It may be nothing more than forced bravado, but third-place ABC's top programmers met the nation's TV critics just brimming with confidence.

"Everybody up and down the company is so enthusiastic about next year and believes so strongly that we are absolutely going to improve," said ABC Entertainment President Jamie Tarses.(Of course, the fact that ABC's ratings plunged last season leaves the network little direction to go but up.)

"Jamie and I are really optimistic and bullish about next season," said ABC Entertainment Chairman Stu Bloomberg.

They pretty much have to be. That's their job.

There was one difference between this year's performance and last year's performance by ABC's programming duo. A year ago, the vultures were circling and there were widespread reports that Tarses was about to be fired at practically any minute.

But a year has passed, and she's still right there at ABC.

"I suppose I've learned a lot," Tarses said about the past year. "I think that the most important thing is sitting up here right now with Stu looking at the fall that we're about to take on. I just feel really positive and excited. And we have put together a staff that is incredibly talented - some of the best and brightest out there. And they make it fun to go to work every day."

Of course, no one's ever really secure in network television. If the new fall schedule doesn't turn ABC's fortunes around, don't be surprised if Tarses ends up going to work someplace else.

- I LOVE TV: One thing that won't be significantly different about ABC this season is the self-promotional advertising campaign. It will still consist of lots of yellow and sort of smart-alecky slogans.

"We loved that campaign," said Bloomberg. "I think that it's taken a year, quite honestly, for our (program) development to catch up with that attitude. That's not a reason to stop our campaign."

In other words, he doesn't blame the advertising campaign for the failure of most of ABC's new series last season.

"I think if we had had stronger series that would have been reflected and the (ratings) numbers would have been greater," he said. "I think that what we did accomplish was start to give ABC an identity to make people aware of ABC, to comment about it, and these interstitials were a lot of fun and provided entertainment throughout the course of our schedule."

This year's catchy slogans, which have just begun to roll out on the air, include:

- "Don't just sit there. OK, just sit there."

- "Before TV, two World Wars. After TV, zero."

- "If TV's so bad for you, why is there one in every hospital room?"

- "Ever wonder why rush hour comes just before prime time?"

- "Without a TV, how would you know where to put the sofa?"

- "Hello? It's free."

- "I love you. The check's in the mail. I don't watch TV."

- "Get a good night's rest, tomorrow's another full day of broadcasting."

- "TV: So good, they named a frozen meal after it."

- WHOOPS: One critic rightfully questioned Tarses and Bloomberg about their claims that they want their network to be "inclusive," yet have relatively few blacks in prominent roles - and even fewer Hispanics.

"When does this goal of inclusion actually become something of a reality?" was the question.

"Next Friday," Tarses answered rather flippantly and quite inappropriately.

And Bloomberg made matters even worse. In an attempt to name Hispanic actors currently starring in ABC shows, he pointed to Nick Turturro of "NYPD Blue."

Turturro's ancestry, of course, is Italian. His character is Hispanic, but he's not. Which is exactly the sort of thing that Hispanic groups hate about the entertainment industry.

To make matters worse, various Hispanic groups have launched protests and attempted to lead boycotts against ABC in recent years because of the lack of Hispanic actors on the network's shows.

- ELLEN AGAIN? Once again, she may have just been blowing smoke, but Tarses said that - under the right circumstances - she wouldn't be averse to doing another show with Ellen DeGeneres. This despite all the trouble and declining ratings that ensued when both DeGeneres and her "Ellen" character declared their lesbianism.

"We think Ellen's incredibly talented and would welcome the opportunity to do another show with her," Tarses said diplomatically. And she maintains the network did the best it could to attract viewers to "Ellen."

"We really gave it our best shot in terms of trying to pull the audience into `Ellen,' " Tarses said. "I think it's going to be interesting this year. There are a number of series that are coming on the air in which there are gay co-leads, at the very least."

(Actually, there's only one. The NBC sitcom "Will & Grace" is headlined by a straight woman and her best friend, a gay man.)

"It'll be interesting to see how and if the public embraces it, but I think we're still looking for good shows and distinctive points of view," Tarses said, sounding at least faintly relieved that it will be NBC's problem, not hers, this season.