FINALE DRAWS 51.1 MILLION FRIENDS Nielsen Media Research has estimated that 51.1 million tuned in to watch the series final of FriendsThursday night, in line with predictions by NBC sales executives, who based their pricing for the program on a forecast of 45-55 million viewers. The figure (a 29.2 rating and a 42 share) was roughly half of what the all-time champ, the series finale of M*A*S*H, drew in 1983 and about two-thirds of the audience that watched the more recent finales of Cheers and Seinfeld.Nielsen estimated that about 36 million tuned in to the lead-in "clip show" (21.5/34) featuring highlights from the series over the past ten years. Meanwhile, opposite the Friendsshow, CBS collected a respectable 12.8/19 for CSI: Crime Scene Investigation,down from a 16.1/25 last week.


The series finale of Friends attracted mixed notices. Ed Bark in the Dallas Morning Newscalled it "sugary but satisfying." Erica Temel in the Baltimore Sundescribed it as "very emotional." Vinay Menon wrote in the Toronto Starthat "Friends went gently into TV heaven, sensibly avoiding the hellish twists and shocks that have torpedoed many an ambitious finale." However, another Canadian TV columnist, Bill Brioux of the London, OntarioFree Press, remarked "It was called 'The Last One,' but it should have been called 'The One That Really Sucked.'" Roger Catlin in the Hartford(CT) Courantcalled it "relatively low-key," while similarly Ellen Gray in the Philadelphia Daily Newsexpressed appreciation for the fact that no shockers were contrived for the finale. "As much-hyped series finales go, last night's episode of Friends probably did more to keep faith with its core audience than most," she wrote. David Brauder of the Associated Press concluded: "Television's most popular comedy provided the ending most of its fans were hoping for, with the on-again, off-again couple declaring their undying love and the gang heading out for one last cup of java."


Thanks largely to strong performances by its television units, Rupert Murdoch's News Corp recorded a nearly 50-percent rise in profits in the last quarter compared with the same period a year ago. Earnings rose to $465 million from $275 million as Fox News Channel doubled its operating income, FX's audience averaged 1 million viewers in primetime for the first time, and American Idoloverwhelmed the competition on the Fox TV network, thereby boosting its operating income 25 percent. (Murdoch said in a conference call that the network is attracting $1 million for each 30-second spot on the talent contest but is being careful not to overexpose it.) Murdoch said that his company will launch an additional channel this year that will debut on News Corp's newly acquired DirecTV. Borrowing a page from his British satellite service, BSkyB, Murdoch said that he will also offer the channel to cable systems. He did not describe the nature of the channel, although analysts have long speculated that News Corp would launch a financial news channel to compete with the likes of CNBC and CNNfn.


Saying that "things seem funnier when you're really, really tired," Rob Burnett on Thursday explained why The Late Show with David Lettermanwill be taping at 4:00 a.m. next Friday. (The remark raised obvious questions about whether the same things will seem funnier to people watching the show at its regular time of 11:30 p.m., but those questions were not addressed in a CBS press release.) The producers suggested that it might be easier than usual for visitors to New York to see the show if they wish to stay up through the wee hours. (There is generally a long waiting list for Letterman tickets.) They have set up a telephone number, (212) 846-2566, for people to call for tickets.


Fox News is claiming that an Atlanta billboard company is censoring a sign that it rents across the street from CNN's Atlanta offices. The company has used the sign since 1999 to needle CNN about its falling market share among news viewers and chide it about apparent missteps. It had recently wanted the sign changed to read: "Now That CNN's Ratings are Gone With the Wind, Our Work on This Board Is Done. We Love You Atlanta. Brought to you by your friends at FOX News Channel." However, despite threats of legal action, the billboard company involved has refused to change the sign. HATCHED UP RUMPUS OVER FAHRENHEIT 911? Michael Moore said during an interview with CNN on Thursday that he was aware shortly after he began shooting Fahrenheit 911that Disney chief Michael Eisner had told his agent that "he was upset Miramax had made the film and he will not distribute it." Moore's remarks appeared to be at odds with a statement that he had posted the previous day on his website saying that he had learned only on Monday that Disney intended to bar Miramax from distributing the movie, and they raised the question of whether Moore was bringing up the issue now in order to manufacture controversy over the film in order to promote it. Although many newspaper editorial writers have rallied to Moore's defense ("Like snack food dropped on the theater floor, something rather unpleasant has been left behind by the dust-up between the Walt Disney Co. and filmmaker Michael Moore," begins an editorial in today's Baltimore Sun), Marc Cooper, a liberal columnist for the L.A. Weekly, writes in the current issue: "Publicity-hound Moore's allegations about Disney ring false. ... The very same Disney Company through it s Hyperion [book] division, just published Pacifica Radio host Amy Goodman's new book, The Exception to the Rules, a volume brimming with just as much lefty fringe politics and anti-Bush theorizing as contained in Moore's films." Meanwhile, British film distributor Optimum Releasing, said Thursday that it has bought the rights to distribute Moore's film in the U.K. It has not set a release date.


