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NEW FALL SEASON MAY ACTUALLY BE BETTER THAN LAST YEAR'S

"We are looking forward to a year of innovation, a year in which brand new concepts become `appointment television' for all of us." How's that for optimism? It sounds a trifle preposterous, and yet that's how advertising executive Paul Schulman, longtime network handicapper, forecasts the new fall television season.

Schulman is encouraged by the tiny handful of shows that became hits this year, because they at least had a risky novelty on their side-shows like "America's Funniest Home Videos" on ABC and "The Simpsons" on Fox. Not to mention "Twin Peaks," the crazy-quilt ABC soap that isn't quite in the hit class but certainly got a ton of attention.You'd think that at this stage in their lives, any optimism about the future of the networks would be misplaced. NBC won the season that just concluded, and won the May ratings sweeps, but with relatively low scores. Erosion of the audience continues, and network nabobs are still trying to locate millions of Nielsen families that abruptly abandoned television in February.

The fact is, though, the new fall season that the networks unveil in October will probably be better than last year's. They may actually be learning the lesson that bland, formulaic pap is not going to keep finicky viewers from wandering off to other program sources with their little remote clickers and VCR's.

Yes, those viewers are finicky and, evidence suggests, getting finickier. In her forecast of the new fall season, Betsy Frank of the Saatchi & Saatchi advertising agency recalls the night of Feb. 25, 1990 as a possible "turning point" for network television. It was on that night that viewers suddenly deserted the longtime CBS hit "60 Minutes" to watch the repeat of a one-hour "America's Funniest Home Videos" special on ABC.

Frank also recalls the way viewers skedaddled in droves after each regularly weekly airing of the half-hour "Funniest Home Videos" show once ABC's "Elvis" began. Some critics loved "Elvis" but the public never did cotton to it. Where did they go after "Videos"? They rushed over to Fox for "The Simpsons," the addlepated cartoon family who has changed America's Sunday night viewing habits and T-shirt fashion as well.

"The lesson here is that today's viewers are active viewers," Frank writes. "If they want to watch a show, they'll find it, even if it's on Channel 29. And if they don't want to watch a show, they won't, even if it follows their favorite program of the week."

So what have the networks got up their sleeves to bedazzle active, restless and finicky viewers next year? A few series are already generating considerable advance buzz. ABC, currently the up-and-coming, go-getter network, has one of the most talked about shows in "Cop Rock," a new production from Steven Bochco of "Hill Street Blues," "L.A. Law" and "Doogie Howser" fame.

"Cop Rock" is described by ABC as "part opera, part rock concert, and part intense police drama." It's a musical cop show in which cops, crooks, judges and juries suddenly break into song, solos and choruses. According to advance reports, the pilot for the series is not only bravely unorthodox in form, it's also daringly downbeat in content.

Brandon Tartikoff, the president of NBC Entertainment, claims to be thrilled with two of his new fall shows: "Fresh Prince of Bel Air," a sitcom starring a rap singer; and "Signs of Life," a new medical series told from the patient's point of view. Industry insiders, though, say NBC's new offerings are mostly timid and lackluster, although they did score well among test audiences who were given advance peeks.

CBS has high hopes for a new ensemble drama series called "WIOU." This could be the series to help reestablish Grant Tinker as a classy and important producer. Tinker has had a run of bad luck since resigning as chairman of NBC and starting his own production company, GTG Entertainment.

But Jeff Sagansky, the new head of CBS Entertainment, likes "WIOU" very much. It's set at a hard-luck television station in the Midwest, where a new and ruthless news director is brought in to hype the ratings. Much the way Sagansky (who is not considered ruthless) was brought in to hype CBS's.

One prediction about the fall seems fairly safe. The networks will likely edge up at least a little, if only because they can't sink much lower. Viewers are restless, viewers are fickle, viewers are picky. But if you put a terrific show on the air, the chances are still very good that viewers will view.