SHADES OF "MUST-SEE-TV" NIGHT!

NBC was able to place a scripted show in the top ten last week, thanks to the two-hour finale of E.R. And while the episode drew the largest audience for any closer of a drama series since Murder She Wrote faded 13 years ago, the number of viewers amounted to fewer than half what the series drew in its heyday, when it was routinely rated No. 1. It went out in sixth place. As usual, Fox's American Idol took the top two spots on the Nielsen ratings list, followed by ABC's Dancing With the Stars. But CBS shows accounted for half of those in the top ten, and once again, the network averaged the most viewers for the week, 12.5 million (7.6 rating, 13 share), versus 9.7 million (5.7/9) for second-place Fox. (Although Fox, thanks to Idol, held a slight edge among viewers 18-49.) ABC placed third with 7.2 million viewers (4.6/6), while NBC, despite the E.R. win, remained in last place with 6.9 million viewers (4.5/7).

The top ten shows of the week according to Nielsen Research:

1. American Idol (Wednesday), Fox, 14.2/22; 2. American Idol (Tuesday), Fox, 13.7/21; 3. Dancing With the Stars (Monday), ABC, 12.9/20; 4. NCIS, CBS, 10.7/17; 5. The Mentalist, CBS, 10.5/16; 6. E.R., NBC, 10.4/17; 7. CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, CBS, 9.1/14; 8. Academy of Country Music Awards, CBS, 8.8/14; 9. Dancing With the Stars (Tuesday), ABC, 8.6/13; 10. NCAA Basketball Championship Tournament, CBS, 8.5/16; 10. (Tie) CSI: Miami, CBS, 8.5/14; 10. (Tie) Two and a Half Men, CBS, 8.5/13.

LIGHT NEWS WEEK = LIGHT NEWS RATINGS

All nightly newscasts showed significant audience erosion last week. NBC Evening News With Brian Williams averaged 8.74 million viewers. ABC World News With Charles Gibson narrowed the gap with NBC as it averaged 7.95 million viewers. The CBS Evening News With Katie Couric remained well behind the two leaders with 5.97 million viewers.

NETWORKS HAD TOUGH TIMES IN 2008

NBC and Fox were the only two broadcast networks to show revenue gains in 2008, thanks in large measure to NBC's coverage of the Olympics and Fox's coverage of the Super Bowl, Advertising Age reported on its website Tuesday, citing figures by TNS Media Intelligence. It quoted Marci Ryvicker, a media-industry analyst for Wachovia Capital Markets, as saying, "In general, it was a disastrous year for most advertising-based media." The trade publication observed that the study will likely put the big networks in a weakened bargaining position when it goes about negotiating deals with advertisers in the upcoming upfront sales period, which begins in May.

BART SAYS HIS DEPARTURE FROM VARIETY "IS NOT A SEXY STORY"

In what appeared to be part of a continuing -- but forlorn -- effort to spike widespread speculation that he was forced out as editor of Variety, Peter Bart has reiterated his earlier comment to the New York Times that the decision to step down was his alone. In an interview with the New York Observer, Bart insisted that while that is "not a very sexy story" his option to step down had long been part of his deal with Reed Elsevier, Variety's owners. The story that he was booted upstairs because of "bad blood" between him and publisher Neil Stiles "makes it sound like I'm this 35-year-old kid who lost a power struggle. And I'm 76 years old and there is no power struggle," Bart told the Observer. Bart also maintained that he will continue to be an active contributor to the trade publication, writing a weekly column, a blog and participating in its plans for a television show. Asked for details about the TV project, Bart responded, "I can't yet. But I will."

NO OTHER NBC STATION WILLING TO DUMP LENO

Boston NBC affiliate WHDH appears to have found little if any support among other NBC affiliates for its announced decision to replace Jay Leno's upcoming nightly variety show with a local newscast, Broadcasting & Cable reported on its website Tuesday. "Why would we walk?" one station manager was quoted as saying. "We haven't even seen the show yet." Although several station managers told the trade publication that a newscast during that hour would be far more lucrative for them than airing Leno, many took the position of Diane C. Kniowski, the manager of WOOD in Grand Rapids, MI. "We have a contract, and we respect and honor that," she said. Another station exec, Tom Tolar of WRCB in Chattanooga, disclosed that the NBC affiliates board has set up a committee to discuss with the network aspects of the Leno program that concern them.

LENO STAGES FREE SHOW IN DETROIT

Bringing to mind Bob Hope's free USO performances during World War II, Korea and Vietnam, Jay Leno staged a free show in embattled Detroit (suburban Auburn Hills) Tuesday and scheduled another for tonight (Wednesday) for "anyone who is out of work." (Michigan has the nation's highest unemployment rate, 12 percent.) Leno, who reportedly owns one of the largest private car collections, called the performance "Jay's Comedy Stimulus Plan." When it was over, he asked the crowd, "How many union people we got here?" When the applause died down, he said, "I want to thank you. You guys created the middle class. ... God bless Detroit!"

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