PARIS -- The shiny steel safe was rolled into the swanky hotel conference room by a phalanx of pistol-packing security men, and the photographers went mad. Click-click-click.

Telly Savalas, dressed in black but for a golden necklace, sidled up to the safe and tried unsuccessfully to twist open the lock. "Haven't got the combination," he said.

Was this the safe that divers retrieved this summer from the sunken Titanic, 2 1/2 miles down in the murky Atlantic -- the safe supposedly crammed with riches? Of course not. It was too shiny.

The real safe, squashed by deep-water pressure and corroded by sea salt, supposedly was inside the shiny safe. At least that's what the people who organized the week's media event here claimed.

And thanks to those people -- the same enterprising folks who brought us "The Mystery of Al Capone's Vaults" -- that safe is going to be opened on live U.S. television tonight at 8 (on Channel 20 locally). So will a leather valise fished from the Titanic. A press release said they are "believed to contain an inestimable fortune in jewels and coins."

How do the producers of the syndicated show know what's there? They peeked.

Yes, to avert the disappointment of the Capone caper, in which frenetic reporter Geraldo Rivera breathlessly narrated the live opening of a vault that turned out to contain almost nothing, the executive producer of "Return to the Titanic ... Live" says he already has looked inside.

"I tell you -- there are artifacts in the safe. It is real," said John Joslyn, the producer. But he wouldn't say what they are. "I believe the legacy should be shared with everyone at once."

That sharing will be done via commercial television, with Savalas playing the Rivera role in a show he says will be of historic significance -- "like going to the moon."

Some people, including survivors of the great ship's 1912 sinking, have called it something else -- exploitation. And its producers, they say, are grave-robbers.

"We don't support the efforts of those who dig up battlefields and Indian grave sites, and this {expedition} points in that direction," said Edward C. Ezell, a curator at the National Museum of American History in Washington.

"I've read a lot about the Titanic, and like so many tragedies, it's become a rather poignant event," Ezell added. "You think about the people who went down, rather bravely at that, and it {the expedition and television project} really raises a question about what entertains the society.

"I think it presents an unhappy commentary about where we stand today."

The producers respond with indignation.

"There were 32 dives over 160 hours, and not during one dive did anyone come forward and say he saw a human bone, or a bone of any sort," huffed Joslyn. "It is not a grave, but a memorial ... It's much better to have them {Titanic artifacts} up so we can pay homage to those who lost their lives."

But one big reason French divers -- not Americans -- retrieved the safe and valise is that after Americans from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Massachusetts located the Titanic, Congress passed a law making it illegal to "alter, disturb or salvage" any part of the ship. Since the ship lies in international waters after hitting an iceberg 350 miles southeast of Newfoundland, the law cut no ice with the French.

So the safe is being opened in Paris, at the Center for Science and Industry, at the uncivilized hour of 2 a.m. Paris time.

Not many people in Paris are likely to stay up and watch -- but the time difference puts the show squarely in prime time in the United States, where Joslyn said it would have "94 percent coverage," including all major markets.

Joslyn didn't say if the safe contained jewels or money. The only money he mentioned was the $6 million a "very brave group of {mostly American} investors" put up to fund first the search, then the TV program. And the hype.

Now, they stand to profit handsomely, "very much so," said Joslyn. So will Savalas, who said he "would've done the job for nothing," but gladly accepted what he said was a "substantial amount," which he would not name. "Pick a figure," he said with a roguish smile as photographers swarmed around.

"I'm a curious individual," said Savalas. "I've been making believe so long -- playing detective and in the movies -- it's exciting to get involved in something that was very, very real," he said.

Joslyn and his partner in the media production company Westgate Entertainment, "People's Court" emcee Doug Llewelyn, call the program "docutainment" -- a mixture of documentary and entertainment. And they think it will be bigger than "Al Capone's Vaults," which may have been a critical failure but was still the highest-rated live broadcast ever syndicated.

"We have 155 stations lined up now and will have more by air time," said Paul Siegel, president of LBS Communications, distributor and chief financier of the program.

"Seventy-five percent of them are network affiliates -- that's 27 million households. Capone got a 34 share. I think the Titanic will get a 35. That's the number I picked in the office pool."

Joslyn told United Press International earlier this year that nothing could dim his enthusiasm for tonight's telecast.

"Unfortunately, Geraldo will not be hosting," Joslyn said. "I wish he were. I love him dearly, but he's got a commitment to a live daily talk show, so he isn't available.

"But this is a different subject that didn't need the excitability of journalism. What it needed was someone who had a certain amount of class, because the Titanic had a certain amount of class. So we got Telly."