i>IDOL VIEWERS SURPRISINGLY GIVE SMITHSON THE HOOK

Surprising many TV columnists and bloggers who had expected Jason Castro or Brooke White to be the next contestants eliminated from American Idol, viewers instead voted out Carly Smithson, whose performance on Tuesday had received much praise from the show's judges. On Wednesday's telecast, which drew a 14.2 rating and a 21 share (22.62 million viewers) the judges seemed to agree that the show had become more of a popularity contest than a talent contest. Even White, who had muffed the lyrics of her song and had to restart on Tuesday, seemed surprised that she was among the five finalists left standing. Also on the Idol telecast, President Bush made his second appearance of the week on a reality show -- he had appeared Monday on NBC's Deal or No Deal -- when he announced that the final tally for the Idol Gives Back charity show had come to $65 million.

LET THE SWEEPS BEGIN

The May ratings "sweeps" officially begin tonight (Thursday), with analysts anxiously waiting to see whether audiences will be returning to their sets to watch the return of Grey's Anatomy and Ugly Betty with new episodes. NBC is also moving Tina Fey's 30 Rock into the 9:30 time period, following The Office. Advertisers, especially film studios, particularly fancy Thursday night since it's the time when weekend plans are made. Thus far, however, returning shows have not seen returning audiences except for the CBS bloc of comedy shows on Monday nights -- the first new shows to return after the strike. CBS, however, went out of its way to herald the returning shows. But some TV executives have conceded that networks may not have done enough to make audiences aware that their favorite shows have returned. As today's Hollywood Reporter indicated, many returning shows have seen double-digit decreases in the ratings from their pre-strike averages, with ABC's Desperate Housewives off by a third and NBC's E.R. down by a quarter.

CNN AND MSNBC BEAT FOX IN RATINGS FOR PA PRIMARY

Both CNN and MSNBC attracted more viewers in the key 25-54-year-old demographic for their coverage of the Pennsylvania primary results Tuesday night than did the usual cable news leader, Fox News channel, Nielsen Media said Wednesday. CNN drew an average of 805,000 viewers in the demo during primetime, while MSNBC attracted 641,000. Fox, by contrast, counted only 556,000. CNN's audience peaked during the 10:00 p.m. hour with 910,000 in the demo. Overall, CNN delivered an average of 2,558,000 total viewers in primetime. Fox followed with 2,357,000. MSNBC averaged 1,615,000. None of the major broadcast networks covered the election results live, although NBC sent its top political correspondents and Nightly News anchor Brian Williams to its sibling cable channel for virtually uninterrupted coverage of the primary results. CBS and ABC do not operate cable news channels.

REPORT: FALLON TO REPLACE O'BRIEN ON LATE NIGHT

Jimmy Fallon has been tapped to replace Conan O'Brien on NBC's Late Night when O'Brien takes over hosting duties on the Tonight Show from Jay Leno next year, Fox.com entertainment columnist Roger Friedman reported today (Thursday), saying it was "a done deal." Friedman, who cited no sources, said that NBC plans to make a formal announcement around May 11th when it presents its fall schedule to advertisers.

VETERAN VARIETY TV REPORTER HEADING FOR TVWEEK

Joseph Adalian, who has covered broadcast television for Variety for a decade, is leaving the trade publication to become deputy editor and columnist for TVWeek. Both publications are owned Crain Communications. In a statement, Chuck Ross, publisher and editorial director at TVWeek, said, "I have known Joe for over a decade and when one thinks of the top reporters and writers in this business, Joe is at the top of the list."

WANT TO BECOME PARIS HILTON'S BFF?

More than 85,000 people have posted videos and profiles online hoping to win the chance of becoming Paris Hilton's "BFF" (Best Friend Forever) on a new MTV reality series, the Associated Press reported Wednesday. Of those who have submitted their willingness to appear on the show, 20 will be selected by the show's producers, who include Hilton herself. In an interview with the wire service, Hilton said that when she was approached with the idea for Paris Hilton's My New BFF she "just thought it would be so much fun ... having boys and girls move into a house all vying to be my best friend ... and I'd also like to meet some new friends." Hilton added that the person she selected, boy or girl, would have to have the ability "to like handle all the other things that are going to come with being by best friend." AP: "Like what?" Hilton: "Just being in the media, just someone who's not going to care about that, just someone who cares about me ... and that is not going to screw me over. Just someone to have a great time with."

Brian B.