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News Briefs II

Millions Watch Ellen's Coming Out

Los Angeles Times

"Ellen" came out of the closet and packed much of America into the living room, as Wednesday's one-hour episode rode a staggering publicity wave to a national audience of more than 36 million people.

Those results exceeded even the most optimistic estimates as to the program's performance, besting viewing levels for television's most-watched program, "Seinfeld," which is seen by 30.6 million viewers in an average week.

Viewing better than doubled the average "Ellen" audience this season (13.7 million), delivering the show's highest rating ever and the biggest for any ABC entertainment program in more than three years.

ABC Entertainment President Jamie Tarses said in a statement Thursday that the network is "extremely pleased" by the ratings, adding that it's "even more satisfying knowing that American viewers embraced the show's creativity."

Breaking down the audience demographically, the lion's share of viewers fell in the 1834 and 1849 age brackets that sponsors use to determine ad rates. Considerably smaller percentages of teens and children tuned in.

DeGeneres was honored Wednesday at Creative Artists Agency, which represents her. Cast members Joely Fisher and Clea Lewis joined a crowd of about 500 at a Manhattan nightclub to watch the show and raise money for the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation.

Republicans Set to Support Restoring Benefits to Immigrants

Los Angeles Times

Faced with a powerful backlash from immigrants and their advocates, Republican lawmakers are on the brink of proposing a plan to restore some of the benefits taken away from legal immigrants by last year's welfare reform law.

As the White House and congressional leaders hammer out the final details of a balanced budget package, Republicans are set to recommend softening the impact of welfare reform on the 500,000 legal immigrants due to lose disability payments as early as this August.

While intensive negotiations continued, congressional sources said Republicans have agreed to propose spending roughly $10 billion over five years to continue disability benefits to most legal immigrant noncitizens who were in the country and receiving disability payments when the welfare bill was signed on Aug. 22, 1996.

Sources say the turnabout came after GOP members were put on the defensive over the issue by Democrats and, perhaps most damaging, by some the nation's most prominent Republican governors. And it followed an intensive campaign by immigrant groups to publicize the often heart-rending stories of frail, elderly and disabled noncitizens who would lose their only means of support under the 1996 welfare bill. According to published reports, the bill has driven some elderly immigrants to suicide and prompted nursing homes nationwide to turn away noncitizens regardless of their circumstances.

Pentagon Plans to Close Bases

Los Angeles Times

Desperate for money to pay for new weapons, the Pentagon is poised to push for another round of military base closings, a proposal likely to spark fierce resistance from states still reeling from closings initiated two years ago.

Defense Secretary William S. Cohen, has declared the Defense Department still has too much overhead for the size of its forces. As a result, he may call for further cuts in a major review on Pentagon functions due in two weeks. Closing additional domestic bases "is essential to reducing unnecessary defense expenses," Cohen said in a report submitted this week to the White House and Congress.

To begin a new round of closings, Congress would have to pass a law setting up a commission to select bases for elimination. Such a commission would consider the views of the public and probably would not complete its work until at least 1999.

Part of the pressure for more closings is generated by concerns among military leaders that they can no longer delay new weapons spending, as they have done for much of this decade. With military budgets likely to remain at about $250 billion, plus inflation, for the next five years, additional money for new weapons has to come from somewhere.

The military chiefs would prefer to take the savings from bases than from troops, defense analysts note.

Time Warner Ends Interactive TV

The Washington Post

Time Warner Inc.'s interactive television experiment in Orlando will be unplugged at the end of the year, putting a halt to the most ambitious effort to allow consumers to shop, order movies, and bank through their TVs.

In the end, the gold-plated system proved too expensive to make a viable business, analysts believe. Customers were charged just $3.95 a month for use of a computerized box on their TV sets that cost the company thousands of dollars each.

Time Warner won't say how much it spent on the three-year project, but analyst Gary Arlen of Arlen Communications Inc. in Bethesda, Md., estimates the price tag at $700 million. Using high-speed cables to 4,000 homes, the system allowed customers to choose movies or news when they wanted them, order pizza, stamps, or retail goods, and play TV games with neighbors.

The company said the Orlando trial should be viewed as a research and development exercise, rather than a market failure. The project, it says, provided valuable data showing that consumers, after all, will pay for at least some types of interactive TV.

"It was never intended to be a cost-effective, deployable model," said company spokeswoman Tammy Lindsay. "We didn't know what consumers would pay for this. We do now."

Time Warner will convert its Orlando customers to Internet access in June as a market test using the same boxes before removing the devices at year's end.