NBC, ONCE ONE OF the Big Three TV networks, is now more like one of the Big Three automakers.

Becoming more like a syndicated station than the proud peacock of days gone by, GE's TV arm has essentially thrown in the towel at 10 p.m. by announcing a five-nights-a-week Jay Leno talk show.

And in the process, it has back-stabbed its new "Tonight Show" host Conan O'Brien, who will now have to fight for guests with his own network's prime-time competitor. Well- done, chaps.

Eager to kick a peacock when it's down is CBS CEO Les Moonves, who challenged Leno to a ratings duel next fall.

"I will bet anybody who would like to bet that 'CSI: Miami' on Monday night at 10 o'clock will beat Jay by a lot. Remember that. By a lot," Moonves said yesterday at an investor conference hosted by UBS.

Les said CBS was already winning the ratings war at 10 p.m. on four of the five weeknights with shows such as "Without a Trace" and "CSI: NY."

CBS also benefits from selling those shows to syndication, to overseas markets and on DVD.

"They are sold in 12 different ways," he said. "We think taking the third competitor will make us even stronger in terms of all those areas."

Leno, for his part, said Tuesday that he didn't expect his nightly show to beat any other 10 p.m. show in the beginning, but would benefit from running at least 46 weeks of the year, including when other shows are in reruns.

NBC, which has become its own worst enemy, has taken a pummeling this season with weakened "Heroes," misfires like "My Own Worst Enemy" and total crap - uh, "Knight Rider."

"Network television is all about having hit shows. We have hit shows every night of the week," Moonves said. "It remains a good business, and when the advertising markets come back in full force, it will be extremely effective for us."

* That is, unless there's no TV.

The Screen Actors Guild plans to send strike authorization ballots to more than 100,000 union members on Jan. 2, a date that leaves the Golden Globes safe but puts Oscar night within reach of a potential boycott.

Votes will be counted on Jan. 23, nearly two weeks after the Golden Globe Awards ceremony, but ahead of the Feb. 22 Academy Awards, the most important date on the Hollywood calendar. Approval by 75 percent of voting members is required to pass the measure. If it is approved, the SAG board can call a strike.

Guild President Alan Rosenberg has said a strike is the last resort to force a resolution in stalled contract talks with major movie studios, but that if it is necessary, it would be timed to have the most impact.

"SAG members understand that their futures as professional actors are at stake," Rosenberg said in a statement yesterday.

Major studios called the strike vote poorly timed.

"It's now official: SAG members are going to be asked to bail out a failed negotiating strategy by going on strike during one of the worst economic crises in history," said a statement by the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers.

The studios may want to reconsider use of the term "bail out."


* Oy, Madonna!

Jorge Medina, a retired cardinal in Chile, said yesterday that the Material Middle-Aged-Woman is causing "crazy enthusiasm" and "impure thoughts" on her first concert tour there. Medina's criticism came during his homily at a Mass in honor of the late dictator Augusto Pinochet, who oversaw the deaths of some 3,200 dissidents during his 1973-1990 rule.

Remember that: Pop singer - bad. Brutal despot - good.

"This woman," Medina said, "comes here and in an incredibly shameless manner, she provokes a crazy enthusiasm, an enthusiasm of lust, lustful thoughts, impure thoughts."

Medina, however, did not mention Alex Rodriguez by name.

* The New York film critics have spoken and they've got "Milk."

The Hollywood Reporter says "Milk" was chosen as the best film of 2008 yesterday.

"Milk" also earned awards for Sean Penn as best actor and Josh Brolin as best supporting actor.

"Happy-Go-Lucky" helmer Mike Leigh was named best director, and star Sally Hawkins won out as best actress.

The best supporting actress nod went to Penelope Cruz for "Vicky Cristina Barcelona."

"Man on Wire" was chosen best documentary. The abortion drama "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days" emerged as best foreign film.

Best screenplay was "Rachel Getting Married" by Jenny Lumet. Anthony Dod Mantle was named best cinematographer for "Slumdog Millionaire." "Frozen River," directed by Courtney Hunt, was picked best first film.

* Ricky Martin is showing off the

first photos of his twin boys, born last summer to a surrogate mother.

Photos of Ricky and his sons, Valentino and Matteo, appear in the upcoming issue of People. Martin announced their birth on Aug. 20, when the babies were several weeks old.

Says Martin: "I'm so happy! Everything they do, from smiling to crying, feels like a blessing. Being a father feels amazing. This has been the most spiritual moment in my life."

And he didn't even get to enjoy the moment when, in the process of making a baby, man and woman typically scream "Oh, God!" *

Daily News wire services contributed to this report.

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