CRITICS APPEAR MORE PASSIONATE ABOUT JUDAS After collecting dust on ABC's shelves for more than two years, the network has decided to air the drama Judas tonight (Monday), presumably hoping that the gospel story will get a boost from the publicity surrounding Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ. "Now ABC feels safe enough to release its quality-sapped product to a controversy-sapped nation, secure that while it may attract a few viewers, it probably won't attract many unhappy accusations," commented critic Matthew Gilbert in the Boston Globe. Indeed, Steve Johnson writes in the Chicago Tribune: "This is a hopeful story, and, hopefully, some of the people who see The Passion and take it as gospel will also see this and realize there are many ways to tell a biblical story." Critic Tom Shales in the Washington Post apparently considers Judas to be a vast improvement on Passion. "ABC's movie seems happily lacking in anti-Semitic aspersions. Writer Tom Fontana ... has Pontius Pilate's wife tell her husband ... 'Fix it so the Jews themselves are held responsible.' ... The Big Lie was born, and two millennia later, Gibson would find a way to recycle it and gross more than $200 million in the process. Surely his parking space in Hell has already been reserved."


Advertisers are not enthusiastic about plans by Nielsen Media Research to include households using TiVo and other digital video recorders in their ratings results, Media Postreported in its online edition MediaDaily on Friday. According to the publication, ad buyers want Nielsen to provide information about whether viewers are skipping commercials when they watch their recorded shows. Kate Lynch, senior vice president-global research director at Starcom Worldwide, said that including the DVR information in Nielsen's ratings would serve only to boost the numbers of already top-rated "shows that we know people aren't watching our ads on." She said that her company's own research indicates that TiVo users skip commercials 54 percent of the time.


Producers of the upcoming UPN animated series Game Over are reportedly angry over orders from the network to delete a two-second shot of a female character's buttocks and cut a line of dialogue from the debut episode set to air on Wednesday, the Los Angeles Timesreported today (Monday). The network edict appears to be the latest fallout from the Janet Jackson breast-baring episode at the Super Bowl last month. Producers have reportedly pointed out that the objectionable material had been seen by the network months ago and was included in review copies sent to critics. In its report of the dispute, the Timescommented: "The imbroglio shows how quickly the environment has changed for producers who dare to put edgy or off-color material in their shows."


A former Disney television executive has blamed Michael Eisner for so "micromanaging" the Disney empire that executives in his division felt paralyzed until Eisner weighed in on a project. In an interview with Sunday's New York Times, the unnamed executive, who said that he resigned in frustration, accused Disney of putting "a complete and total focus on the bottom line," and shunting aside projects that entailed a creative risk. One such project, he pointed out, was the CSI: Crime Scene Investigationseries, which was originally developed at Disney but dropped because, according to the former exec, of fears that it would not sell well overseas." The series eventually became a hit for CBS and is a top-rated series (along with CSI Miami) in several overseas markets as well. In a separate article appearing in today's (Monday) New York Times, producer Mark Burnett is quoted as saying that he initially brought The Apprenticeto ABC but that the network turned it down when Burnett refused to agree to a lower price. "It's awful to go over there knowing it's going to be so hard for them to make a deal," Burnett said.


Shares in EchoStar Communications, which operates the Dish satellite TV service, dropped 4 percent on Friday and continued to decline in early trading today (Monday) amid reports that Dish would pull the plug on CBS and all of Viacom's cable channels, including MTV and Nickelodeon, at midnight tonight (Monday) unless the two sides can agree on a contract renewal. Last week, Echostar founder Charlie Ergen accused Viacom of employing tactics that represented "extortion at the highest level" in order to force the satellite operator to pay higher rates for the company's cable networks and to carry one that it has no use for. In an interview with the Denver Poston Sunday Ergen showed no sign of backing down. He told the newspaper: "We're willing to point out what we think is an injustice. Our stock price may go down, and we may lose customers. But I wake up and look in the mirror and say, 'I feel good about this decision.'" PASSION RISES AGAIN Moviegoers' passion for Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christdiminished only slightly over the weekend -- 39 percent to be precise, a small drop by box-office standards -- as the film took in an estimated $51.4 million to bring its 12-day gross to $212 million. Only two other films, Spider-Man and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King have reached the $200-million mark faster. Moreover, it seemed clear that much of the business for Passionwas produced by ticket-buyers who don't ordinarily go to the movies, as Warner's Starsky & Hutch opened with a better-than-predicted $29.1 million and Disney's Hidalgotook in $19.6 million. In an interview with the Associated Press, Disney distribution chief Chuck Viane remarked. "I've never seen anything quite like The Passion. ... To have two other movies come in and open as strongly as they did in the face of a steamroller, you can't complain." The total box office was up an astounding 44 percent from the comparable weekend a year ago, partly the result of post-Oscar bumps for the big winners. New Line added 791 theaters to the 1112 that were still showing Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King and wound up with the movie placing seventh among the top ten with $3.2 million, after dropping out of the top ten a week ago. The top ten films for the weekend, according to studio estimates compiled by Exhibitor Relations:1. The Passion of the Christ, $51.4 million; 2.Starsky & Hutch, $29.05 million; 3. Hidalgo,$19.6 million; 4.50 First Dates, $7.7 million; 5. Twisted, $5 million; 6.Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen, $4 million; 7. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, $3.2 million; 8. Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights, $2.85 million; 9. Miracle, $2.6 million; 10. Monster, $2.25 million.


