AT THE RISK OF RUINING one of TV’s grand illusions, here’s a news flash: On political discussion shows, people are encouraged to argue.

Conflict and confrontation are the life’s blood of cable chat, which is why dueling representatives are carefully selected to generate maximum levels of friction. God forbid that anyone should engage in intelligent conversation and agree on anything — which explains why on Friday’s “Oprah,” Bill O’Reilly flatly dismissed an audience member’s suggestion that a middle ground exists between what he dubs “traditionalists” and “secular progressives.” “There is no middle,” O’Reilly snapped, perhaps because a rational middle puts self-appointed “culture warriors” out of business.

Strangely, though, the free-wheeling attitude that permeates the political space — from relentless pounding by overcaffeinated pundits to rough-and-tumble advertising — hasn’t extended into the entertainment side of things. Instead, the emphasis at

forums like the Hollywood Radio & Television Society is on civility, which — based on reviews from bitter, cynical people regarding the recent luncheon featuring the network entertainment chiefs — makes for a rather boring stage show.

The image of network honchos playing it safe and refusing to mix it up publicly is hardly new, but it wasn’t always thus. Just a few years ago, NBC’s Don Ohlmeyer called people “the antichrist” and CBS’ Leslie Moonves and Warren Littlefield traded jabs like a pair of grizzled middleweights.

SO BEFORE THE MIDTERM election and all its related mud-slinging disappears until 2008, let’s fantasize one last time about networks bringing the combative streak they often exhibit privately to their primetime promotion, borrowing a page from political campaigns’ attack-oriented “Go negative” playbooks. Here are some samples:

  • “Sure, Fox is the home of ‘American Idol,’ but what has it done for you lately? ”Til Death?’ ‘Standoff?’ A new comedy called ‘Happy Hour’ that you needed a few drinks to watch?

    “OK, watch ‘Idol,’ but after the music stops, well, you be the judge.

    “Paid for by NBC, CBS, ABC and the Writers Guild of America.”

  • “CBS must think you’re stupid. How else do you explain that every show they have begins with a chalk outline and ends with someone slapping on handcuffs?

    “Aren’t you ready for a more challenging brand of programming, one that respects your intelligence?

    “Brought to you by the character-driven dramas of ABC.”

    “I’m CBS CEO Leslie Moonves, and I approved this message.”

  • “Hi, my name’s Timmy, and I’m 11.

    “NBC used to call itself ‘Must-See TV.’ But not anymore. Heck, my dad says the last time anyone there introduced a really great comedy people felt they had to see, I wasn’t even born yet.

    “Now NBC says they’re going to put on cheaper gameshows and reality TV at 8 p.m., which sounds like ‘Mustn’t-See’ TV. Even a kid can tell you that’s a bad idea.”

  • “The Disney Channel wants you to think its shows are good for kids and teenagers. But the record shows a different story.

    “Just look at Disney’s latest programs: Beautiful kids. Perfect teeth. Not a trace of acne. Is that a fair message to send impressionable 12-year- olds?

    “Don’t let your kids fall into the Disney Channel’s trap. Because that mouse could be a rat.

    “Do it … for our children.

    “Paid for by concerned parents, and the Viacom Networks.”

  • [Fade in on two middle-aged women.] “Lifetime likes to call itself ‘Television for Women.’ But is it?”

    “Lately, the channel’s gone in a different direction — new series, ‘hip’ attitude, none of the fine movies with delightful Hollywood stars we used to watch.”

    “You’re right, Martha. Maybe it’s time to tell Lifetime that life’s too short. Ha ha ha.”

    “Paid for by Oxygen, WE and women like you.

  • ” ‘Free to be’ the CW said in all those big, green billboards. But free to be what, exactly? Recycled UPN and WB shows, plus something called ‘Runaway’ that’s already run away — forever?

    “It’s nice to get some things free. But aren’t the best things in life worth paying for?

    “Brought to you by a coalition of cable networks, and Exxon Mobil.”

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