildest dreams ABC wanted Millionaire to be the show that could put the network on its back and carry it. It's not that."


The Pentagon, which has complained about what it says is a negative spin that the major U.S. television networks have put on their coverage of Iraq and Afghanistan, has decided to launch its own news service in those countries, to provide independent television stations and Internet sites free news footage to reflect the military's view of how things are going in those countries. The Associated Press said Sunday that the $6.3-million project, called Digital Video and Imagery Distribution System, should begin operating next month and will be able to offer footage taken on the field to Internet viewers within two hours of their occurrence. TRIUMPH OF THE KINGThe Lord of the Rings: The Return of the Kingwon a record-tying 11 Oscars Sunday night, including best film, picking up a trophy in every category in which it was nominated. It was the first fantasy film ever to win the Oscar for best picture. Only 1997's Titanicand 1959's Ben Hurhave won as many awards. Besides claiming the best picture Oscar as one of ROTK's producers, Peter Jackson also nabbed the golden statue for director and adapted screenplay. There were no surprises -- except, perhaps, the appearance of Sean Penn on stage to accept his best actor award for Mystic River. In the past, Penn has been a notorious Oscar no-show. Although there had been much speculation that, if he did appear, he would use the occasion to denounce U.S. policy in Iraq, he made only a passing reference to it. Referring to his fellow nominees, he commented, "If there's one thing that actors know -- apart from the fact that there were no WMDs -- is that there are no bests in acting." Charlize Theron won the best actress Oscar for her performance in Monster.Oscars in the best supporting category were picked up by Renée Zellweger, for Cold Mountain, and Tim Robbins for Mystic River. (Robbins later told reporters that he had thought that his vocal opposition to the war in Iraq would probably cost him an Oscar; he said nothing about the war in his acceptance speech.) Denys Arcand's The Barbarian Invasionswon for best foreign-language film. The only outright political statement was delivered by Errol Morris, who won the feature documentary award for his Vietnam War film The Fog of War. "I fear we're going down a rabbit hole once again," he said.


Meanwhile, despite the spate of honors the movie has received, the Internet site moviemistakes.com said Sunday that fans of The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King have, at last count, reported some 64 continuity errors in it -- most notably a scar on Frodo's face that changes position and size in several scenes (reminiscent of the moving mole on Frau Blücher's face in Young Frankenstein). In all, some 500 apparent continuity errors in the three Lord of the Ringsmovies have been spotted by fans, and presumably the number for Return of the Kingwill increase significantly once it's released on DVD.


Howard Shore, who won the Oscar Sunday night for his score for The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King has told the Toronto Starthat he plans to conduct the Toronto Symphony Orchestra in a performance of excerpts from it next year that will involve some 100 musicians and a chorus of 100. "It all came out of an idea from the conductor of the Hollywood Bowl [John Mauceri]," Shore told the newspaper. "He wanted a concert piece using themes from the movie." The Bowl is being reconstructed this year and will sport two giant movie screens on each side that can be used to show live shots of the orchestra or scenes from motion pictures. "I wrote the symphony because even though people could hear the music at the movie and on CDs, there was a tremendous amount of interest in hearing it played live," Shore said in the Starinterview. "It's the kind of event families can attend together. I've been getting a lot of letters from teachers talking about the educational value." He also disclosed that he is currently working on composing the score for an extended version of Return of the Kingthat will be released on DVD.


Millions of moviegoers defied what they must have regarded as anti-Christ reviewers and packed theaters over the weekend to see Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ. The film earned an estimated $76.2 million, making it the ninth-biggest debut in history. Since its official opening on Wednesday, it has taken in $114.5 million, plus an additional $3 mullion during private screenings earlier in the week. (Some analysts suggested that the actual gross for the movie could soar well above the estimated figure, given the fact that the unknown factor is the box-office take for Sunday, usually a relatively light day for filmgoers. Given the religious nature of Passion, however, Sunday could conceivably turn out to be the busiest day of the weekend for it.) Falling to second place was Sony's 50 First Dates, which counted up an estimated $12.6 million in its third weekend. But a slew of new films performed poorly. Paramount's Twistedopened in third place with just $9.1 million. Lions Gate's Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights debuted with only $5.9 million to place fifth. And Fox Searchlight's horror spoof Club Dread opened with a dreadful $3 million to place 10th. The top ten films for the weekend, according to studio estimates compiled by Exhibitor Relations:1. The Passion of the Christ, $76.2 million; 2. 50 First Dates, $12.6 million; 3. Twisted, $9.1 million; 4. Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen, $6.1 million; 5. Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights, $5.9 million; 6. Miracle, $4.4 million; 7. Eurotrip, $4.1 million; 8. Welcome to Mooseport, $3.35 million; 9. Barbershop 2: Back in Business, $3.1 million; 10. Broken Lizard's Club Dread, $3 million.


The Council on American-Islamic Relations has denounced the upcoming Disney/Touchstone film Hidalgo,starring Viggo Mortensen and Omar Sharif, claiming that it presents negative stereotypes of Muslims and Arabs and that, despite being promoted as "an incredible true story," is completely fictional. The film depicts an American cowboy arriving in Aden in 1890 to compete against a hundred Bedouin riders in a desert horse race covering 5000 kilometers (3,107 miles) called "Ocean of Fire." However, the English-language Arab News today (Monday) quotes Dr. Awad Al-Badim director of research at the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies and an authority on Western travelers to Arabia, as saying: "The idea of a historic trans-Arabian horse race ever having run is pure nonsense." Noting that a 3,000-mile race would put the finish line "somewhere in Romania," Dr. Al-Badi told Arab News: "Since they are claiming it is a true story, it's astonishing that neither Disney nor their scriptwriter have even bothered to check records in established museums and archives or tap a single credible academic." Meanwhile, the Lincoln NB Journal Starreports that research by U.S. historians has also concluded that the film is based on a series of fabricated stories told by Frank Hopkins, the cowboy depicted in the movie. It quoted Vine Deloria Jr., author of Custer Died for Your Sins, as saying, "The man was a pathological liar."