RATINGS DIP FOR OSCARSRatings for Sunday night's Oscar telecast were down about 10 percent from last year -- a decline far less dramatic than many analysts had predicted. The ABC-TV awards telecast averaged a 27.0 rating and a 40 share according to Nielsen overnights, versus a 30.1/43 for last year's show. Earlier in the evening, the Oscar pre-show drew a 10.7/17.


Critics seemed to agree: It was one of the safest, least political Oscar telecasts in recent years. Jon Stewart, who has earned his considerable reputation taking satirical swipes at Establishment conduct, appeared to some critics to be straight-jacketed in his tuxedo. Commented the A.P.'s Frazier Moore: "His usually impeccable blend of puckishness and self-effacement fell flat in the service of Oscar. But he wasn't alone. The rest of the broadcast was largely bland and by-the-numbers." Tom Shales in the Washington Posthad a harsher verdict. "It's hard to believe that professional entertainers could have put together a show less entertaining than this year's Oscars, hosted with a smug humorlessness by comic Jon Stewart, a sad and pale shadow of great hosts gone by," he wrote. On the other hand, Robert Bianco in USA Today, concluded: "When the movies are small, Oscar's host has to be huge -- and Jon Stewart came through big time. ... Indeed, moving Stewart from late-night cable to prime-time network for Sunday's Academy Awards may have been the best Oscar idea in years." And Ted Johnson wrote in Daily Variety: "Jon Stewart played it right down the middle, avoiding sharp political humor, steering clear of biting industry riffs and even firing off some one liners that could have easily have been said by consummate emcee Bob Hope."


The Bill O'Reilly/Keith Olbermann feud became more bizarre over the weekend when a caller to O'Reilly's radio show, syndicated by CBS-owned Westwood One, was contacted by a member of Fox News Network's private security force apparently for mentioning Olbermann's name when he called in on Thursday. The man had barely gone on the air, remarking, "I like to listen to you during the day. I think Keith Olbermann's show ..." when O'Reilly cut him off, remarking a moment later, ""When you call us, ladies and gentleman, just so you know, we do have your phone number, and if you say anything untoward, obscene, or anything like that, Fox security will then contact your local authorities, and you will be held accountable. Fair?" Anti-O'Reilly bloggers have been having a field day with the dispute, with one site, PoliticalCortex.com, offering accounts of persons who were contacted by Fox News security after calling O'Reilly's show. One woman said that she was accused of making harassing phone calls to O'Reilly. "I asked him how many? He did not know. I asked him what was said that was harassing? He said that he did not know what was said but that it did not have to be what was said, but how many calls were being made. He tried to make like I made 20 phone calls instead of one." Another blogger wrote that the security officer who phoned him "was actually very pleasant. ... Honestly, he really didn't sound like he wanted to be doing this at all." Ratings for Olbermann's show on MSNBC have zoomed since the spat began, particularly among younger viewers.


In the latest shake-up in the production offices of ABC's Commander in Chief, Steven Bochco has been replaced by Dee Johnson as the show's "showrunner," according to Daily Variety. However, according to the trade publication, Steven Bochco Productions is still producing the series. Bochco had replaced the original producer, Rod Lurie, after Commanderran behind its production schedule last fall, reportedly forcing the network to air reruns and put the show on hiatus while new episodes were filmed under Bochco's supervision. The series, starring Geena Davis, is currently on hiatus and is due to return next month.


