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Crank up the calliope. Make sure the barker is in good voice. The carnival sideshow is alive and well and living on national TV.

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It goes by different titles today - Tabloid Television, Reality Programming, Trash TV, Talk Rot - but the philosophy is the same one espoused by master showman P.T. Barnum more than 100 years ago: "There's a sucker born every minute."

The spirit of Barnum lives on in nationally syndicated talk show hosts like Geraldo Rivera, Phil Donahue and Oprah Winfrey, who between them give viewers an almost daily dose of sex, sleaze amd sensationalism in the guise of serving the public's need to know. And Barnum is personified on "reality" shows like Fox's "America's Most Wanted" and NBC's "Unsolved Mysteries" that, despite seemingly noble intentions, pander to their audience's basest voyeuristic tendencies with chillingly authentic re-enactments of grisly murders, kidnappings, and rapes.

It's like having The National Enquirer and True Detective played out in your home - live and in living color.

And if Rivera and Donahue et. al. are like Barnum, guess who they figure the suckers are?

"American television viewers are tired of watching the most inoffensive programming," said Fox vice president Kevin Wendle. "They have said, `We don't want another network. Give us something different.' And we're pulling out all the stops."

And the audiences are responding. "America's Most Wanted" is almost single-handedly leading Fox's Sunday night line-up into ratings respectability, regularly outdrawing a number of network programs. "Unsolved Mysteries" is a solid top-20 ratings performer. And Rivera's recent trend toward the gutter, highlightedby a full-fledged brawl on his "Geraldo" show and a top 5 ratings finish for his NBC special on Satanism, has pushed him past Donahue and Winfrey as the current king of trash talk - Winfrey's startling 67 pound weight loss notwithstanding.

And that isn't even counting nationally syndicated talk show host Morton Downey Jr., who isn't seen on any Utah television stations. Yet. The chain-smoking, tough-talking Downey has become a cult figure in some areas because of his extreme right wing views and his regular on-air finger-pointing-and-shouting matches with guests.

"Zip it, Scum!" he screams at one. "I'm going to sit on your face!"> Suddenly Paddy Chayefsky's bitterly satiric view of television, the 1976 feature film "Network," isn't funny anymore

It's reality.

"The talk shows have taken very precious time away from real issues and given it all over to fluff," says consumer advocate Ralph Nader, a one-time talk show regular who is rarely if ever seen these days. "They do shows now in two categories only: The typology of the bizarro and soap opera stuff - five women whose husbands beat them and `How did it feel?' and so on.

"We have a country hurtling into ecological and economic crisis, and this is what they're into on talk shows," Nader continued. "The one common theme is psychological problems. They won't touch real consumer issues."

Rivera, of course, balks at that notion. "We do a lot of stories on subjectsthat are not the flash or sex topics," he said. "We do a lot more in terms of crime and punishment or drug abuse or those kinds of street problems than talks shows have ever done - certainly more than daytime talk shows have ever done."

Which is probably true - if you consider recent "Geraldo" topics like "Corporate Call Girls," "Transsexuals" and "Living Out Sexual Fantasies" as "street problems." And don't forget the episode in which Rivera got down and dirty - literally - with bikini-clad female mud wrestlers.

"I just think I've found what suits me," Rivera said. "I feel a real sense of populism. I'm not ashamed of it. I feel the audience often thinks of me as their surrogate, or as a friend."

But even if Rivera isn't ashamed of what he does, one gets the feeling that Donahue is - even if only just a little. In a recent interview with Tom Shales ofThe Washington Post, Donahue was asked if he and his producers are now scheduling fewer serious subjects and more sexy topics. "It gives me no pleasure to say `yes,' " he responded.

"Now that we are on the busiest street on television today, with more and more people running around a studio with wireless microphones, I have to say that we do feel the pressure," Donahue said. And then he told Shales: "Please do not call me `intelligent.' Call me `outrageous.' I'd rather be called `sleazy' than be identified as `intelligent."'

"Isn't that a sad comment?" asked Shales.

"Yes it is," Donahue said, "but it's also a recognition of the reality of survival on daytime television today."

And not just daytime. The prime time ratings success of "Unsolved Mysteries" and "America's Most Wanted" have spurned imitators like CBS's "High Risk" and ABC's "Incredible Sunday," "Scandals," "Crimes of the Century" and "Trackdown." Fox has a show on the drawing boards called "Cops," a documentary series that will follow "the personal and professional lives" of a group of real-life Florida police officers.

And then there are the syndicators. Never ones to let a trend pass unjumped upon, national program pushers are assaulting local stations with an army of reality-based shows, including "On Trial" (real lawyers and judges working on real trials!), "Group One Medical" (real doctors working on real patients!) and "Crimewatch Tonight" (real detectives solving real cases!).

"I do think we're on to something," said Fox chairman Barry Diller. "But we'll be careful. If we're not very careful we'll make some terrible mistakes."

Then again, maybe it's too late to start worrying about that.