IDOL LOSES 3 MILLION VIEWERS, STILL WINS

Fox's American Idol on Wednesday nightmay have captured 3 million fewer viewers than it did a year earlier -- but no other regular show on TV can draw 24.90 million viewers as Idol did. Even better news for Fox was a big win in the 8:00 p.m. hour for its recently relocated drama Lie to Me, which drew 11.12 million viewers, up from 10.20 million a week earlier. CBS took the lead at 10:00 p.m. with CSI: New York which counted 13.52 million viewers. Meanwhile, struggling NBC debuted the new reality game show The Chopping Block at 8:00 p.m. -- and got chopped. The show attracted only 3.98 million viewers in the 8:00 p.m. hour versus 10.19 million for Deal or No Deal, which occupied that spot last year.

IDOL INTRODUCES "THE JUDGES' SAVE"

In an apparent effort to shore up ratings, producers of American Idol on Wednesday unveiled a new element to the voting -- "the judges' save." As explained by host Ryan Seacrest during the show, up until the top five contestants are eliminated, all four judges can save one contestant from being eliminated. Their vote, he said, "has to be unanimous, and once they've used the save, they cannot use it again the entire season. The week they use the save, no one will be eliminated. But the next week, two will go." Seacrest's announcement was accompanied by a montage of "gone too soon" Idol contestants who went on to become hit recording stars. Seacrest said that the new rule doesn't necessarily reverse "America's vote" but simply gives worthy contestants a second chance. But Washington Post TV columnist Lisa de Moraes observed that each lowest vote-getter will now be singing the show's closing song as usual but this time hoping he or she will be saved by the judges. "It means the Idolette who gets the week's fewest votes gets to be humiliated twice in one night."

CABLE GIANT COMCAST NOW A PHONE GIANT, TOO

In the space of less than four years, Comcast, the nation's largest cable TV company, has also become the third largest home phone service, behind AT&T and Verizon. The company said Wednesday that it now has 6.47 million subscribers taking its phone service, virtually all of them also taking its cable TV and Internet services -- the three elements of its "triple-pay" package. However, Reuters reported Wednesday that during the fourth quarter all cable companies saw fewer customers switching from traditional phone companies.

MUPPETS CREATORS TIGHTEN BELTS

Although it failed to indicate whether it had put Cookie Monster on a diet, the nonprofit Sesame Workshop said Wednesday that it is tightening its belt as a result of the current "economic environment" and will have "to operate with fewer resources in order to achieve our strategic priorities." Among the resources being cut: 67 members of the company's 355-person staff.

BRITISH GOVERNMENT NIXES PRODUCT PLACEMENTS

Despite the fact that each of the U.K.'s top commercial broadcasters has reported sharp revenue declines -- with several reporting significant losses -- British Culture Secretary Andy Burnham has turned down their requests to allow product placement ads -- on the grounds that it would compromise "editorial integrity." In a statement, Burnham said, "I am well aware that a number of commercial broadcasters are facing difficult economic times, and I will continue to work with the industry to explore ways we can support them, but my preference is to consider all other avenues before allowing product placement." But ITV Executive Chairman Michael Grade has indicated he may take the matter to court. "Given the extraordinary economic pressures ITV and others face, we can't let a decision like this simply go through without trying to fight it," Grade said. Reporting on the battle between the broadcasters and the government over the matter, Advertising Age observed Wednesday that, while product placement is banned for locally produced programs, it is not for shows imported from abroad, including Hollywood.

CASE AND TRACE MAY GO

CBS may be considering dropping two of its most successful "procedural" shows, Without a Trace and Cold Case, because they cost too much to produce, Entertainment Weekly columnist Michael Ausiello reported Wednesday, citing multiple sources. Ausiello said that producers of the show are being asked to trim costs, including convincing cast members to take pay cuts. However, he said, even if new salary figures can be negotiated, the shows may still not be picked up for another season. CBS and Warner Bros. TV, which produce the shows, declined to comment.