AT THE END OF DAVID LEAN‘s “The Bridge on the River Kwai,” a doctor surveys the mayhem beneath him and despairingly mutters “Madness. Madness!”

That scene echoed in my head while scanning headlines, watching TV and listening to radio last week, wondering if the media world had suffered its own viral outbreak of craziness. Just consider the following items, unspooling like an old newsreel under Variety headlines:

  • FAUX FOX FLUNKY FLOPS: Fox has done a bang-up job transforming its anxiety about Nielsen Media Research’s shift to People Meters into a civil rights crusade, fronted by something called the Don’t Count Us Out coalition. That said, the company might want to find a slightly more convincing ally than National Hispanic Media Coalition chief Alex Nogales.

During a conference call with reporters, Nogales was asked how he received ratings data, since his group isn’t a Nielsen client; what specifically is wrong with Nielsen’s methodology; and who’s funding the anti-Nielsen campaign, which includes a slick TV spot. Don’t know, Nogales said to all three.

This is the spokesman? Even the Fox-backed flacks pushing the group’s party line had to be a bit red-faced. If this is the best Don’t Count Us Out has to offer, count me out.

  • NO GIPPER AT SMARTY PARTY: NBC’s Belmont Stakes coverage informed viewers how many oats favorite Smarty Jones consumed but conspicuously skirted any mention of Ronald Reagan’s death less than an hour before the broadcast. No crawl, no referral to MSNBC, no “Tune in to NBC News after the race,” nothing, zilch, nada.

A spokesman noted defensively that NBC News cut in before the race coverage began and that “the most appropriate way” to handle the story was within news. The clear implication, however, is that no one wanted to risk letting the former president’s death muddy the network’s path to ratings glory.

Fair enough, but if someone from “The Apprentice” or “Friends” casts died, I suspect NBC News would have been all over it.

  • ‘PRACTICE’ CZAR GETS REAL: Writer-producer David E. Kelley, who both within his programs and in interviews has accused unscripted TV of causing every conceivable ill short of gout, is developing a legal “reality” show along the lines of “The Practice.”

    Kelley admitted he was “suspicious” about getting in bed with the enemy, as it were, but he got over it. As one of his “Ally McBeal” characters might say, “Bygones,” but personally, I still like lawyers better when they’re fictional.

  • USA TAKES JOY ‘RIDE': At a time when everybody is crazed over the prospect of viewers zapping through commercials, USA network ran a two-hour commercial for the Pontiac GTO, “The Last Ride,” which the network passed off as a movie.

Look for USA’s upcoming “product integration” film slate: “Ben & Jerry’s Excellent Adventure,” “A Horse Named Clydesdale” and “GE’s Carousal of Progress 2005.”

  • LAKER LACKEYS MUFF MAY MADNESS: Is it too late to dig up the late Lakers announcer Chick Hearn and prop him up in front of a microphone?

Never have I heard more annoying home team-boosting jerks than Joel Meyers and Mychal Thompson, the Lakers’ current radio tandem on KLAC-AM (570). When Meyers isn’t ranting about officials blowing calls (always against the Lakers), he’s chewing out Laker role players.

Will someone please put these bozos in the refrigerator?

  • BOFFO BUCKS FOR MEL & MINDY: Mel Karmazin bolted Viacom last week, and reports indicate his cushy cash settlement won’t be that much fluffier than the golden parachute afforded E! Networks prexy Mindy Herman, whose exit plans were announced a few days earlier.

Even Karmazin’s detractors have to acknowledge his hypnotic hold on Wall Street, which by itself should entitle him to considerably more than the exec responsible for “The Anna Nicole Show.”

Maybe the two of them ought to go into a parking lot somewhere and hash things out.

  • AILES CLOCKS TIMES KEEPER: Never one to pull rhetorical punches, Roger Ailes blasted back at Los Angeles Times editor John Carroll for his tart op-ed piece that derided the “pseudo-journalism” practiced by Fox News Channel. In his retaliatory Wall Street Journal broadside, Fox News’ chairman somehow managed to equate Carroll’s negative appraisal with how the paper treated “the terrorists who recently beheaded an American.”

Once again, Fox News reminds us that folks with pointy elbows but thin skin populate the leading cable news net.

Still, there’s a promotional opportunity being overlooked here. Ailes might be shorter than Carroll, but he’s scrappy and has the weight advantage. So why not settle this with a WWE-style cage match between them, or the cable-news equivalent — say, a joint appearance on Fox’s “Hannity & Colmes.”

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