GHOSTS BRING ABC BACK FROM THE DEAD
Despite nearly universal drubbing from critics, Stephen King's Kingdom Hospital debuted in first place on ABC Wednesday night, nabbing a 9.4 rating and a 14 share in the 9:00 p.m?. hour. It dipped in the second hour to an 8.2/14 as if faced NBC's generally unbeatable Law & Order (10.0/17). (However, the hospital ghost story edged out L&O among 18-49-year-olds.) Although its ratings were off considerably from previous Wednesdays, Fox's American Idol remained the highest-rated show of the night with an average 12.6/18. Idol is enduring increasing carping from critics that the current band of contestants is unexciting.

OSCARS MAY AIR EVEN EARLIER NEXT YEAR

After witnessing a substantial hike in the ratings for the Academy Awards last Sunday, attributed in part to its earlier broadcast date, producer Joe Roth is lobbying to present next year's ceremonies earlier? still, in mid-February, MSNBC.com columnist Jeannette Walls reported today (Thursday). "Joe has been talking to everyone telling them that's what he wants," Academy spokesman John Pavlik told the website. "The Academy doesn't have an opinion. The board will meet sometime at the end of March, and then we'll have an opinion." Walls pointed out that opponents of the earlier date claim that it works against smaller films, because it doesn't give Oscar voters enough time to screen their pictures.

BAN ON JUNK-FOOD ADS COULD END KIDS' PROGRAMS, SAYS AD GROUP

Amid efforts to restrict certain food advertising on children's television shows, the head of the Association of National Advertisers on Tuesday warned that such efforts "would curtail if not end children's broadcasting on free television and ad-supported cable." As reported in MediaPost's online edition on Wednesday, ANA President and CEO Bob Liodice told a Senate panel that the advertising industry's "self-regul?atory system is an active cop on the beat ... working to see that all marketing aimed at children is appropriate." Lawmakers are coming under heavy pressure from some children's advocates who charge that kids are bombarded with ads for high-calorie cereals, drinks and assorted junk food on network and cable programs aimed at them. A New York University study recently concluded that $13 billion is spent annually by the food and drink industries on ads featured in kids shows.
CONGRESS SET TO CRACK DOWN ON INDECENT PROGRAMS Determined to crack down on indecent content on radio and television programs, the House Energy and Commerce Committee on Wednesday approved legislation that would increase fines for violations of the FCC's indecency rules to $500,000 from $27,500 and require a hearing aimed at revoking a broadcaster's license after the third violation. The vote was 49 to 1. A Senate committee is expected to offer a similar bill next week. In a statement, the National Association of Broadcasters ?said that while it was opposed to the legislation, it had heard "the call of legislators and are committed to taking voluntary action to address this issue."

ABC NEWS INVESTIGATES ITSELF

The producers of ABC's Nightline admitted Wednesday that they had embarked on a report concerning the current tribulations of the Walt Disney Co. with trepidation. In a press release promoting the feature, Nightline executive producer Leroy Sievers said: "Those of you who remember the comic strip Pogo probably remember its most famous line: 'We have met the enemy and he is us.' With apologies to the author of the strip, today 'we have met the news and it is us.'" Pointing out that Disney is the parent company of ABC, Sievers added: "It's obviously difficult to report on ourselves. We don't like being the news." At the time that the statement was issued, Sievers said that the program would feature interviews wi?th company dissidents Roy Disney and Stanley Gold but that Disney execs Michael Eisner and Bob Iger and board member George Mitchell had declined invitations to be interviewed. Eisner, however, later agreed to appear on the program.

NBC SUES WILL & GRACE CREATORS

NBC has countersued Will & Grace creators David Kohan and Max Mutchnick after the duo had charged in their own law suit tht the network had negotiated a sweetheart deal with the producers of the program, NBC Studios, for the show's renewal. The network charged that Kohan and Mutchnick had been invited to participate in the negotiations but had declined because they had intended to file a law suit all along. "Mutchnick, Kohan and their handlers were only interested in creating an illusion of cooperation when in fact they were totally uncooperative, duplicitous and guilty of shameless self-dealing in the process," the NBC complaint said.

LORD HUTTON S?AID TO BE SHOCKED OVER BBC RESIGNATIONS

The British law lord who investigated the suicide of weapons expert David Kelly after he was revealed to be the source of a controversial BBC news story reportedly was shocked to learn that the BBC's two most senior figures resigned following the release of his findings, according to Britain's Guardian newspaper. Lord Hutton is also said to have been dismayed by accusations that the report amounted to a whitewash of Prime Minister Tony Blair, the newspaper observed. Hutton had focused his attention on a report by BBC reporter Andrew Gilligan that quoted an unnamed British official -- later identified as Kelly -- as accusing Blair's chief spokesman of ordering an intelligence report on Iraq's alleged WMDs "sexed up" in order to help make the case for war. Hutton had called the report unfounded and said that the BBC's editorial oversight had been defective. The Guardian said that members of Parliament? intend to question Lord Hutton about reaction to his report when he appears before them in May.

