DISNEY CAUGHT UP IN DOWNTURN

The Walt Disney company, which has resisted the economic downturn with greater strength than most other media conglomerates -- its stock has dropped only about 25 percent over the rocky past two months, while other media companies' have plunged 40-60 percent -- startled investors Thursday when it disclosed that its fourth-quarter net income had dropped 13 percent and that it expected even worse results next year. Disney said that its net income for the quarter totaled $760 million, down from $877 million in the year-ago period. Almost every Disney unit reported disappointing results. Its movie studio was particularly hard hit with operating income down 42 percent from last year as films like Swing Vote and Miracle at St. Anna turned out to be duds. Revenue plunged at Disney's ABC and ESPN networks and its television stations as some of their biggest ad buyers -- particularly automotive, financial services and consumer electronics companies -- retrenched. To make matters worse, ABC's programs have lost 20 percent of their audience of 18-49 year-old adults since the beginning of the season. Revenue was virtually flat at its theme parks, which account for 30 percent of its revenue, but the company said it expected a sharp drop in attendance in the coming months, judging from a 10-percent fall-off in bookings at its resorts, and on Thursday began offering discount deals to draw visitors. In a conference call, Disney chief Robert Iger made no attempt to play down the company's anticipated trouble. "Consumer confidence is the lowest we've seen in over three decades," he said.

MORE VIEWERS TUNING IN TO TV OVER PC

Giving rerun-weary TV viewers an early opportunity to check out season premieres on their PCs in September gave a big boost to the websites of all four major television networks according to Nielsen Research. NBC was the big online winner with 5.56 million unique viewers, more than three times the number who viewed its primetime programs online in August. The online success, however, did not boost the network's television ratings. (It remained last among the four major networks.) Then again, the total number of viewers for all its online programs for the entire month amounted to less than the number of viewers who tune in to any regular NBC primetime program any night of the year.

KNIGHT RIDER HEADING FOR A CRASH?

Ben Silverman, the co-chairman of NBC Entertainment, who had ordered a full season of Knight Rider episodes even as the initial ones were floundering in the ratings, may be heading for a crash as new season programs, sponsored under his aegis, continue to attract few viewers. Knight Rider could attract only 5.1 million viewers Friday night, as it ended up in last place. It served as a weak lead-in to the premiere of NBC's Life, which attracted 5.8 million viewers and kept the network in last place. It took the 19th season premiere of Law & Order at 10:00 p.m. to lift NBC out of last place. It came in second with 7.8 million viewers -- but even that figure could not have given the powers-that-be at NBC much to cheer about. Last year L&O debuted with 13.5 million viewers.

DVR USE ESCALATES

Even though digital video recorders are installed in the homes of only 28 percent of the country, twice the number of people are using them for time-shifted viewing than used VCRs when they were present in 90 percent of U.S. homes, according to a study by Interpublic Group's (IPG) Magna Global. The study also discovered that DVR viewing accounts for 11 percent of all household viewing -- rising to 16 percent among the 18-49 age group.

SHIPMENTS OF PLASMA-SCREEN TV SETS SOAR

With retailers aggressively pricing high-definition television sets, shipments of plasma-screen TVs grew 18 percent in the third quarter from the previous quarter, while the year-to-year total rose 37 percent, according to a study by DisplaySearch and reported today (Friday) by TV Week. Forty-two-inch sets represented 49 percent of all sets sold, while 50-inch sets accounted for 29 percent of all units shipped.