IT'S IDOL -- THEN EVERYTHING ELSE

Fox's American Idol once again blew away the competition Wednesday night, scoring a 17.0 rating and a 26 share (29.6 million viewers) in the 8:00 p.m. hour and an 18.3/27 in the first half hour at 9:00 p.m.. The second night of Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader? at 9:30 p.m. posted a 13.5/20 (23.5 million viewers). The only program that came relatively close to competing with the Fox competition was CBS's Criminal Minds at 9:00 p.m., which registered a 9.4/14.

GIBSON RISES

In a stunning upset, ABC's World News With Charles Gibson has apparently beaten NBC Nightly News With Brian Williams in the February sweeps, both in overall households and in adults 25-54, according to preliminary Nielsen ratings data. Gibson's apparent victory comes after Williams had held the lead for the first 20 weeks of the season. It also comes following ABC's effort to challenge Williams with the dual-anchor team of Bob Woodruff and Elizabeth Vargas (then by Vargas alone after Woodruff's injuries in Iraq) and after the entry into the news wars of Katie Couric as anchor of the CBS Evening News. Meanwhile, both today's (Thursday) Los Angeles Times and New York Times reported that Nightly News producer John Reiss is about to step down -- not because of the show's falling ratings but because of friction with anchor Williams. "He and Brian have never really been copacetic," a program staffer told the Los Angeles newspaper. The New York paper said that Reiss's successor could be announced as early as today.

FOX TV SHOWS TO APPEAR ON AFFILIATES' WEBSITES

Fox affiliates who, like the affiliates of other networks, have long grumbled about the network posting first-run TV shows on the Internet -- sometimes before they're even shown on the air -- without their being cut in on the action are reportedly getting a new deal from the network. According to Daily Variety, the Fox stations will soon be able to offer episodes of network shows on their own local websites, where viewers can either watch them in streaming format, with commercials, or purchase video downloads, without commercials. The affiliates will receive 30 percent of the revenue from the streaming video; a revenue-sharing arrangement has not been worked out for the downloads. Although ABC already offers streaming video of some of their programs, the Fox stations will also be able to sell downloads for $1.99 per episode.

CRONKITE DAMNS ANOTHER WAR

Walter Cronkite, whose criticism of America's Vietnam War policies was said to be a turning point in the war ("If we've lost Walter, then we've lost the country," President Lyndon Johnson reportedly told an aide at the time) has called the war in Iraq "a mistake ... a terrible disaster." In an interview with the CBS television station in San Francisco, the 90-year-old Cronkite said that he doubted that his words would have much impact on the current administration. However he added, "Anybody who can put another match to that fire to get us out would be, I think, welcome." Meanwhile, Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward, speaking at a conference in Tokyo, criticized the news media for not investigating "on the ground" in Iraq U.S. claims that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction. But in an interview with the Cincinnati Enquirer, former CBS anchor Bob Schieffer maintained that the U.S. got into the war because "the intelligence was wrong, and they're paying a price for it. [Bush is] a decent and honest man."

BRANSON AND MURDOCH PART WAYS IN U.K.

The uneasy relationship between Rupert Murdoch's Sky Broadcasting and Richard Branson's Virgin Media has fractured after Virgin cut off basic BSkyB service to its cable subscribers today, claiming that the Murdoch-controlled company was insisting on doubling its fees despite a 20-percent decline in its audience. "Nothing Sky have said or done in the course of the negotiation indicates they had the slightest interest in doing a commercially viable deal," Virgin CEO Steve Burch said in a statement. A spokesman for Sky said, "We've made repeated efforts to reach an agreement but Virgin Media has rejected all of our proposals." On the channels that had carried the Sky channels, Virgin posted spoof notices. For example, the Sky News channel was bannered, "Sky Snooze. Try BBC." Virgin said it would use the money that it saved as a result of the negotiations' collapse to make major programming acquisition and expand its video-on-demand service.

LIBERAL PUNDIT SCHLESINGER DEAD AT 89

Historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., one of the most visible faces of American liberalism on U.S. television news programs since the late '50s, died Wednesday in New York, the New York Times reported on its website today (Thursday). Schlesinger, an adviser to John and Robert Kennedy, chronicled their careers in books and TV programs (he was the writer of the two-part NBC White Paper: The Age of Kennedy), and was awarded the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award in 1966 for A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in the White House. A movie buff who served as film critic for Show magazine in the 1960s, Schlesinger was appointed to the jury at the Cannes Film Festival in 1964.

Brian B.