Despite the Writers Guild of America's rejection of contract proposals put forth by film and TV producers as "unacceptable," Petrie assured guild members Thursday that he does not believe "a strike at this time is in our interest, nor is it in the interest of the industry as a whole." However, in a message to the membership, Petrie wrote: "It is equally not in our interest to take a bad three-year deal; indeed, it's not in the interest of the entire creative community." Negotiations between the guild and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television producers is due to resume next week.


Bowing to baseball purists, including a Washington State congressman, Major League Baseball and Sony's Columbia Pictures decided Thursday not to go ahead with plans to place ads for Spider-Man 2 on the bases of all major ballparks during interleague games between June 11 and June 13. Buttonholed by reporters at Oakland Stadium Thursday, Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig said that the $3.6 million involved in the deal "isn't worth, frankly, having a debate about. I'm a traditionalist. The problem in sports marketing, particularly in baseball, is you're always walking a very sensitive line." Selig had reportedly been flooded with angry mail from fans, including one from Washington State Congressman George Nethercutt, who wrote that the deal "undermines the character of America's pastime at every level." Sony was also feeling the heat of angry baseball fans as Internet sites called for the boycott of Sony products.


Pixar Animation Studios began seeing a wave of profits wash in from international DVD and videocassette sales of Finding Nemoin the first quarter, as it reported profits three times greater than those of the same quarter a year ago. The company reported net income of $26.7 million on revenue of $53.8 million for the quarter versus $8.2 million/$18.7 million a year ago. In an interview with today's (Friday) Los Angeles Times,Pixar CEO Steve Jobs said that he is continuing to have "exploratory meetings" with other studios about distributing Pixar product after the company's deal with Disney expires. "We're trying to take our time to do it right, because we have the time to do it right." Pixar's first non-Disney movie won't be completed until 2006.


This year's Cannes Film Festival could see clashes between protesting French actors and police, published reports indicated today (Friday). Reuters said that 600 riot police have been called in to patrol the Croisette and put down possible demonstrations by French actors who are angry about planned welfare cuts. Appearing on French television Thursday night, Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin declared, "I do not want the festival to be taken hostage. ... We are not a society run by blackmail." But Veronique Cayla, general director of the festival, warned, "We do not expect the Palais des Festivals to be taken by storm. But we can't control everything. Provocateurs and hardliners can join this just cause and spoil the party which the festival should rightly be." She indicated that she sympathized with the protesting actors and was working for a way to give them a platform at the festival. Agence France Presse quoted French Culture Minister Renaud Donnedieu de Vabres as saying that a disruption of the festival "would be a catastrophe for cultural employment."


Roger Ebert quotes the lyrics of "Monster Mash" at the opening of his review of Van Helsing("The zombies were having fun ..."), but his is one of only a few mash notes reviewers have penned about the film. Ebert concludes: "Van Helsingis silly and spectacular, and fun." Lou Lumenick in the New York Postis not quite so enthusiastic, writing, "There is fun to be had at Van Helsing, but it requires considerable suspension of disbelief at the apparently deliberately ridiculous plot necessary to bring the three monsters together." Michael Wilmington in the Chicago Tribunedescribes it as "a movie that's underwritten, overdirected, overproduced and almost constantly over-the-top. But it's also, at its best, a big tongue-in-cheek extravaganza." But an overwhelming number of critics are sinking their fangs into the movie, among them A.O. Scott in the New York Times, who calls the film "a clattering, hectic spectacle that, by the end, has almost completely run out of ideas and inspiration." Michael Sragow in the Baltimore Sun concludes that "the biggest crime of Van Helsing is that it resurrects classic monsters and fails to make them scary." Philip Wuntch writes in the Dallas Morning News: "The film is an unending cavalcade of razzle-dazzle that becomes continuously less dazzling." Stephen Hunter of the Washington Postsums it up this way: "too camp to be kitsch, too kitsch to be camp, too big to be good, too good to be dull. That is to say, it's a modern, effects-insane, big-studio American summer movie, 17 or so hours long and one-fifth of an inch deep." All that doesn't make a particle of difference, contends Ty Burr of the Boston Globe: "A movie like this is just a beachhead for the eventual theme-park ride."