AND THEN THERE WERE THREE

Jason Castro, whose exotic good looks and sweet personality -- rather than his vocal talent -- were often credited for keeping him in the American Idol running until the final four, was eliminated Wednesday night, as 22.4 million viewers tuned in (13.8 rating and a 21 share). (The remaining contestants are David Cook, David Archuleta and Syesha Mercado.) While it remained an unbeatable figure for the Fox show and gave the network another victory for the night, it was nevertheless nearly 6 million below the number who tuned in on the comparable night a year ago (28.2 million). CBS gave Idol some tough competition with Criminal Minds, which recorded 12.85 million viewers (8.3/13). At 10:00 p.m., CSI: NY took over the top spot with 12.58 million viewers (8.2/14). In the same hour, an interview special with Barbara Walters, in which she discussed her new biography, Audition, posted middling results as it pulled in 7.4 million viewers (5.2/9) for third place.

AFTRA BEGINS BARGAINING TALKS WITH AMPTP

The American Federation of Television and Radio Artists began independent negotiations with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers Wednesday, after rejecting a new plea by the Screen Actors Guild to hold joint talks. In a message to AFTRA members -- a majority of whom belong to both unions -- AFTRA President Roberta Reardon said that over the past 15 months "our once-positive relationship with SAG deteriorated, making it impossible now to continue joint bargaining." In response to trade and Internet critics who have accused AFTRA of becoming a lapdog for the industry, Reardon said, "Make no mistake; we anticipate challenging negotiations as we work to secure greater job opportunities and improved wages and working conditions."

NBC PLANNING 24-HOUR LOCAL NEWS CHANNELS

NBC plans to launch a 24-hour news channel in New York to compete with the existing local news channel, New York 1, operated by Time Warner Cable, the New York Times reported today (Thursday). According to the newspaper, NBC's plan calls for a multimillion-dollar reconstruction of the newsroom at WNBC's facilities at 30 Rockefeller Plaza in New York and integrating its content with the news channel's, which will be accessible not only on the local cable systems in the tri-state area of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, but also on the Internet. It is due to premiere late this year or early next. The project is regarded as a pilot program for NBC. John Wallace, president for local media at NBC, told the Times that if it can be regarded as a sustaining business after a year, similar conversations will be undertaken in other major markets where NBC owns its own stations, including Los Angeles, Chicago and Philadelphia.

ABC SETTING UP STUDENT BUREAUS

In what amounts to a significant expansion of its existing intern program for college students, ABC News is planning to open actual student-staffed bureaus next fall at five universities. ABC News President David Westin said in a statement Wednesday that the bureaus will not only allow aspiring TV journalists to experience actual on-the-job training but also give the network a greater insight into the behavior and interests of 18-to-25-year-olds, a demographic group avidly courted by advertisers. Bureau chiefs at the campus facilities will receive additional training at ABC News headquarters in New York, the network said. It was not clear whether any of the students participating in the program will be paid or whether they will only receive college credits. Schools participating in the project include Arizona State University, Syracuse University, University of Florida, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and University of Texas at Austin.

NEWS CORP'S PROFITS TRIPLE

Selling DirecTV to Liberty Media for $1.7 billion and acquiring the Wall Street Journal helped News Corp post third-quarter profits of $2.7 billion, nearly three times as much as those for the same quarter a year ago. The company also benefited from lower content costs for its TV operations as a result of the writers' strike. Operating income at the Fox network soared 53 percent to $419 million, as the TV division also profited from the Super Bowl telecast in February and the continued success of American Idol, all of which offset the costs of launching the new Fox Business Network cable channel. However, the film unit, including 20th Century Fox, reported disappointing results, down 36 percent to $261 million, with only Alvin and the Chipmunks showing solid box-office returns. Nevertheless, despite the strong results, News Corp shares remained in the doldrums. (They're down 10 percent since the first of the year.) In an interview with Bloomberg News, Gamco Investors fund manager Larry Haverty said, "Hopefully, we who invest in [News Corp] will live long enough to see a point when the market recognizes what is going on."

WILMINGTON, NC TO BECOME GUINEA PIG FOR TV SWITCH

Wilmington, NC, population 96,000, has agreed to become the first city in the country to turn off its analog TV stations and switch to digital. The FCC said that the city will thereby become a test market on Sept. 8 to determine what problems, if any, the nation may experience as a whole on Feb. 18, when broadcasters in the rest of the country will be required the make the same switchover.

Brian B.