The triumphant return of "Victoria's Secret Fashion Show" to the airwaves?

Not so much.

All but about 8.9 million Americans found themselves able to resist the lure of pouty girls in candy-coated and crystal-caked undies, prancing between two of Paul Bunyan's albino teddy bears to strains of "The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy" and possibly "Song of the Volga Boatmen," though it's been years since we took that Music Appreciation class so don't hold us to that.

And, although CBS ran a parental warning in large letters across the screen no fewer than four times at the start of the skivvies show, a mere half-million teenagers and only about 350,000 children watched the one-hour holiday special, which was taped last month at the Lexington Armory in Manhattan.

That's about the same number of kids 2 to 11 who were over at NBC enjoying Mariska Hargitay and Chris Meloni as they investigated the case of the bruised, bloodied and severely injured 12-year-old boy who'd been dumped outside a hospital -- but that's another story.

It was the first "Victoria's Secret Fashion Show" broadcast in two years. CBS suits took a breather last year, rightly figuring it would be hard to top the national TV debut of Janet Jackson's right breast on their own air in February '04.

After such a long dry spell, you'd think a boatload of those 2 billion people who, according to chatty model Heidi Klum, have seen the runway show since its inception a decade ago would have been glued to the CBS broadcast. Not so. The event's return to broadcast TV fell short of even '03's disappointing 9.4 million, and was laps behind the 12.3 million who'd caught its television debut on ABC. (Note to self: Find out where on Earth Heidi got those stats.)

And this is sad because history was made Tuesday night when Tyra Banks performed her very last march down a fashion show runway. And Klum's bod just two months after giving birth to a baby Seal is nothing short of a Christmas miracle.

(Fortunately you're going to be given a second chance. UPN, which is headed by the same guy who runs CBS, announced yesterday it will rerun the fashion show on Tuesday at 9.)

It's hard to know why the show failed to cop a bigger crowd. Yes, it's true that when the models were out there giving a hard sales pitch on the crystal-caked ensembles, to Snoop Dogg's "Drop It Like It's Hot," they were wearing a shocking amount of clothing.

Perhaps there was also just a wee bit too much time spent backstage as girls in very high heels stomped clumsily down a set of stairs to the dressing room, looking like knock-kneed giraffes in pushups and thongs. Kind of killed the mood, you know what I mean?

And there's no denying that there was way too much blah, blah, blah from models, who, sadly, appear to have IQs even teensier than their dress sizes -- excepting the fabulous Banks, of course. "Look at their butts!" is not the kind of trash talk you want to hear from the mouth of your come-hither holiday fantasy.

But there were wonderful moments, too. Like the opening, in which jazz trumpeter Chris Botti performed a gorgeous version of the romantic George Gershwin song "Embraceable You" (or, as one of the contestants on the next "American Idol" is sure to call it, "Rod Stewart's 'Embraceable You' ") while the words "Please Be Advised This Program Contains Adult Content" moved liltingly across the screen, again and again and again.

And it was so good to see Ricky Martin, all grown up and filled out, in his modified mohawk, performing his new hit single "Drop It on Me," from his new album "Life." Martin has added hip-hop to his repertoire, at least the crotch-grabbing part, which CBS coyly cut away from each time his hand headed south. So beguiling.

And who can forget Seal singing "Crazy" in the dark and then blowing a kiss to a blinding white Electric Bra and Panties that turned out to be his wife, Ms. Klum. I know! -- you have to pay to get stuff this good on HBO.

People in Hollywood used to joke that the TV networks would buy a show from Hitler if they thought it would get a 30 share.

Of course, that's just crazy talk.

But, would they recruit a guy whose dad insists the Holocaust is mostly fiction, who has been somewhat waffly himself on the subject, whose box-office hit "The Passion of the Christ" was blasted by some critics as anti-Semitic, to a four-hour miniseries about a Holocaust survivor because it would stir up controversy and, hopefully, 30 percent of households watching TV at that time?

You betcha.

