VALENTI WORRIES ABOUT FCC CRACKDOWN
MPAA chief Jack Valenti expressed concern Monday that the recent "decency" crackdown on television and radio could have a chilling effect on free speech in America. Appearing at the ShoWest exhibitors conference in Las Vegas, Valenti said that the First Amendment "is the one [part] of the Constitution that guarantees all others. If you don't have freedom of speech, what do you have? So, I worry about that." He added, however, that TV and radio broadcasters ought to warn viewers about the nature of the content they are planning to broadcast at the beginning of each program. Asked about the huge fines that regulators may be authorized to mete out to broadcasters and talent for violation of decency standards, Valenti replied: "It does bother me, but I believe in the end this will work out."

CABLERS TO OFFER SUBSCRIBERS FREE CONTENT CONTROLS

Concerned that regulators could decide to impose the same sort of restrictions on cable programmers that they do on over-the-air broadcasters, the head of the National Cable and Telecommunications Assn. announced today (Tuesday) that it plans to provide customers with the means to block unwanted programming at no charge. Speaking at a cable-industry conference in Washington, NCTCA President and CEO Robert Sachs said, "If we, as an industry, actively promote the choices and controls available to cable consumers, there will be no need for anyone [else] to do so.

COURT TV OFFERS AD BUYERS NEW CHOICES

Recognizing that advertisers have begun to doubt that traditional TV advertising formats will survive the challenge of the Internet, TiVo, video-on-demand, and other technological innovations, Court TV has offered advertisers the opportunity to test a number of ad formats and to underwrite the costs of research to evaluate their effectiveness. MediaPost's online MediaDailyNews reported Monday that the channel, jointly owned by Time Warner and Liberty Media, plans to pitch the deal to advertising agency research directors at a special luncheon in New York on April 16. One of the ideas that Court TV would like to test, an executive told the publication, is to offer spots for sale at one-second increments, instead of the traditional 30-second or 60-second units.

SUCCESS OF IDOL NOT RUBBING OFF ON FOX PROGRAMMING

Although ratings for Fox's American Idol are up 24 percent on Tuesdays and 20 percent on Wednesdays, producing some of the highest ratings on network TV, ratings for the rest of Fox's lineup, including those for critically praised newcomers, are down 15 percent against last year, the Los Angeles Times observed, citing Nielsen numbers. David Nevins, president of Imagine Television, which co-produces 24 and Arrested Development, told the Times that the numbers may reveal a great deal about a change in viewing habits, particularly among younger viewers. "This idea of, 'Grab them at 8:00 p.m. and hold them for the rest of the night' just doesn't apply anymore," Nevins said.

AL-JAZEERA BLOCKED IN CANADA

The media critic of the Toronto Star has complained that "a campaign by a couple of Jewish lobby groups" has kept the English-language service of the Qatar-based al-Jazeera news network off the air in Canada. Antonia Zerbisias wrote today (Tuesday) that although more than a year has passed since the Canadian Cable Television Association asked the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission to carry the channel, the commission has failed to make a decision. Zerbisias observed that although al-Jazeera has been denounced by American and Israeli politicians as an anti-American and anti-Zionist voice, the channel has also "riled up just about every Arab dictatorship [and] theocracy." Nevertheless, she wrote, its reporters have taken considerable risks to cover the area, including being first on the scene last Wednesday following the bombing of Baghdad's Mount Lebanon Hotel, providing footage to both CNN and MSNBC. Zerbisias concluded, "In a world where the more information and the more perspectives the better, this channel, in English anyway, could be a valuable resource."

BOND IN BONDAGE
In what could represent a major blow to MGM, the producers of the next James Bond film are reportedly at "an impasse" over how to proceed with the production. Interviewed for the movie website www.chud.com, Pierce Brosnan, who had appeared set to reprise his role as 007, commented that the producers "don't know what to do. They don't know how to move on. ... There's a certain sense of paralysis that has kind of blanketed production at the moment." He suggested that preproduction work on the film has shut down, at least temporarily. "We seem to have taken a break at the moment. The producers have reached an impasse, as far as I can tell," Brosnan said. The actor also expressed doubt about whether he would appear in the film if the freeze continues. "I certainly would love to do a fifth Bond and then bow out, but if this last one is to be the last one, then so be it." [In a separate interview with the London Daily Mirror, Brosnan remarked: "You know going in that your time will come to bow out, walk off and say goodbye. If that time is now, then it's been a glorious ride."] Brosnan suggested that the producers ought to consider departing from the gimmicky spectacle of recent 007 movies and return to a more character-driven plot like From Russia With Love. He said: "It's frustrating, really, because they feel they have to top themselves in a genre which is just spectacle and huge bang for your buck."

