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`ELLEN’ MAY NOT `COME OUT’ OR COME BACK

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The question at ABC is no longer "Will Ellen be coming out?" The question now is "Will `Ellen' be coming back?"

The struggling sitcom has made headlines all season about whether the title character, played by Ellen DeGeneres, will openly declare that she's a lesbian. The calculated hype has not helped the show's ratings or quality, and it continues to struggle to gain viewers as well as to achieve decent episodes.Now comes the news that, as of Wednesday, March 5, ABC is pulling the show off the air for six weeks to make room for a new sitcom headlined by Arsenio Hall.

ABC's top programmers are quick to assure everyone that "Ellen" will be back.

"It's a time period we think is great for Arsenio," said ABC Entertainment Chairman Ted Harbert. "We have been taking shows off in the spring for years for tryouts of other new shows that we're very high on."

That's true. But, from what critics have been shown, the new, as-yet untitled Arsenio sitcom has the makings of a hit - something "Ellen" is not. Not only that, but ABC has ordered 13 episodes of Arsenio's show - and currently only has six of them scheduled on Wednesdays at 8:30 p.m.

Which tends to create some skepticism about the future of "Ellen," despite the fact that ABC Entertainment President Jamie Tarses stated categorically that "It's a given that she'll be returning to that time slot."

But even if "Ellen" does come back, will Ellen come out? Even months after the question was first raised, the answer remains annoyingly nebulous.

"I think that we are seriously considering going in the direction that everyone's speculating on `Ellen,' and we're also telling the truth when we say we have not yet determined (that)," Tarses said. "Truthfully, it's going to be based upon creative content. And we have not yet seen the material that's going to help us with this decision as to whether or not we all want to do this together."

The entire will-she-or-won't-she drama over this comedy has long outlived its usefulness. It's become boring before it even happens, and - whether the character is a lesbian or not - the show just isn't very good.

THEORY OF "RELATIVITY": For those of you who are fans of ABC's "Relativity," you'd better watch quick. The show isn't going to be around for long.

First, ABC is yanking it off its Saturday-night schedule during the February sweeps - a really bad sign.

Second, ABC Entertainment President Jamie Tarses had this to say about the show: "We're all big fans of the show, and we'd like to see it succeed. And right now, there is not a lot to point to in the ratings to be able to really make a case for a long future with the show. But because there's such a passion within the network for the show, we are trying to figure out if there are alternatives and what we can do."

Sadly enough, that's almost exactly what other ABC executives said about "My So-called Life," another fabulous series from the producers behind "Relativity." And "Life," of course, did not survive to make a second season.

Easy prediction - neither will "Relativity."

MURDERING "MURDER ONE": Speaking of great dramas on ABC that don't stand a chance of being renewed, how about "Murder One?"

Tarses announced to critics that the final six episodes of the series - which focuses on the trial of a vigilante accused of killing 17 ex-convicts - will be run as a six-hour miniseries over three nights in mid-April.

That's it. It's done.

Tarses, not surprisingly, disputes that. She maintains that the show still stands a chance. "We will base decisions we make on the show on the performance of the miniseries, both on a ratings level and on a quality level," she said.

Baloney. "Murder One" is toast.

ABC NOTES: Chalk this up under least-surprising-announcement of the press tour under way in Pasadena - ABC will add a two-hour "Wonderful World of Disney" on Sundays at 6 p.m. in the fall.

Disney, of course, purchased ABC last year.

And Disney Chairman Michael Eisner will do his best Walt Disney imitation as the host of the show.

- While really great TV hours like "Relativity" and "Murder One" will undoubtedly be disappearing from ABC, the increasingly mediocre "Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman" has already been renewed for next season. At least the folks at ABC recognize the fact that that show is in a lot of creative trouble.

"Both the creative team behind `Lois & Clark' and the network are having a lot of discussions about what we can do to boost the ratings on the show," Tarses said. "Everyone is making a considered effort to come to some conclusions and find some solutions there. The show will be returning, so we need to figure out what the best time period is to the advantage of the show."

- The new hourlong drama "The Practice" will debut on Tuesday, March 4, at 9 p.m. Dylan McDermott stars in this legal show created and produced by David E. Kelley, whose credits include "L.A. Law," "Picket Fences" and "Chicago Hope."

"The Practice" will displace "NYPD Blue" for six weeks, but - unlike "Ellen" - "Blue's" ratings are great and it's a sure bet to return next season.

- "Vital Signs," a reality-based medical show produced by Disney, will debut Thursday, Feb. 27, at 8 p.m. Conjecture is that ABC has decided to go with a lower-cost reality series so it won't waste big bucks on shows that are going to get killed by NBC's Thursday-night ratings juggernaut anyway.

- ABC also announced a "Home Improvement" spinoff tentatively titled "Father's Day." The producers of "Home" have created a sitcom about a recently widowed minister who is "struggling to raise his three rather challenging children."

The family will live down the street from the Taylors on "Home Improvement," and will be featured on an episode of that show.

No cast has been announced, and "Father's Day" does not yet have an air date.

- ABC has also ordered an hourlong show titled "Leaving L.A." that focuses on the L.A. County coroner's office.

"It's a very quirky, edgy show that has a very interesting perspective on death and its ramifications," Tarses said.

There's no air date for "Leaving L.A." yet.

INTERESTED OBSERVER: A much-more-mellow Arsenio Hall, who's no longer threatening to kick anyone's (expletive deleted), has a much-more-mellow outlook on the late-night talk show wars since he left them a couple of years back.

"It's really cool, because the guys have found their places," Hall said. "I think they've proven that you can peacefully co-exist because there's a big enough country where there are Letterman people and there are Leno people. . . . I think everybody's settled in real nice.

"And it looks like Bill Maher will even have a place, because on nights when I watch `Nightline,' (`Politically Incorrect' is) a perfect companion piece. All's well in late night, I think."

QUOTABLE: Meryl Streep is starring in the ABC movie ". . . first do no harm," her first television production in some two decades. But she can't tell if working in television has changed since she last did it back in the '70s.

"I don't remember, frankly, back in the olden days when I made `Holocaust' . . . if it was really different, because that was the beginning of my career and I was scared and just doing everything everybody said," Streep said.

"That has changed."