Because of the state of the US economy, prime-time television is taking on a bit of a new look. With a cast of characters who rarely have on-camera experience, stations from Maine to California are nonetheless producing some engrossing local programming. The format is simple: match unemployed people with job openings.
These programs, usually called ''job fairs'' or ''jobathons,'' are winning rave reviews from at least one veteran observer of the ratings wars: Ronald Reagan.
Wherever there are large pockets of unemployment these days, it seems, there are television stations ready to help out. KGAN-TV in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, apparently started the trend last July in an effort to respond to the President's appeal for private-sector initiatives to meet the problem of widespread joblessness.
The station management decided to interrupt a feature movie periodically with job notices solicited from area employers and appeals from out-of-work viewers, program director Barry Norris says. In five hours' time 700 job-seekers appeared on the air.
''The conventional wisdom was that there are no jobs out there,'' Mr. Norris says. ''But we found employment for 119 people.''
President Reagan phoned while the program was on the air to commend the station for its effort.
The idea has since spread like wildfire. Stations in such major markets as San Francisco, Miami, Minneapolis, Washington, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Milwaukee, and Kansas City have donated prime time to the cause.
But the phenomenon is by no means restricted to large cities. WTRF-TV in Wheeling, W.Va., broadcast a 90-minute ''Job Finder'' program Jan. 10 that produced 15 offers of employment for some of the 117 out-of-work people who participated. Each participant was given 30 seconds before the cameras to make an appeal. Greenville, S.C.; Joplin, Mo.; Lewiston, Maine; and Paducah, Ky., also have had TV jobathons recently. In fact, the list of stations is nearing 50 .
And there are more to come. WLNE-TV in New Bedford, Mass., has a three-hour jobathon scheduled for today (Jan. 26). Program host Truman Taylor says ''close to 1,000'' job openings already had been solicited two days before the broadcast , including two positions at the station itself. A Las Vegas, Nev., station also is readying a jobathon for broadcast later this month. And there are plans for similar programs later this year in Omaha, Neb., and Los Angeles.
A White House spokeswoman says so many requests for Mr. Reagan to participate by telephone in jobathons have been received that a ''generic'' videotaped message had to be prepared. Copies are available through the White House radio-television office.
In Cincinnati, where the local unemployment rate is 11.4 percent, WKRC-TV solicited employers for job openings and came up with 1,200, station spokeswoman Lois Hinkle says. All such listings were verified twice before the Jan. 14 broadcast by follow-up phone calls and by personnel of the Ohio Bureau of Employment Services. Applicants could use remote sites at both ends of the station's coverage area to preregister for jobs, or they could call in during the broadcast on 30 telephone lines set up for the purpose.
By the time the two-hour broadcast ended, 9,000 viewers had applied for work. Their appeals were interspersed with information on local job-retraining programs, the range of services available at state employment offices, and the like.
Ms. Hinkle says the process of matching applicants to job openings won't be finished until the end of this week, but she already is calling the experience ''quite successful.''
''Quite frankly, two hours was not enough time to do all we wanted to do,'' she says.
Ms. Hinkle says many jobs uncovered by the WKRC program were service-oriented - a tendency that other station officials confirm. But Mr. Taylor's New Bedford station, which is on the fringe of the Greater Boston high-technology center, will be advertising some positions for ''skilled, hard-to-find people - like an environmental hygienist.''
Gera Curry of the California Employment Development Department says that from the state's point of view these programs are useful primarily as an educational device.
''We're very happy to cooperate with the stations,'' she says. ''They're a device for us to get our message out . . . that we're the state's largest employment agency.''
But stations that follow up a big prime-time push with daily broadcasts of job listings - as does KRON-TV in San Francisco - deserve even greater praise, Ms. Curry adds.