NBC's newsmagazine Datelinemay be in its final season, according to Broadcasting & Cablecolumnist J. Max Robins. Friday night's edition was recently moved to Saturdays, where it won its time period in its debut on that night last weekend. Although NBC News president Steve Capus maintained in an interview with Robins that "the franchise is alive and well," Robins observed that "the support of the news division chief may not be enough to save a franchise that's been on NBC since 1992" but which has shown a steady decline in viewers, particularly among 25- to 54-year-olds. Robins also indicated that ABC's 20/20and Primetime Live could also face hatchets if their ratings don't improve.BROKE' BROKEN BY CRASHIn a decision that elicited considerable surprise but little praise, Oscar voters on Sunday selected Lionsgate's Crashas the best picture of 2005, passing over the favorite, Brokeback Mountain.David M. Halbfinger and David Carr commented in the New York Timesthat the movie academy "turned its back" on an "unflinching gay love story" and awarded the Oscar to "a moody kaleidoscope of racial confrontation in Los Angeles in which every character is at once sympathetic and repulsive." Tom Shales in the Washington Postwrote that the decision will no doubt produce arguments over "whether the Best Picture Oscar to Crash was really for the film's merit or just a cop-out by the Motion Picture Academy so it wouldn't have to give the prize to Brokeback Mountain." The Boston Globe film critic Ty Burr called the decision "one of the most stunning upsets in Oscar history." His colleague, Wesley Morris, wrote: "The memo from Hollywood seems clear enough. Better to reward the movie about people who clean our closets than the one about the men who live in them." And in a blistering commentary, Los Angeles Timescritic Kenneth Turan excoriated the motion picture industry for its choice, claiming that despite the box office success and favorable publicity Brokeback had achieved (he did not mention the numerous awards from critics' organizations) "you could not take the pulse of the industry without realizing that this film made a number of people distinctly uncomfortable. ... In the privacy of the voting booth, as many political candidates who've led in polls only to lose elections have found out, people are free to act out the unspoken fears and unconscious prejudices that they would never breathe to another soul, or, likely, acknowledge to themselves. And at least this year, that acting out doomed Brokeback Mountain." Finally, Turan concluded that Hollywood "likes to pat itself on the back for the good it does in the world, but as Sunday night's ceremony proved, it is easier to congratulate yourself for a job well done in the past than to actually do that job in the present." The reaction was similar from overseas critics. On the Indian website Rediff.com, Aseem Chhabria wrote: "We will never know how many more Academy voters picked Crash over Brokeback. But this much is clear: While Crash is a fine and important film, in choosing Crash over Brokeback, the Academy members showed their conservative, safe and non-controversial side."


Except for the victory of Crash in the best film category, all other votes went pretty much as expected. Ang Lee received the award for best director even though his film, Brokeback Mountain, was passed over for best film. Crash also received awards for best adapted screenplay (Diana Ossana and Larry McMurtry) and for best score (Gustavo Santaolalla). Philip Seymour Hoffman won the best actor award for his performance in the title role of Capote. Reese Witherspoon won the best actress award for her performance as June Carter Cash in the Johnny Cash bio, Walk the Line. George Clooney, who was nominated in three categories for two different films, Syrianaand Good Night, and Good Luck,won the best supporting actor Oscar for Syriana. ("If the evening seemed to belong to anybody, it belonged to the one-time TV doctor who must now be considered one of the film industry's ruling figures," wrote Ty Burr in the Boston Globe.) Rachel Weisz took the supporting actress award for her part in The Constant Gardener. Crash also won Oscars for best original screenplay (Paul Haggis and Bobby Moresco) and for editing (Hughes Winborne.)


The lesson of the weekend box office was clear: never underestimate the power of the church to turn out audiences. For the second week in a row, Madea's Family Reunion, which was vigorously promoted in black churches, topped the box office earning $13 million. Four films that made their debuts over the weekend foundered: 16 Blocks, Dave Chapelle's Block Party, Ultraviolet and Aquamarine. The box office was down 15 percent from the comparable week a year ago. Particularly disappointing was the performance of Dave Chappelle's Block Party, which received mostly positive reviews but ended up in seventh place with only $6.5 million. The top ten films for the weekend, according to studio estimates compiled by Exhibitor Relations:1. Tyler Perry's Madea's Family Reunion,$13 million; 2. 16 Blocks, $11.7 million; 3. Eight Below, $10.3 million; 4. Ultraviolet, $9 million; 5. Aquamarine, $7.5 million; 6. The Pink Panther, $7 million; 7. Dave Chappelle's Block Party, $6.5 million; 8. Date Move, $5.1 million; 9. Curious George, $4.4 million; 10 Firewall, $3.5 million.