Zell Miller interrupted debate over the stalled judicial nomination of Miguel Estrada in the Senate yesterday to come to the defense of hillbillies.
"Mr. President: CBS Television is currently planning what this great company called 'a hillbilly reality show'!" the Georgia Democrat warned his esteemed colleagues.
You could sense the alarm that spread in the chamber with this news, the other senators having not read any of the 2,000 newspaper and magazine stories written on the subject since August, when word first got out about "The Real Beverly Hillbillies," CBS's planned reality version of its popular '60s sitcom. In it, a real-life family from Appalachia would be moved to Beverly Hills for a year.
"I'd like to say a few words about that as a United States senator who happens to be a hillbilly," Miller said.
"I can call myself that -- but don't you call me that. . . . Hillbilly is a term of derision," he added.
After a primer on the roots of the expression "hillbilly," a recap of various hillbilly comic strips that Miller has known and hated, a rundown of Miller's ancestry starting with his forebears who were driven out of Northern Ireland by the Stuart kings and also including more recent kin who "migrated westward as far as the hostile Indians [TV Column note: That's "hostile" as in "No, I would prefer that you not steal my land"] and the French would allow," a look at the Civil War and Watergate, Miller finally got to what is known as the Nub.
"CBS, once a proud and honorable broadcasting company . . . has become just another money-grubber," he said.
The former history teacher noted, "In the '60s, brave and courageous CBS reporters risked their lives to cover the civil rights struggles in the South." He forgot to mention that in the '60s, CBS also put on a slew of "hillbilly" sitcoms, including "The Beverly Hillbillies," "Petticoat Junction" and "Green Acres," which were extremely popular in rural America.
CBS "is now part of the giant Viacom," Miller continued.
"CBS has a CEO named Mr. Les Moonves, the man who is pushing this program-to-be," Miller warned; "a man who obviously believes that network television is an ethics-free zone and that it's acceptable for big profits to always come ahead of good taste.
"I don't know this man but it seems that he is a person who cares little for human dignity and believes that television has no social responsibility."
But Miller was not through with Moonves:
"I suppose we should not really be surprised, for his ilk have been around long before the creators of 'Li'l Abner' and 'Snuffy Smith,' " Miller continued, on a roll.
"Since the beginning of civilization, there have always been some Homo sapiens who it seems have to have someone to look down upon -- some group to feel superior to. For these kind of people, it is as basic to their human nature as the drive to reproduce or the urge for food and water. They were there in the time of the Greeks and the Romans. They can be found all through the Bible. . . .
"Shakespeare wrote about them, as did Dickens and Steinbeck and Faulkner," Miller continued.
"What CBS and CEO Moonves propose to do with this cracker comedy is bigotry, pure and simple. Bigotry for big bucks," Miller said.
"They know that the only minority left in this country that you can make fun of and demean and humiliate . . . are hillbillies in particular and rural people in general."
Apparently the senator did not see the way the women came off on "Joe Millionaire."
"CBS, Viacom, Mr. Moonves: I plead with you to call off your hillbilly hunt. Make your big bucks some other way."
CBS responded yesterday that "it's bizarre and unfortunate that the senator is forming a conclusion about a project before it has been cast or a stitch of film has been shot. It is not our intent to offend anyone as he suggests. He used some very strong words for a program he doesn't really know anything about and has not seen."
The network called Miller's comments about Moonves in particular "unwarranted, unsubstantiated and an attempt to cast a stone at the biggest possible target in order to get some attention."
To which Miller replied:
"When a dog gets hit it always hollers and runs up under the porch. Mr. Moonves knows very well that he has had his suits from CBS going all over the hills and hollers of the Southern mountains looking for that overdrawn stereotype that they have in mind."
A spokeswoman for Miller said the senator had made no effort to contact anyone at CBS to discuss his concerns before taking his grievance to the Senate floor.
"He just hasn't," she replied when asked why. "He prefers to start the conversation this way."
When asked why, she added: "because he felt this was the best way to do it."
Phil Donahue's much-ballyhooed return to television was put out of its misery yesterday when MSNBC pulled the plug on his talk show after just seven months.
Last night, a "Donahue" rerun filled his 8 p.m. time slot; that's the game plan for the rest of the week. For the record, Donahue's final guest Monday was Rosie O'Donnell, plugging her book "Find Me."
"We're proud of the program and we're disappointed that the show was not able to attract the viewership we had hoped for and expected," MSNBC President Erik Sorenson said in a statement.
Sorenson was not available for comment on the decision to cancel his network's most watched prime-time program, The Post's John Maynard was told yesterday; phone messages and an e-mail to Donahue's New York office were not answered late yesterday.
Despite a strong start when "Donahue" debuted in July -- an impressive 1.1 million viewers -- the audience declined rapidly and placed a distant third nightly behind Fox News Channel's top-rated "The O'Reilly Factor" and CNN's "Connie Chung Tonight."
This month, "Donahue" has averaged 439,000 viewers, a fraction of Bill O'Reilly's 2.7 million viewer average. Chung's show has averaged 970,000 viewers in February. Still, "Donahue" remained MSNBC's most watched prime-time program.
MSNBC executives are now faced with the all too familiar task of rejiggering their prime-time lineup.
Beginning Monday, the Network Formerly Known as America's NewsChannel will expand "Countdown: Iraq," anchored by Lester Holt, to two hours, from 7 to 9 p.m., followed by "Hardball With Chris Matthews" and "MSNBC Reports" at their regular times.
While ousting liberal Donahue, the Network Now Known as NBC News on Cable 24/7 has, in the past week, signed on former GOP House majority leader Dick Armey and former Republican congressman Joe Scarborough as contributors. MSNBC also signed conservative radio talker and author Michael Savage to host a one-hour show that will run Saturdays at 5 p.m.