THE MICE THAT ROARED
In a scene rivaling that of any Hollywood melodrama, 43 percent of Walt Disney Co.'s shareholders, meeting at a raucous assembly in Philadelphia Wednesday, withheld their votes from Michael Eisner in his reelection bid for the board. Hours later, Eisner was stripped of his title of chairman and replaced by former U.S. Senator George Mitchell, the board's presiding director. Although he remained as chief executive officer, Eisner's opponents vowed to oust him from that position as well. "It's too little, too late," Christy Wood, the chief investment officer for the California Public Employees' Retirement system (CalPERS) commented in today's (Thursday) Los Angeles Times about the board's action. Several critics observed that Mitchell and Eisner are close friends and that it was unlikely that the for?mer senator would restrain the supposedly authoritarian Eisner. (Twenty-four percent of shareholders also withheld their votes for Mitchell.) Eisner himself appeared undaunted by the vote against him, suggesting in an interview with Ted Koppel on ABC's Nightline Wednesday night that the matter merely amounted to a desire by shareholders to split the titles of chairman and CEO. "We heard our shareholders who seemed to be interested in that, so we went ahead and did it," he said. He dismissed speculation that he might step down by the end of the year, vowing to remain at least until his contract expires in 2006. But Business Week observed in its online edition today that "Eisner's control of the Mouse House has never been shakier." And James Owers, professor of finance at Georgia State University's Robinson College of Business, told today's Philadelphia Inquirer: "The market is pretty much now saying, 'We want Eisner out. ..?. If the board offers a fig-leaf-type action, like separating the chairman and CEO's jobs, a year from now the directors will all be voted out as [Wall Street] just says, 'Enough.'"

COMCAST STANDS PAT

Without sweetening its bid, Comcast again called on Walt Disney's board to reconsider its $50-billion offer to buy the company. The bid was quickly rejected as inadequate by the board. And Disney shareholders, including those angry over the company's current management, also showed little enthusiasm for the Comcast takeover effort. (Any mention of Comcast during Disney's shareholders meeting in Philadelphia Wednesday was generally accompanied by boos.) Today's (Thursday) New York Times quoted one New Jersey investor as saying, "Disney is more than a company. It is part of Americana. ... It's a sacred institution. I would not want to see it tampered with by a company that wants to exploit it only for a couple o?f its assets." Meanwhile, Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates said Wednesday that his company has no intention of making a bid for Disney "because we're very focused on software."

PASSION LIKELY TO PASS $200 MILLION BY SECOND WEEKEND

Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ took in an additional $19.4 million on Monday and Tuesday to bring its total to $144.6 million, according to figures released by Exhibitor Relations. Box office analysts predicted that the film will easily surpass $200 million by the end of next weekend and stands a good chance of grossing $300 million by the end of its domestic run. Meanwhile, despite the pious nature of the film, bootleg copies have turned up in Pennsylvania where they were seized by state police from a man they had pulled over for a traffic stop. Police said that in addition to the Passion DVDs, they also found copies of St?arsky and Hutch, which doesn't even open until Friday.

DISNEY PUTS ANTARCTICA ON ICE

As reports mounted about huge budget overruns on its epic historical drama The Alamo, Disney has reportedly put the brakes on its planned April start of Antarctica. Daily Variety attributed the halt to "a rising budget caused by logistical problems." According to the trade paper, the film was originally scheduled to be shot in Greenland, but that location became unsuitable when mild weather turned the usually white wasteland green. Moving the production to a different location or using digital effects to turn the green into snow apparently would have increased costs significantly. Variety said that the studio is likely to remount the project in Canada next year.

SHREK 3-D COMING SOON

On May 11, just 10 days before DreamWorks releases Shrek 2 in theaters, the company's home video unit is pl?anning to release Shrek 3-D as a DVD two-pack that will include the original theatrical movie and a 3-D sequel that can be viewed with 3D glasses that are included. According to Video Store magzine, the set, priced at $16.95, also includes a coupon for a free package of Skittles.

WANT TO JOIN THE CIRCUS?

Hippofilms says it is looking for six young actors with a talent for silliness to play the members of Monty Python's Flying Circus in a feature movie about their early days. As reported by Britain's Empire magazine, the production company plans to hold open auditions for the roles in London, Los Angeles, New York and Tokyo (?). "Our goal isn't just to find six look-alikes," producer David Eric Brenner told the publication, "but to discover six incredibly talented performers who embody that Pythonic brilliance and lunacy." The movie is based on the memoirs of the late Python member Graham Chapman.