Movielink, Hollywood's attempt to deliver movies over high-speed Internet connections at video-store prices, has failed to attract a significant amount of users, the Los Angeles Timesreported Sunday. The biggest problem facing the service, the newspaper observed, is that the movies can only be played on the computer on which they were downloaded. "If they can't get it to the TV, they're hosed," Forrester Research analyst Josh Bernoff told the Times. An unnamed Hollywood executive close to Movielink acknowledged, "Clearly the usage level is not what we'd hoped it would be. ... But frankly, the user experience is not what we'd hoped it would be."


New Line has set May 25 for the home-video release of The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King at a list price of $29.95 for DVD and $24.97 for VHS. An extended version of the film, including numerous "extras" is expected to be released around the Christmas season, priced at about $40.00. "You could almost call them the everyman edition and the fan set," Video Watchdog editor Tim Lucas told today's (Monday) Los Angeles Times, "because the expanded editions really do play to the fans." Meanwhile, it was announced that the first Lord of the Ringsmovie will air on The WB network in HDTV during the November sweeps.


The Regal theater chain has begun premiering music DVDs with one-night screenings on the date of their release, Video Storemagazine reported today (Monday). The DVDs are transmitted by satellite to as many as 480 Regal theaters that are equipped with digital projectors, but only a small percentage of that number are actually screening them. For example, Kenny Chesney's latest music DVD, Road Case: The Movieis premiering tonight at 32 Regal theaters. "Theater fill rates average generally about 70 percent, and we've had multiple sellouts in nearly every event we've done," Dan Diamond, VP of business development for Regal, told the magazine.


Ben Affleck has expressed regret that he convinced his former fiancée Jennifer Lopez to appear in his upcoming movie, Jersey Girl, because of the negative publicity that has become attached to the movie as a result of their failed movie Gigli and the breakup of their engagement. During a press conference in New York on Friday, Affleck remarked: "Jen is only in the movie for 10 or 12 minutes and when I look back on it now I feel really bad about having gotten her involved because I said 'Come on, do it, it'll be fun, it's just a small part, we'll be together' ... And now we've got nothing but trouble for it." He added that he feels "guilty because I don't want all of this media stuff to take away from what is a really interesting movie." On the other hand, Kevin Smith, the film's director, told the Toronto Star: "I think if Gigli had been a big hit, you probably would have seen a poster that had Ben and Jen on it. And that's not really the movie because Jennifer dies in the first 15 minutes."


Peter Jackson has predicted that it may take years for New Line Cinema and MGM to sort out their legal issues over The Hobbitbefore he can begin work on the prequel to Lord of the Rings. (New Line holds the rights to produce the film; MGM, to distribute it.). "I guess MGM's lawyers and New Line's lawyers are going to have a huge amount of fun over the next few years trying to work it all out," Jackson told reporters. He said that if the movie does materialize, "I'd want Ian McKellen to be back as Gandalf, I'd want it to feel like it was part of the same mythology that we've done with Lord of the Rings."


Leading British Hindus have expressed anger over the choice of Tina Turner to play the roll of the Hindu goddess Shakti in an upcoming film by Ismail Merchant and James Ivory, the Singapore Straits Timesreported today (Monday). Ganapati Saraswati, director of the Hindu Scriptures Study Centre, told the newspaper: "It is deeply offensive to Hindus for Shakti to be played by a woman well-known around the world for her sexually accented singing and dance performances. Ms Turner is not even a Hindu. We have many highly respected actresses who would be better suited for the role." Saraswati says he will urge protests at theaters showing the movie. Hasmuk Shah, an international trustee of the World Council of Hindus, commented: "Casting Tina Turner is insensitive and an affront to Hindus and we will not stand for it."