There's nothing like a little murder after dinner. Unless it's a lot of murder after dinner. That's what viewers in many cities are getting now.

The hour (or, in some cities, half-hour) that precedes network prime time is called access time; for years, the period was dominated by game shows and frothy fluff. Now, Monday through Friday, across the nation, the access hours have become the killing fields.It's the addition of more tabloid shows and the hyped competition for audiences in the access period that is to blame. "Inside Edition," an imitation of Fox TV's squalid "Current Affair," has just debuted and features at least one grisly murder story per night. Craig Rivera, Geraldo's brother, is a producer and reporter.

The other night, host David Frost unctuously asked Rivera how Geraldo would feel about his brother appearing on the show. "He's probably very proud," Craig Rivera said. This was after a report about two Florida politicians "locked in a bloody battle for almost 30 years." It was acknowledged at the end that the battle has been in a truce for some time.

"Inside Edition" does not air as an access show in all markets. Some stations play it late at night, some in the late afternoon as a lead-in to newscasts. But in Washington and many other places, such shows are grouped in that hour between the real news and prime time. Channel hopping takes you from one murder to another.

On Monday, Jan. 23, "Inside Edition's" big story was a mass-killer cult allegedly run from the grave by a polygamous loonie. Meanwhile, on another station, "A Current Affair" was continuing its romance with serial killer Ted Bundy, who was practically a poster boy for this show.

Suppose you didn't want to see murders; you could always tune over to "Entertainment Tonight" for funsy showbiz gab, right? Wrong. On this night, the big story on "ET" was the brutal murder of a starlet - 42 years earlier.

Why do a story now on someone who died 42 years ago? According to the report, the 42nd anniversary of the killing is this month (will there be a Hallmark card?), and it is still unsolved. Also, the body was "hacked to pieces," and that surely made the crime worth rehashing.

Even "Entertainment Tonight" has gone trashoid, dredging up old Hollywood scandals when there aren't any fresh new ones. Result: the show is getting the best ratings it's had in years. Perhaps the public's lust for blood really is as insatiable as the producers of all these shows think.

There are four words, meanwhile, that it is always safe to use when assessing the quality of TV programming: It will get worse.

February is a Nielsen ratings "sweeps" month, so the body count is bound to go up. And next fall, a new wave of crime shows will join those already on the air: "Tabloid," from Paramount; "Crime Diaries" from Qintex Entertainment; "Crimewatch Tonight" from Orion; and "Cop Talk: Behind the Shield" from Tribune Entertainment.

The trash squads behind such programs are starting to get testy about all the criticism. Reese Schonfeld, former CNN executive who is producing "Crimewatch Tonight," cranked out a diatribe for Broadcasting magazine recently, asking critics to "leave us alone."

Schonfeld has a theory to explain the drubbing that trash TV gets from the press. "I think it's another turf war," he writes. He thinks TV critics are upset because newspapers are no longer the only place people can find out about murders. Oh, brother!

At least Schonfeld is a borderline respected journalist.

Since TV began, there have been excesses in program types, because as Fred Allen said, "imitation is the sincerest form of television." Somehow a glut of sitcoms or a whole heap o' Westerns never seemed much of a social threat. But all this time given over to murders, bludgeonings, atrocities, rapes and sex crimes does.

It exaggerates fears people already have about crime in the outside world; it advances the idea that brutality and killing are normal and routine components of everyday life; and it decreases the public's appetite for serious news that really matters.

What producers and stations are doing to television is, in a word, murder.