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Fall Lineups, Falling Audiences

Yet another major article about prime time television's malaise appeared on the front page of the May 11 New York Times. The networks, it seems, are in a state of panic. They've been watching, for some thirty years, their audiences drop, but now it's a free-fall. In the past four years, the broadcast networks' share of the prime time audience has dropped from 68 percent to 58 percent; it is the first time ever it has fallen below 60 percent. Something desperately needs to be done to prevent, in Times reporter Bill Carter's words, "a future of shrinking influence and disappearing profits."

But what? How to stop, never mind reverse, the desertion of viewers from the four full-time webs? After reading Carter's story and analyzing the just-announced fall prime time lineups, it's apparent that the network bigwigs have no idea. They point to an incredible lack of real talent in a wildly expanded prime time programming universe - which is true - and yet they are making no effort to produce quality programming, especially the kind of quality that once invited entire households to enjoy their shows.

Just look at what's in store for the traditional "family hour" period, that time slot when, once upon a time, whole families could be counted on to patronize the networks. What do families have to look forward to now? Here's a rundown of returning series.

Monday: Not bad. CBS has "Cosby" and WB, "7th Heaven," two family-friendly, high-quality shows. There's also ABC's "Monday Night Football." But on NBC you get the sophomoric "Suddenly Susan" and on Fox the ultimate trash, "Melrose Place." Grade: B-.

Tuesday: ABC's "Home Improvement," one of the best family comedies ever but nonetheless a 9 o'clock entry for most of its seven-year run, moves to 8, but it'll have to compete with UPN's trite-but-innocent "Moesha" and "Clueless." What's on the other networks, however, is unsuitable for youngsters: NBC's racy "Mad About You," CBS's violent "JAG," Fox's politically delightful but raunchy "King of the Hill," and WB's creepy "Buffy the Vampire Slayer." Grade: C.

Wednesday: Sex, sex, and nothing but raunchy sex. ABC offers "Dharma and Greg"; CBS, "The Nanny"; Fox, "Beverly Hills, 90210"; WB, "Dawson's Creek." Grade: F.

Thursday: Less sex than Wednesday, but still far too much, with NBC's "Friends" and WB's "Wayans Bros." and "Jamie Foxx Show." The best bet - really, the only bet for families at this point - is CBS's "Promised Land." Grade: C-.

Friday: Plenty of debuts; worthy returnees are CBS's "Kids Say the Darndest Things" and ABC's "Boy Meets World." Grade: Incomplete.

Saturday: CBS's uplifting "Early Edition" gets its deserved shot in the family hour, going against Fox's "Cops" and ABC's "America's Funniest Home Videos." Grade: C.

Sunday: The week's best family night, headed by CBS's "Touched By an Angel"; other choices include ABC's "Wonderful World of Disney" specials and WB's "Sister, Sister" and "Smart Guy." Fox's "The Simpsons" is always problematic, increasingly resorting to vulgarity; it's not really a kids' show now, if it ever was. Grade: A-.

If you think the returning fare on television is weak, wait till you see some of the replacements for canceled shows. Where the noteworthy premieres are concerned, you'll want to keep your children away - which isn't to say you'll want to tune in, either. "Will & Grace" (NBC, Mondays, 9:30) features the first activist male homosexual lead or co-lead character in prime time history. "Brimstone" (Fox, Tuesdays, 9) centers on a detective who winds up in hell after killing his wife's rapist. Sit back and watch the sparks fly as this subterranean detective, on special assignment from the devil, tracks down escapees from Hades. (I'm not kidding.) These two alone could lose prime time another one percent or more of its viewers.

It's more of the same old gimmicky... tripe. But gimmicks, be they Fox's grisly reality shows, cable's disgusting "South Park," or something less egregious, win the public's and the media's attention only briefly; then they move on to the next craze. In the meantime, Hollywood has virtually abandoned two time-honored traditions, the family drama and the family comedy, even though many of those on the air are sure-fire winners. ABC has the comedies "Home Improvement," "Boy Meets World," and "Sabrina the Teenage Witch." CBS boasts the dramas "Touched By an Angel" and "Promised Land" and the sitcom "Cosby." There are others, but not as many as there ought to be, or as there would be if those running the networks had the brains God gave geese.