ABC has brought in Mel Gibson on the miniseries it's developing based on "Flory: Survival in the Valley of Death," the memoir of Flory A. Van Beek, a Dutch Jew who was hidden by Catholics and survived the Nazis, but who lost family members at concentration camps.

Gibson, former hunky guy action actor, is not going to act in the project; he may not even get an executive producer credit. But his name is being waved over the miniseries, and that's gotten it attention.

Lots of attention.

The project was brought to ABC by independent producer David Sladek, son of a Holocaust survivor. ABC brought in Gibson's production company, which had pitched a Holocaust movie earlier, according to ABC's guy in charge of movies and miniseries, Quinn Taylor.

Sladek, who said he's been "besieged with calls from all over the world" since word of Gibson's involvement got out yesterday, is "delighted" that Gibson's company was brought in, calling it a "formidable force in the industry, a major player in its own right."

"I find it great that [Gibson's company] is willing to put their muscle and their name behind a project about the Holocaust. . . . And, because of their success in the marketplace with 'Passion of the Christ' they will . . . aid greatly in attracting the largest possible audience to the project. That's the goal."

Rafael Medoff, director of the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies and author of an annual study on Holocaust denial, said he's disturbed by that thinking.

"It's troubling to hear a subject as important and sensitive as the Holocaust reduced to simplistic questions of whether or not a TV network will gain more viewers," he told The TV Column. He suggested ABC should focus not on "how many viewers can they rope in by association with Mel Gibson" but rather whether they want the miniseries "to be associated with someone who has minimized the Holocaust."

Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, on the other hand, told Reuters the project would give "Gibson a chance to redeem himself from the controversy over 'The Passion of the Christ,' which did not portray Jews fairly."

The miniseries would also "provide a first-class education for his father, who is a Holocaust denier," he added.

But Deborah Cohn, assistant professor of marketing at New York's Yeshiva University, thinks otherwise. "I think his aim is to portray Catholicism in the best possible light and to show the good deeds of Catholics in those times," she told Reuters. "Families did step up and those stories should be highlighted. I think this film is not going to address the things his father is denying."

Gibson has said in interviews he believes the Holocaust happened. Gibson is in Mexico filming a flick; his rep at Rogers & Cowan declined to comment on the ABC project or his client's participation.

Having Gibson attached to a Holocaust project is a big plus, ABC's Taylor told the New York Times in a report published yesterday: "Controversy's publicity, and vice versa."

But yesterday, he told The TV Column he was surprised by the reaction. In fact, his thought was, "Wow, must have been a slow news day."

Then he said that people's concerns about Gibson's involvement are "all important to listen to. But at the end of the day it's all about the product and are we telling a good story. It's about the story, not about the filmmakers' politics," said Taylor, who bought the project because "I'm a sucker for a love story."

Sladek compares the story of Van Beek and her husband to " 'Dr. Zhivago' or 'Reds.' "

"It happens to take place during the Holocaust, it happens to take place in Holland, and I think there is a great deal of focus being put on the player and the historical time period without fully recognizing what the story is about," he told The TV Column.

He noted that four of the six executive producers attached to the project are Jewish.

"I have every faith in our combined capability to champion development of this project through completion with the utmost respect not only for the Jewish community but the global community at large. We will be extremely responsible -- period. We're filmmakers -- this is Hollywood. If our decisions . . . to work with one another . . . were predicated on people's individual beliefs, political, religious or moral, nobody would get anything done. That's the real world," Sladek said.

The project is in the very early stages: A scriptwriter has been hired, it has yet to be greenlit to production, and the earliest it could be on the air is the 2006-07 season, Taylor said.

"I'm a bit taken aback when they are talking about something that is so far down the road I don't even know how to respond," he told The TV Column.

A day earlier, he told Variety that he would tell those critical of the move to bring in Gibson to "shut up and wait to see the movie and then judge."

Heidi Klum can't save CBS's "Victoria's Secret Fashion Show," with only 8.9 million viewers.