HEY, I’VE GOT A FABULOUS IDEA for a dating show, something that would breathe life into this tired genre.

Sure, I could write more about it, but then some thieving bastard would steal it.

Moderating a panel of independent producers at last week’s NATPE convention, I was struck to hear them downplay what might be politely called “idea appropriation” as just another cost of doing business. And while most participants were willing to give buyers the benefit of the doubt — saying that similar concepts inevitably end up circulating at the same time — they also admitted that seeking satisfaction, legal or otherwise, is usually a self-defeating prospect in today’s vertically integrated media world.

Indeed, talk to producers and only two groups can safely press a legal challenge taking on the major conglomerates: another conglomerate, or those who have nothing to lose, either because they’ve never sold anything or they’re so rich they can afford to burn bridges.

We’ve all seen that first class of lawsuits, the professor in Alamogordo who registered an idea about forensic criminology in 1996, or the out-of-work entrepreneur who thought up an elimination game in which the winner runs some mogul’s company. Of course, having an idea and being able to execute it are quite separate things, which is why these actions are seldom taken seriously.

Yet even many who work in and around Hollywood, who actually have connections but haven’t enjoyed the big score in the Mark Burnett sense, seem to feel less protected than in the past. That might have something to do with the nature of so-called reality TV, where concocting a premise doesn’t require the talent to go back and bang out a first-rate script to flesh it out.

Moreover, the whole “nobody really means to steal” argument might have more weight if we weren’t in the middle of a TV season with near-identical nanny shows (“Supernanny,” “Nanny 911″), wife-trading shows (“Wife Swap,” “Trading Spouses”) and boxing shows (“The Contender” and the since-defunct “The Next Great Champ”). In that respect, Fox’s aggressiveness in crafting duplicate shows — responsible, as it is, for one in each set of twins — has helped fuel the considerable paranoia that already exists.

“If it does happen to you there’s really nothing you can do about it,” says one indie producer, who would like to eat lunch in this town again. “I think that’s why people have become so brazen.”

Generally, I subscribe to the argument that outright theft is relatively rare because everyone is pitching the same four alike-sounding ideas, but that doesn’t mean concepts aren’t pilfered. Then again, who’s going to complain about the lack of honor among thieves when the biggest honor, ultimately, is to be counted among them.

DAVE RAVE: David Letterman is an odd guy, but he rises to an occasion like no one else, from his perfectly attuned post-Sept. 11 return to his Warren Zevon farewell to Monday’s retrospective on friend and mentor Johnny Carson.

Letterman’s classy, low-key tribute, featuring Carson’s longtime producer Peter Lassally, conveyed just the right tone, beginning with a monologue compiled from jokes Carson penned for him over the last several months. Revealing some of his inner turmoil, the self-effacing Letterman stressed that no one, including him, would ever be Johnny, but to a next generation of comics, no one will ever be Dave, either.

BERNIE-ING DOWN THE HOUSE: It’s hard to believe Bernie Weinraub survived 14 years on the Hollywood beat, given the embarrassing mea culpa (and maybe thinly veiled book proposal) with which he capped his New York Times career Sunday.

Although it’s important to maintain a proper adversarial relationship with subjects, Weinraub’s first-person account suggests that he acquired the two worst traits an entertainment journalist can possess — harboring contempt toward those whom he encountered while simultaneously being overly star-struck and financially envious. This toxic combination does a disservice both to those covered and reporters themselves, feeding the perception that we can’t attend a shindig at producer Brian Grazer’s estate (very nice, by the way) without immediately contemplating how to sell out so we can buy our own.

Weinraub’s exit is thus overdue less because of his referenced marital conflict — having wedded Sony’s Amy Pascal — than a jaundiced and strangely naive lack of perspective. As for the Times, penetrating the town’s BS filter is certainly frustrating, but recognizing the difference between Hollywood and Baghdad is usually a good place to start.

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