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Viewers hold key to primetime murderers row

CIVILIZATION AS WE KNOW IT is coming to an end … again.

The evidence, conspiracy theorists will tell you, can be found in last week’s Nielsen numbers for “Dateline NBC” and “Turning Point,” which rode the backs of two psychotic killers — Jeffrey Dahmer and Charles Manson — to record-setting ratings.

As anyone who even casually follows the communications business knows, this will lead to more stories trying to tap into that vein, both dramatic and non-fictional. The first rule of television or movies, after all, is simple: Replicate success. (The second rule, by the way, is to blame whatever failures you endure on your predecessor’s lack of originality.)

Clearly, there is a strong public appetite for sleaze and carnival roadshows, demonstrated by the Michael Jackson-Oprah Winfrey interview, the 50-plus rating toted up by three Amy Fisher movies and the recent fascination with the Lorena Bobbitt case.

The audience, however, can also be full of surprises, as any network entertainment division president can tell you as they navigate through their estimated four-year lifespan in one of those jobs.

Despite the promise of lurid revelations, the audience turned its nose up at last November’s tidal wave of “JFK”-related programming. “The Jackson Family Honors” didn’t knock anyone’s socks off, even with all the banter about Michael. For all the critical groaning, “I Witness Video” has never resorted to weekly decapitations.

Even though “soft” is said to be out, viewers have warmed up this season to telefilms like “To Dance With the White Dog,””Jane’s House” and a made-for-TV musical, “Gypsy.” The “quality” label is said to be the kiss of death, but “NYPD Blue,” TV’s best new drama, is also its highest-rated.

Because they are charged with discovering trends, however, TV pundits often fixate on one aspect of television and neglect others. More significantly, critics invariably play the role of Monday-morning quarterback, trying to explain after the fact why a certain program (or worse, entire genre) didn’t succeed, either commercially or creatively.

VIEWERS DON’T WATCH TELEVISION in a laboratory. Indeed, other than appointment series like “Home Improvement” and “Seinfeld,” they seem to make choices more and more once they sit down in front of the set.

This creates a problem for analysts, because the temptation is to surmise that if the audience behaves a certain way once, they’ll invariably do so again. Anyone blanketly assuming as much should think back to Al Capone’s long-lost vault, and the last time they saw Geraldo Rivera’s face in primetime.

Academics make the same sort of mistake, oversimplifying a complex issue, when they seek to explain TV’s effects on viewers. Yes, if you lock a kid in a room and show him hours of “Mighty Morphin Power Rangers,” he may be more prone during the next 15 minutes to try and karate kick another kid. What those studies don’t tell us is how the same child will behave two weeks later and the myriad other factors that influence his actions.

Too often, the television industry and its critics jump to such conclusions — about the effects of the medium and what the audience wants from it — based on that sort of circumstantial, at best correlative evidence.

So what’s the result of last week’s ratings? In the near term, probably more visits with Jeffrey Dahmer, Charles Manson and other degenerates, until the novelty (with the exception of Manson, a true evergreen) starts to wear off and people begin chasing the next trend.

Programmers know this to be true. They realize that if they analyze the data incorrectly — which amounts to little more than an educated guess — they’ll ultimately be sending out resumes.

What happens if those who want to curb the media guess wrong is a further-reaching question, and a far more troubling one. That’s still the best reason to rely on viewers to draw the line about content, hoping that they do so before we tune in weekly for “The Charlie Manson Variety Hour,” or “Cookin’ With Jeffrey Dahmer.”

NIGHT MOVES: OK, so everybody else has had a crack by now at casting “The Late Shift,” Bill Carter’s tome on “The Tonight Show” succession battle. The book has been optioned by HBO and, if we’re any judge of movie material, will probably never see the light of day.

Still, we’d like to offer a slightly different take on the process, realizing that with modern makeup techniques (see “Stalin” or “Patton”), attitude is more important than appearance. With that in mind, we suggest the following performers, with an appropriate role as reference:

At CBS: Laurence Tisch — Gavin MacLeod (“The Love Boat”). Howard Stringer — Michael Caine (“The Man Who Would Be King”). Jeff Sagansky — Scott Bakula (“Quantum Leap”… especially if it’s to Paramount).

At NBC: Bob Wright — Alan Rachins (“L.A. Law”). Don Ohlmeyer — Craig T. Nelson (“Coach”). John Agoglia — Ron Silver (“Wiseguy” story arc). Warren Littlefield — Bob Balaban (as the network president on “Seinfeld”).

Other assorted players: Helen Kushnick — Kathy Bates (“Misery”). Michael Ovitz — Steven Seagal (“Above the Law”). Peter Lassally — Max Wright (“ALF”). David Letterman & Jay Leno — Impressionist John Roarke.

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