VIEWERS FLEE "MUST SEE" NIGHT

Although there was a time when Thursday night produced the biggest audiences of the week, each of the networks saw a significant audience erosion on "must-see" night this week, with three of the major networks finishing nearly neck-and-neck and the fourth, not far behind. Thanks to its hit game show, Deal or No Deal, NBC came out on top in total households, but with only an average 5.8 rating and a 10 share (8.64 million viewers). CBS, with coverage of NCAA First Round basketball, drew a 5.5/9 (8.45 million) but led among adults 18-49. Its ratings score for the basketball coverage was down 13 percent from a year ago, however. ABC, with strong ratings at 9:00 p.m. for Lost, was close behind with a 5.4/9, while Fox turned in a 4.7/8.

BASKETBALL ON OFFICE MONITORS MADNESS FOR BUSINESS

A leading business consultant has predicted that CBS's online "March Madness On-Demand," in which it is streaming all 63 final college basketball games free, will cost American businesses about $1.7 billion in lost productivity. Rick Cobb, a vice president at business consultants Challenger, Gray & Christmas, told Newsweek magazine that the estimate is based on the number of workers known to participate in office pools and CBS's figures showing that 1.4 million unique online viewers watched on average 1.9 hours of its coverage last year. Predicting that that number will rise substantially this year, Cobb said another source of lost productivity could be office servers unable to deal with demands for the webcasts -- and crashing. "When servers go down, most people want to head home," he observed.

CANTERBURY'S LAW SENTENCED TO FRIDAYS

After drawing dismal ratings on Monday nights during its first two weeks on the air, Fox's new legal drama Canterbury's Law is being dumped into the network's Friday-night schedule -- when television networks in general draw relatively small audiences. (Nowadays moving a show to Friday or Saturday nights often represents the first step to eliminating it from a network's schedule altogether.) In its debut on March 10, Canterbury's Law drew a total audience of 7.62 million, but they were mostly older viewers. It finished last among adults 18-49. By the second week, even the older viewers were drifting away, with the total audience slipping to 5.66 million. The number of younger viewers remained flat.

CBS'S SCHIEFFER SAYS HE'LL STICK AROUND

Bob Schieffer, the Face the Nation moderator who boosted the ratings of the CBS Evening News following the departure of Dan Rather, has indicated that he will not retire after the 2009 presidential inauguration as he had previously said he would. In an interview with the online edition of U.S. News and World Report, Schieffer said, "My bosses have asked me to stay around for a while. I'm just going to reduce my schedule a little bit, but I guess I'm going to stay around a little while longer than I anticipated." There was no indication in the article about the possibility of his returning to the Evening News anchor post if, as has been frequently rumored, Katie Couric is forced to leave after the presidential elections in November. The 71-year-old Schieffer would only say that he intends to continue to moderate Face the Nation "as long as my health stays good -- and every sign now is that it is." Schieffer was treated for bladder cancer in 2003 and suffers from diabetes.

AP TO EXPAND ENTERTAINMENT COVERAGE

Observing that it just "makes good business sense," the Associated Press is hiring 21 new employees this year to beef up its entertainment news for print and television. In an internal message to employees disclosed by L.A. Weekly columnist Nikki Finke, Daniel Becker, who was given the newly created post of director of entertainment content, maintained that unlike some of its rivals' coverage, AP's own celebrity stories will not be "about gossip, unnamed sources and innuendo or about 'peephole' journalism with AP photographers becoming paparazzi." He insisted that bringing sound journalistic principles to entertainment reporting ought to be good for business, too. In a realm in which gossip and innuendo abound, particularly on the Web, our standards establish us as the trusted, authoritative voice on entertainment for all our members and customers," he said. Meanwhile, the New York Post on Thursday shut down its PageSix.com celebrity and gossip website, which it launched last December. Jennifer Jehn, the Post executive who oversaw the website said in a statement, "Given the difficulty in the economy, it was not the right time for this launch."

Brian B.