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The Crystal Ball Is Fuzzy for Fall TV

PUNDITS are all too eager around this time of year to put a spin on the looming fall TV season - to draw tidy conclusions about how it fits into the big picture of media history.

But you have to stand back a little and get the long view of TV - I'm talking about several years - before prime-time programming resolves into even a muddy pattern. A few decades ago TV seemed to consist of nothing but westerns. Cultural commentators complained mightily about this, and the FCC made noises about getting the networks to break up the cowboy trend a little. A friend of mine who was a blue-collar worker (yes, there were still a few of them around) read about the FCC plan and was outraged. "T hey're telling me I can't see all the westerns I want to?" he yelled.

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That reaction offered a small window on why all the westerns were in the lineup. It didn't explain what to expect next. When you turned around a few years later, the cowboys were gone, and by the 1971-72 season, prime time was boasting enough private eyes to investigate every crime down to overtime parking. Although the age of the gumshoe also expired in due course, that genre was never successfully expunged. Some agents are still with us today.

When the shape of the season just ending first emerged last spring, people pointed out how timid and reactionary it was. Creatively venturesome series like "thirtysomething," "Twin Peaks," and "China Beach" were being dropped. Routine sitcoms with "dependable" names (read "safe") and made-for-TV movies were rushed in to fill the gaps. The previous season had been "hitless," and overall network viewership had declined for the fifth straight year.

So analysts were writing off the networks as electronic dinosaurs - powerful, cumbersome, and bound for extinction as more adaptable species like cable inherited the electronic environment. But something must have happened to the inevitable. As the new fall season gets ready to kick off, network fortunes have stopped their "historic" decline. Their share of the total TV audience is up and so is the actual number of viewers tuning in.

Profits? Well, let's talk about that another time. But last season did produce a new hit series - ABC's "Home Improvement" - something that hasn't happened since that network launched "Roseanne" four years ago. If anything demonstrates that no one really knows for sure what makes a successful TV series (or a Broadway smash or a winning presidential candidate), it's these two hits. They're on the same network but about as different as prime-time TV series can get.

What's the big spin being put on the new fall season? Youth appeal.

NBC, for instance, has dropped a few graying favorites like "Matlock" and "The Golden Girls," and its new look can be seen in "The Round Table," built around a group of professionals in Washington, D.C., in their 20s. On Monday, ABC has bumped a couple of "reality" shows (I thought they were supposed to be a historic trend) to make way for a rescheduled "Young Indiana Jones." CBS, which isn't playing the youth game, can afford to be independent because this season it made the improbable jump from the las t place to No. 1.

Meanwhile the 18-to-34-year-old audience really belongs to Fox, with wall-to-wall youth series like the recently premiered "Melrose Place," focusing on the lives of eight people in their 20s who live in a trendy area of Los Angeles. The other nets want a piece of the younger market that Fox has such a hold on. People over 50, the theory goes, are too set in their ways to try new brands - and that's what much of TV advertising is all about, getting buyers of Coke, say, to switch to Pepsi. If you've been d rinking Coke for 30 years, you probably won't opt to try Pepsi even if Ray Charles does go `Uh Huh!"

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Reaching for the young set does seem to make commercial sense, but who knows if the change will even be noticeable a few years from now. Let's not see media patterns before we ask a few questions. Are the improved network ratings just a statistical blip? Can the youth bid really ensure network-TV fortunes? Is there another programming angle entirely - not even thought of at the moment - that will really make the difference?

I'll let you know in about five years.

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