Showtime has re-upped "Queer as Folk," ordering 20 episodes on top of the 22 it bought for its first season.

The series has been "highly successful," the pay cable network says; it's Showtime's highest rated series and has been particularly successful in attracting 18-to-34-year-old viewers. Executive Vice President Mark Zakarin told the trade papers that Showtime's suits knew there would be a core gay audience for the series, but the "solid ratings" show a degree of acceptance among American viewers who are "getting a peek at a culture that they may not be familiar with."

So how many people are watching "Queer as Folk"?

Showtime won't say.

"We do not give out ratings information. It is our policy. I can't confirm anything," said a Showtime representative. "What we tried to do in the press relase is to let you know that it's our highest rated series in prime time and the highest rated series debut in the last three years. We can give out information like that but we can never give out exact ratings information."

The Showtime rep also said she could not say if the addition of the show to the network's schedule in December had resulted in an increase in subscribers. Nor was she allowed to tell us how many homes currently subscribe to Showtime.

Kind of odd for a network whose slogan is "No Limits." Maybe they meant to say "Off Limits."

Undeterred, we called Nielsen, the ratings number-crunching company. "We are totally not allowed to tell you anything about Showtime. They have issued that edict," a Nielsen rep told us. "They are the only cable network" that has done this. "We are not allowed to tell you anything about it." Not even how many homes subscribe to Showtime, it seems.

Intrigued, we turned to the TV Column Sources.

In November, before the lockdown, Nielsen reported that Showtime was being beamed into 23 million homes, one of the TVCS told us. That's about 22.5 percent of U.S. homes with televisions.

And, according to more than one of the number-gazers, "Queer as Folk" has averaged about 1.2 million viewers since its debut. Its most watched episodes have averaged about 1.63 million viewers. This past Sunday, "Queer as Folk" averaged 1.4 million viewers and was the 84th most watched cable program of the week, ahead of "Courage the Cowardly Dog" on the Cartoon Network (No. 85) but behind the "Professional Bull Riders St. Louis Open" on TNN. That was ranked No. 81.

Mark your calendars: UPN has announced a debut date for its reality series "Chains of Love." It's Tuesday, April 17, and the network will air it in the 8 p.m. hour.

"Chains," in case you've forgotten, is the six-week show in which a man or a woman who's "searching for the love of his/her life" is chained to four strangers of the opposite sex for four consecutive days -- in front of TV cameras, UPN says. UPN calls the man or women The Picker; we will call him or her The Loser.

In each episode the foursome will vie to be the one and only eventually chosen by The Loser, hopefully sparking a romance.

It's from the same company that gave us "Big Brother" on CBS.

"It will either be good or it won't," said an exec at another network whom The TV Column called to discuss the show.

It was Jim "The NewsHour" Lehrer vs. Don "60 Minutes" Hewitt at the Radio and Television News Directors smackdown in Washington Wednesday night.

The arena: the new Ritz-Carlton hotel.

Lehrer, who received the Leonard Zeidenberg First Amendment Award, accepted the honor on behalf of the 680 people who've worked on the PBS program over the past two decades, The Post's Paul Farhi reports.

"I'll say what I said over 25 years ago," Lehrer said. "We have the courage to be serious. If you want snap, crackle and pop, go buy a breakfast cereal or watch '60 Minutes.' If you want entertainment, go to the circus and see a clown. Twenty-five years later, I've learned that things are pretty much the same, except now you can see the clowns on TV."

Two seats away sat Hewitt, the founder and executive producer of "60 Minutes." Also in the room were the program's correspondents Mike Wallace, Morley Safer, Lesley Stahl and Steve Kroft.

Hewitt, however, made a great recovery, with an assist from Walter Cronkite. Cronkite introduced Hewitt as the director of the first "serious" network newscast (CBS's pioneering "Douglas Edwards With the News"), and noted pointedly that "60 Minutes" is the only news program that has ranked in the top 10 since its debut. Take that, Public TV Man!

Hewitt, who also received an award, rebutted Lehrer by saying, "When you've been around as long as I have, you become the pop in the snap, crackle and pop."

We call the match a draw.

(Yesterday, Lehrer insisted "I wasn't taking any hits," adding, "I guess I should have spelled it out better. God knows, '60 Minutes' is a great program. I consider [snap, crackle and pop] a compliment. The rest of it I'll let stand.")

At the dinner, Hewitt also took a whack at campaign finance, blasting those who say limits on campaign spending amount to a curtailment of First Amendment rights.

"If the First Amendment doesn't give you the right to shout 'fire' in a crowded theater, why does it permit you to holler 'money' in a Buddhist temple? Someone needs to take on the constitutional scholars who propound the idiotic notion that it is unconscionable to stop someone from buying an election . . . If we stopped calling it 'campaign finance' and started calling it 'bribery,' we'd clean up this mess faster than you can say 'McCain-Feingold.' "

Hewitt acknowledged that the root of the problem was television -- that is, the cost of reaching voters via TV commercials. But he wouldn't go so far as to suggest that broadcasters -- like his own employer, CBS -- give free air time to candidates. Instead, his solution was to give politicians "free news time, when they do something newsworthy."

Which, of course, would actually mean less news time than candidates now get because, let's face it, many of those photo ops the networks covered last campaign weren't actually newsworthy.

Gale Harold and Randy Harrison in "Queer as Folk," which the tight-lipped folk at just Showtime renewed for a second season.