PENSION FUNDS CALL FOR MEETING WITH DISNEY BOARD

Some of the pension funds that want Michael Eisner removed as CEO of the Walt Disney Co., have expressed concern "that our investments and the future of this company are in jeopardy," and have asked to meet with the board of directors. Six funds, headed by the powerful California Public Employees' Retirement System (CalPERS), said in a letter to George Mitchell, Disney's new chairman, that such a meeting would "send a necessary signal to the marketplace that the Disney board is willing to engage in a constructive dialogue regarding our mutual interests." Brad Pacheco, a spokesman for CalPERS, told today's (Tuesday) Los Angeles Daily News, "We all have substantial holdings in the company, and right now our concern is really long-term value." In other published interviews, several of the letter's signatories indicated that they do not intend to press for Eisner's removal if such a meeting is arranged. Rather, they said, they want to be informed of the specific steps that the company intends to take to improve its performance.

GIBSON LIKELY TO BECOME TOP CELEBRITY MONEY-EARNER

Although Mel Gibson fell off the "Forbes Celebrity 100" list last year, the success of his The Passion of the Christ will likely push him to the top of the list this year, as his $30-million investment is likely to net him between $300 million and $400 million out of a gross of around $1 billion, Forbes senior editor Peter Newcomb has told the Los Angeles Times. "Given the money Gibson stands to make from The Passion and the media attention it generated, I'd be shocked if he wasn't No. 1. In this minute, Gibson is the 800-pound gorilla on the Hollywood landscape. The real question, since there's no possibility of a sequel, is just what's down the road." David Matalon, president and chief operating officer of New Regency Productions, told the newspaper that Gibson is now in a position to call the shots in studio deals "He was getting $25 million to star, plus a percentage of the gross _ and anyone doing business with him must be even more generous now," Matalon said.

DEAD RISES AT THE BOX OFFICE

Universal's Dawn of the Dead dawned at the top of the box office over the weekend with 26.7 million, knocking Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ out of first place for the first time since its debut four weeks earlier. The Jim Carrey movie Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, had the second best per-theater average among the top earners, but because it opened in fewer than half the theaters that Dawn of the Dead did, it landed in seventh place on the Exhibitor Relations list with $8.2 million. The top ten films over the weekend, according to final figures compiled by Exhibitor Relations (figures in parentheses represent total gross to date):
1. Dawn of the Dead, Universal, $26,722,575, (New); 2. The Passion of the Christ, Newmarket, $19,414,377, 4 Wks. ($295,507,244); 3. Taking Lives, Warner Bros., $11,458,465, (New); 4. Starsky & Hutch, Warner Bros., $10,392,443, 3 Wks. ($67,462,135); 5. Secret Window, Sony, $9,264,701, 2 Wks. ($32,775,496); 6. Hidalgo, Disney, $8,415,810, 3 Wks. ($48,418,806); 7. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Focus Features, $8,175,198, (New); 8. Agent Cody Banks 2, MGM, $6,030,302, 2 Wks. ($17,323,515); 9. 50 First Dates, Sony, $4,186,739, 6 Wks. ($11,308,0464); 10. Confessions of A Teenage Drama Queen, Disney, $1,560,872, 5 Wks. ($27,592,110).

AN OFFICIAL CLUE ABOUT EPISODE III

The official Star Wars website <www.starwars.com> has provided the first authorized clues about the content of Episode III, scheduled for release next year. LucasFilm has posted a teaser that summarizes the story line. It reads: "After three long years of relentless fighting, the Clone Wars are nearly at an end. The Jedi Council dispatches Obi-Wan Kenobi to bring the deadly leader of the Separatist droid army to justice. Meanwhile, back on Coruscant, Chancellor Palpatine has grown in power. His sweeping political changes transform the war-weary Republic into the mighty Galactic Empire. To his closest ally, Anakin Skywalker, he reveals the true nature of power and the promised secrets of the Force in an attempt to lure him to the dark side."

DISNEY TO RELEASE JAPANESE ANIME CLASSICS ON HOME VIDEO

The Walt Disney Co., which has been strongly criticized for its constrained marketing and distribution schemes for the animated features produced by Japan's Hayao Miyazaki (The Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away), now plans to release three of the director's earlier films on home video. The films are 1988's My Neighbor Totoro, 1986's Nausicaä of the Valley of the Winds, and 1992's Porco Rosso. Although the original Japanese-language track may be played on the DVD version, the English language versions feature such voice talent as Patrick Stewart, Michael Keaton, Brad Garrett, and Alison Lohman.

BOX OFFICE RISES -- BUT IS STILL THREATENED BY PIRACY, SAYS MPAA

Despite rampant film piracy, the worldwide box office rose 5 percent in 2003 over 2002 with $10.85 billion in ticket sales, according to figures presented Monday by the MPAA during the ShoWest exhibitors conference in Las Vegas. In an address to the convention, Veronika Kwan-Rubinek, president of international distribution for Warner's, claimed that upwards of a billion dollars was lost to pirates last year. Her appraisal was echoed by MPAA chief Jack Valenti, who then remarked: "China is thick with fraudulent copies -- in every street corner, in the flea markets, in the kiosks of five-star hotels, illegal DVDs are available at prices of 50 cents to $1 dollar American currency." Valenti fingered Russia as the chief culprit, however, calling the country "the greatest exporter today of illegal DVDs, masterfully copied."