Astonishing industry observers, the Fox network announced that Peter Liguori, who has been credited with boosting the network to No. 1 among both the overall audience and young adults, will leave the company. News Corp. said Liguori, chairman of Fox Entertainment, would step down immediately. "Peter Liguori has been an outstanding Fox executive, not only in leading FBC [Fox Broadcasting Co.] for three seasons, but in his groundbreaking programming that helped build [cable network] FX into a general entertainment leader. We wish him continued success," News Corp. chief Rupert Murdoch said in a statement. A further statement by Liguori himself was not forthcoming. He is being replaced by British-born Peter Rice, president of Fox Searchlight, the company's specialty division that was responsible for the success of Oscar winner Slumdog Millionaire and The Wrestler this past year and such films as Sideways,Little Miss Sunshineand Juno previously. "As we increasingly look to apply unconventional approaches to our traditional businesses, I'm convinced Peter Rice is the right person to transform our broadcast TV business," Murdoch said. He'll be replaced at Fox Searchlight by close associates Nancy Utley and Steve Gilula The company also announced that it is combining its film and TV production studios under Jim Gianopulos and Tom Rothman, the co-chairmen of Fox Filmed Entertainment. The restructuring comes in the wake of Peter Chernin's decision to step down as News Corp president. In reporting on the moves, the New York Times quoted several unnamed executives at News Corp and Fox as saying that they were aimed principally at rewarding Rice with a significant promotion that would keep him in the company and not looking for a more prominent position elsewhere. And TVWeek commented that they prompted "speculation that Mr. Murdoch may be grooming Mr. Rice for an even bigger job in the long-term."


Largely as a result of its Super Bowl ad, Fox and NBC's Hulu experienced a 33-percent surge in traffic during February and, according to Nielsen Online's VideoCensus, now ranks second behind YouTube among the top video websites in the U.S. With 309 million video views, Hulu outperformed Yahoo and MySpace. Commented Advertising Age: "In the grand scheme, saying you're No. 2 in online video is a bit like saying you're the tallest midget, as YouTube boasts 5.2 billion views a month. But it's still significant, particularly given that TV shows can garner ad rates as high as $40 to $50 per thousand viewers online."


So that Conan O'Brien won't have to follow reruns when he takes over the Tonight

show in June, NBC is planning to extend the current season through his debut week, Daily Variety reported today (Friday). Medium, it said, will now air its season finale on Monday, June 1, followed by Law and Order: SVU on Tuesday and Law and Order on Wednesday. "We'll give Conan the best launch possible during his premiere week," NBC Entertainment Co-chairman Ben Silverman told the trade publication. The network also announced a series of additional moves that it hopes will help reclaim lost ground during the summer, including a number of original scripted dramas and even two two-part movies, something rare for a broadcast network even during the regular season these days. (Meteor is scheduled to air on Sunday, June 7 and 14 and The Storm, on Sunday, July 19 and 26.)


General Electric, the corporate parent of NBC, MSNBC, CNBC and Universal Pictures, was downgraded by Standard and Poors from its AAA credit rating to AA-plus. The company has been shaken by huge losses from its GE Capital unit and -- to a far lesser extent -- by continued low ratings at its NBC network. Things could have been worse. Many analysts had predicted an even sharper ratings cut. When that failed to materialize, GE shares, which had fallen to drastically in recent weeks, shot up nearly 13 percent, to close at $9.57.


Although greeted with mixed reviews, Jimmy Fallon's first week as permanent host of NBC's Late Night drew solid ratings, even bettering those of his predecessor, Conan O'Brien, who is set to take over the Tonight show in June. Fallon averaged about 2.4 million viewers 25 percent more than his closest rival, CBS's Late Late Show, hosted by Craig Ferguson and 21 percent more than O'Brien's season average.