WHEN host David Letterman introduces the Best Pictures category on the Academy Awards telecast tonight, this master of hip is sure to appreciate the fine irony behind the nomination of the motion picture ''Quiz Show.'' For ''Quiz Show'' is, more than anything, a dead-on deconstruction of the soul of television itself.
Among the real-life characters portrayed in the film is TV contestant Herbie Stempel. The producers of the NBC-owned quiz show ''21'' promise the Stempel character a spot on a new panel show they're planning, or so he thinks. In a key scene, Stempel explains to his skeptical wife why he's going along with the scheme for him to take a dive so that a new know-it-all king of television can be crowned. TV, he declares, ''is the biggest thing since Gutenberg invented print,'' and he sees his fortune assured if he can only be part of its explosive growth.
Stempel was right: the 1950s infant has grown up to become the biggest force in Mediaworld. He wouldn't be surprised at all at the evidence that TV is still playing con games with its audience. But contemporary TV's most serious cheating is so widespread that it's seldom discussed: TV has effectively stolen childhood from America's children.
The quiz shows tricked consenting adults; today's TV seduces kids. Statistics show that children spend more time in front of the box than in school. A child views at least 10,000 TV murders by age 18. The long-term implications of these figures are beginning to be noticed in Washington.
''Quiz Show'' became the starting point for some frank talk when the Annenberg Washington Program and Northwestern University brought together ''Quiz Show'' director Robert Redford, TV executives, congressmen, and Clinton administration officials to participate in a panel discussion on '' 'Quiz Show' and the Future of Television.'' Rep. Edward Markey (D) of Massachusetts, the ranking minority member of the House Telecommunications and Finance Subcommittee, described the TV marketplace today: Cable channels create the need for more competitive products and increase pressures for ratings, whatever the cost. A weakened Federal Communications Commission (FCC) means that producers really don't have to answer for their actions.
The film ''Quiz Show'' is propelled along by commercial greed. In its final moments, congressional hearings mobilized popular opinion against cheating TV. Change looked possible. Chastened network executives vow to do good works.
Washington felt emboldened, too. Among his first acts, John F. Kennedy appointed Newton Minow to be head of the FCC. Mr. Minow denounced TV as a ''vast wasteland'' in a memorable 1961 speech and threatened to hold hearings to discuss direct regulation. Revisiting TV today, Mr. Minow, director of the Annenberg Washington Program, found the few flowers wilted, and the idea of a public trust rejected.
Now what? Panelist Geraldine Laybourne, president of Nickelodeon, the children's network, proposed that network leaders and advertising executives meet at a ''summit'' to address their responsibilities to children.
Mr. Markey suggested that Congress had to play its part as well. The GOP leadership has a distaste for regulation. But the new majority has also spoken out forcefully for moral standards. What better place to model behavior than on the home TV screen? No new regulations, no intrusive government; just some far-ranging, public-spirited, investigative hearings, much like those that gave exposure to the quiz-show frauds of the '50s.
Someone might make a good film about it.