MADNESS INFECTS RATINGS

March Madness set in in spades over the weekend, as CBS's coverage of the NCAA hoops contests averaged 8.36 million viewers on Friday night, 9.48 million on Saturday night, and a whopping 16.19 million during a primetime rollover on Sunday. The Saturday figures were particularly impressive, given the commonly accepted industry opinion that viewers in general and younger viewers in particular flee their TV sets on Saturday night. In fact, the CBS telecast peaked in the 10:00 p.m. hour with 10.76 million viewers tuning in. With few exceptions, the networks on Saturday countered with repeats -- and none did well. Faring worst of the lot was NBC's Donald Trump series, Celebrity Apprentice, which wound up with just 2.82 million viewers. NBC, which also said it had high hopes for its new drama Kings to improve, saw the show's ratings decline even further in its second week to just 4.58 million viewers Meanwhile, CBS said that 2.7 million unique users tuned in to the first day of its online coverage of the NCAA basketball tournament, versus 1.75 million during the comparable day a year ago.

OBAMA BOOSTS LENO

President Obama's appearance on NBC's Tonight show with Jay Leno Thursday produced the show's highest ratings in years. NBC and Nielsen Researchsaid that the 11.2 rating and 26 share was the best score that the NBC late show has generated in five years -- when an identical figure was produced for a special about Johnny Carson. One has to go back to the night of the Seinfeld finale in 1998, when Leno talked to the cast, to find an episode that drew more viewers. In an interview with Daily Variety, NBC Co-chairman Ben Silverman said that the network is hoping to come up with similar big "gets" when Leno moves to primetime later this year. "There's an opportunity to really eventize the show," Silverman said. "(We're looking) to make it distinct and it should play perfectly in primetime, where there is a massive audience. It will still be a comedy show, but with more segments and formats."

DATELINE DISCOVERS FINANCIAL CRISIS

NBC's Dateline, which steered clear of business and financial news throughout its history (unless, say, some financier was murdered during a sex scandal) launched a three-part series Sunday night on the current economic crisis. The first episode focused on lenders who made loans to home buyers who could never have afforded the monthly mortgage payments. (In the case of one man interviewed for the show, the payments were higher than what the man earned from his job.) The series, titled, "Inside the Financial Fiasco," is narrated by Chris Hansen, who previously had hosted the news magazine's "To Catch a Predator" series. Sunday's episode attracted 6.64 million viewers and placed third in its time period -- about par for the documentary series. Part 2 is due to air on Friday.

AFTRA TIGHTENS PENSION REQUIREMENTS

Members of unions in the entertainment industry, already hit hard by a writers' strike and a stalemate in negotiations over actors' residuals, were hit anew with new worries over the weekend as the American Federation of Television & Radio Artists announced that it was tightening eligibility requirements for members to receive a pension. Among the changes: AFTRA members will have to earn at least $15,000 per year from AFTRA jobs over five years. The revision is due to go into effect on Dec. 1. Daily Variety observed that the change was made necessary by the declining value of the assets of AFTRA's retirement fund, which has dropped 23.4 percent over the last year. AFTRA President Roberta Reardon explained in a statement on Saturday: "Given this unprecedented moment in our nation's economy, our trustees' highest priority is to act quickly, decisively and proactively to do what is necessary to ride out this downturn and safely position our retirement plan's ability to protect us and grow in the future." The announcement touched off immediate worries that other unions in the industry might take similar action.

ELLEN AND OPRAH TOGETHER -- ON OPRAH'S MAGAZINE

Suggesting that competition between the two doyennes of daytime talk shows isn't nearly as fierce as some might have believed, Oprah Winfrey appeared via satellite on Ellen DeGeneres's show Friday and invited her to share the cover of her magazine O with her. DeGeneres had mounted a kind of tongue-in-cheek campaign to appear on the cover of Oprah's magazine for months -- ever since it was announced that Winfrey had agreed to share the cover with first lady Michelle Obama. Since then, DeGeneres had shown mockups of O magazine in which she put her own picture together with Winfrey's on the cover. Then, on Friday, Oprah appeared on the program and announced that she wanted "to officially invite you on the cover of O." DeGeneres replied, "I can't believe you're serious about this. I'm freaking out right now." Said Winfrey: "I'm serious about this. ... I believe that when you dream it and conceive it, you can have it and achieve it."