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IN THE FINAL scene of "War and Remembrance," Natalie Jastrow (Jane Seymour) was shocked to learn that her son was about to be taken from her at the so-called paradise ghetto at Theresienstadt.

With her son in her arms, Natalie turned to her Uncle Aaron (Sir John Gielgud) and said, "Oh, my God."

Freeze frame. Those probably were the same words uttered by some ABC executives after they received the final ratings for what was billed as "the story of our times."

The telecast of Herman Wouk's "W & R" averaged an 18.6 rating and 29 share over seven nights, about half of what "Winds of War" received five years ago. The ratings were even lower than ABC estimated to advertisers and assured the network a $20 million loss on the project.

For the second time in three months, a network was startled by lower than anticipated numbers for a potential blockbuster. NBC's Seoul Olympics also was a ratings flop.

The key questions are: Why did a historical epic that received generally favorable reviews nationwide fail to enthrall the nation, what does this mean to network television and what does this say about the nation?

First, why did "W & R" fail to attract blockbuster ratings?

In 1983, when "W of W" premiered, there were no National Football League games on cable on Sunday, no Fox Network, no TNT and no "Cosby Show" to compete against. Cable also didn't have nearly the same penetration levels nationwide. Clearly, many viewers went to cable alternatives.

Many viewers with short attention spans just couldn't find the time to watch 18 hours of television. Especially when there was no resolution. The final 12-to-14 hours of the series will air in May.

The story wasn't as romantic as "Winds of War." "War and Remembrance" had much better acting and some of its scenes were landmark television. However, it also was a depressing series. The graphic re-creation of the Holocaust was chilling and brilliant filmmaking by director-producer Dan Curtis. So chilling that many people apparently couldn't or wouldn't agree to sit through it.

The series had a confusing schedule, necessitated by breaks for ABC's "Monday Night Football." It ended on Thanksgiving Eve, when families are holding reunions and turn off the set.

What does the ratings failure of a series as noble as this mean to the future of network television and the nation?

I am afraid to think. It has been said that television really is the most democratic of mediums. Viewers vote each night on what they want to see. The shows they reject go out of favor. The lavish "W & R" was supposed to be the last lengthy miniseries, a dinosaur too costly to be profitable. Its ratings assure that prophecy will be true.

The same nation that elected a conservative candidate -- George Bush -- as its president in November is voting for shows that even some ardent liberals feel go too far.

Taken collectively, there might have been as many people watching white supremacists and neo-Nazis on Morton Downey, Geraldo Rivera and other tabloid talk shows than have seen a monumental series that warns against the re-emergence of such hate groups. Making the trend even more frightening is the fact the young were turned off by "W & R" and are turned on by Mort and Company.

Sure, the talk show hosts condemn their guests, but they also allow them a forum. The CBS series "Wiseguy" had a recent story line involving just such a white supremacist. The supremacist didn't mind being booted off a talk show so long as he was able to display his toll-free telephone number.

The networks, already beset by financial problems, have to be tempted to air more explicit shows so they can lure back the viewers attracted to sleaze. If so, the bad will continue to drive out the good in network television.

NBC Entertainment President Brandon Tartikoff's foolish decision to carry Geraldo Rivera's devil worship show belonged in the "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em" category.

Many people feel the sleazy tabloid talk shows are just a phase in American society, that they can't possibly continue to be popular.

To be perfectly honest, I thought Downey would have been history by now. But here he is at 8 p.m. weeknights, for goodness sake, on Channel 49.

That's the station owned by the Buffalo Sabres, a team that likes to project a family image.

Think about it. Morton and Geraldo and their weirdo guests are getting more attention than a re-creation of Herman Wouk's classic. For anyone who believes in this country's intelligence, it is enough to make them say, "Oh, my God."

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