FOX NEWS FINALLY GETS DOWN TO BUSINESS

Ending months of speculation, News Corp announced Thursday that it plans to launch Fox Business Channel before the end of the year. Roger Ailes, chairman and CEO of Fox News, will oversee the new channel while Neil Cavuto will oversee content as managing editor. Reacting to the announcement, Susan Nathan, a senior exec at the Universal McCann ad agency in New York, told Bloomberg News: "My gut says, 'What, are they kidding? ... But people didn't think there was a need for a new 24-hour news channel, and Fox has competed and succeeded." At a media conference in New York, News Corp Chairman Rupert Murdoch remarked, "We think there's a great opportunity there. ... We want to be a little more business-friendly than CNBC." The Business Week website quoted Ailes as saying, "Many time I've seen things on [rival business channel] CNBC where they are not as friendly to corporations and profits as they should be."

HUGE POPULATION GROWTH PREDICTED BY RATINGS RESEARCHER

By the time 2050 rolls around, the total number of TV households in the U.S. will increase to 163.7 million from 111.4 million today, a growth of 47 percent, according to estimates released Thursday by Nielsen Research. The expansion of the TV market will be led by minorities -- especially by the number of Hispanic households, which is expected to increase 136 percent. African-American households are expected to rise 66 percent.

IMMELT SAYS NEWS CORP UNITS "MADE UP" STORIES OF NBC SALE

GE Chairman and CEO Jeff Immelt has branded speculation that his company might sell NBC Universal as "made-up, stupid drivel." Immelt's remarks were reported Thursday in the online edition of Fortune magazine, which noted that the speculation about a possible sale had originated with News Corp's New York Post and FoxNews.com. Speaking to NBC employees at their headquarters in Rockefeller Center who had gathered to welcome Jeff Zucker as their new CEO, Immelt acknowledged that the network was "going through change." However, he said, "I'm more convinced than ever before that NBC Universal is going to be a terrific contributor to GE investors. ... I don't know how to be clearer. We're here to stay and here to play."

REPORT: PUBLIC MAY NOW ACCEPT GAY ACTORS, BUT STUDIOS DON'T

Despite the fact that viewers have reacted with barely a shrug to recent revelations that some top TV stars are gay, the industry in general remains wary of hiring openly gay actors, the Associated Press reported Thursday. Veteran actor Andre de Shields, who is gay, told the wire service that he is aware of gay casting directors who will not cast gay actors in straight roles. "Hollywood is one of the most homophobic places on the planet," de Shields told the A.P. "And these are the folks who could make the biggest difference in artists' lives." Another gay actor, Kevin Fabian, recalled auditioning successfully. "Then you go to network, and you have to sign your five-year deal first. I think that's where the real discussion is going on: 'We really liked him, but ... he's really funny, but ... how can we get him out there with the girls [for publicity photos] when he's sitting home with his boyfriend every day?'"

NEWS CHANNELS: ALL NICOLE ALL THE TIME

Despite the fact that few details were immediately known about the cause of death of Anna Nicole Smith Thursday, broadcast and cable news outlets were all over the story, leading Brian Williams to comment on Thursday's NBC Nightly News: "This may say a lot about our current culture of celebrity and media these days when all the major cable news networks switched over to nonstop live coverage this afternoon when word arrived that Anna Nicole Smith had died." Several cable programs that otherwise might have focused attention on the Scooter Libby trial, bumped their coverage to later time periods to stay with saturation coverage of the Smith story. On CNN's Situation Room, host Wolf Blitzer interviewed fellow CNN host Larry King, who disclosed that he has a painting that Smith had done hanging in his home. King predicted that there will be "a major motion picture" about Smith. On Fox News, New York Daily News publisher Mort Zuckerman commented that Smith's life had aspects of "a certain kind of really lousy Hollywood script." The website TMZ reported that the film Illegal Aliens, starring Smith, which was scheduled to be released in April, has been withdrawn by its producer, Edgewood Studios. Three screenings of the film that were scheduled to take place between Saturday and Thursday were also canceled, TMZ said.

Brian B.