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The jumping-off point for Fox's "Party of Five" is perhaps the worst thing that could happen to any children - their parents are killed in a car accident.

But this outstanding drama, which debuts tonight at 8 p.m. on Ch. 13, takes the most horrible of situations and turns it into an intelligent, entertaining, strongly pro-family series."It's a tragedy at the heart of the story, but I think that the uplifting nature of the series is - how do these kids move past it?" said creator/producer Amy Lippman.

The kids in "Party of Five" are a diverse lot. There's 24-year-old Charlie (Matthew Fox), who's nominally in charge but is perhaps the least responsible of the Salingers.

Two of the children are teens - 16-year-old Bailey (Scott Wolf) and 15-year-old Julia (Neve Campbell). Perhaps the most vulnerable is 11-year-old Claudia (Lacey Chabert), who is old enough to know what tragedy is but not old enough to deal with it.

Then there's 11-month-old Owen, for whom the others suddenly find themselves responsible.

And as the series opens, six months after the death of the parents, those responsibilities are proving formidable.

"The initial idea of not having parents around, to most kids, would be this blowout party every weekend," Wolf said. "I think this shows you're going to react differently than you might think to pressure and circumstance.

"And so, when they're put in this situations where one might think it's the ultimate freedom, the reality is that somebody needs to take care of things. Somebody needs to make sure that everything happens - that Lacey gets fed and gets sent off to school, and that the bills get paid, and that the dog gets walked."

Charlie is the legal guardian, but he's not spending much time at home. And he loses a big chunk of cash in a stupid investment, putting the family at financial risk.

(The parents' will provided adequately - but not extravagantly - for the children's welfare.)

Rather unexpectedly, it's not the 24-year-old but the 16-year-old who holds the family together.

"We tried as much as possible . . . to turn the conventions on their head a little bit," said creator/-producer Chris Keyser. "Instead of the oldest child being the one who takes care of the family, it's the second oldest. Instead of the one who takes care of the family being the smartest and the most competent, it's potentially the child who has the most trouble in day-to-day life.

The enormously appealing Wolf is perfectly cast as Bailey, the linchpin of the Salinger family.

"In addition to being a little bit older, Bailey is also the one kid in the family who - despite not having the highest IQ or having the best management skills - realizes at the very core level the importance of the family working and staying together," Wolf said. "I think Bailey is the one who sees the entire picture. And tries to pull everybody together and tries to snap people out of their own worlds into the importance of working together and surviving as a family."

But Bailey is only 16, and he doesn't have all the answers. When Julia gets dumped by a boy, he doesn't have the experience to know what to say to comfort her.

Julia, the smart girl who always won her parents approval, is adrift and having more than a little trouble discovering - or remembering - who she is.

And none of the Salingers has really dealt with the death of their parents. The three older children particularly are putting up brave fronts and keeping the grief inside.

"We tried to keep it as realistic as possible," Keyser said. "And as much as possible, we want to shy away from the extraordinary nature of the premise and tell real stories about how, on a day-to-day basis, these kids really would survive. And stay together."

But for the Salingers, even the most mundane events take on an added weight because there are no parents around.

"The real advantage that we have is that we the premise itself lends a tremendous amount of emotional weight to almost everything these kids do," Keyser said. "And we will probably tell a lot of the same stories that typical family show might tell, but underlying all of that is the fact that it's a 16-year-old who has to make the decisions. That there's no parent there to tell them whether they're doing the right or the wrong thing.

"And in the long run, they have no one but each other to make everything work out."

NHL ON FOX: Expect Fox Sports to become plural on Tuesday.

Barring some last-minute attack of insanity on the part of the National Hockey League owners, Fox will announce that it will telecast not only the league's all-star game, but also a couple of regular-season contests and eight or nine playoff games - including two or three games of the Stanley Cup finals.

Which will not only give the NHL its biggest exposure in terms of network television in years, but also add a second sport to Fox's lineup which now includes . . . the NFL.

DISNEY TO EXPANDED BASIC: TCI plans to switch the Disney Channel to its expanded basic lineup by the end of the year.

You'll still be paying for it, but as part of the expanded tier that includes channels like ESPN and TNT. And it will cost a lot less.

TCI is hoping to attract new subscribers and to get present Disney subscribers to spend their money on other pay-cable services like HBO or Showtime.