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Sitcoms Over Substance : Television: Of the 38 new fall series, 21 are comedies. A few dramas seem to have the potential to tackle the human condition in a meaningful way.


There are 38 new series on the fall prime-time lineups released by ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox, and what is most noticeable is what's missing: a major commitment to human weekly dramas.

Despite the return of several noteworthy network dramas such as "Law & Order," "Northern Exposure" and "Picket Fences," there is a distinct sense of loss for viewers who admired the canceled "I'll Fly Away," "Homefront," "Civil Wars," "Quantum Leap" and "Life Goes On," and who recall such other standouts of the recent past as "thirty-something" and "China Beach."

For the most part, the fall network lineups are a laughing matter: Of the 38 new series, 21 are sitcoms. A recent comedy already aired on ABC, "Getting By," has also been picked up by NBC, raising the count to 22.

In addition, three more one-hour news shows will premiere in prime time: Fox's "Front Page," CBS' "Eye to Eye With Connie Chung" and the tentatively titled "NBC News Magazine," anchored by Tom Brokaw and Katie Couric. This means that you can catch a prime-time newsmagazine every night--there will be nine in all--and since they are inexpensive to produce contrasted with dramas and are owned by the networks, they pay off in many ways for ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox.

Of the dozen new dramas, there appear to be a few with the potential to tackle the human condition in a meaningful way, among them: ABC's "NYPD Blue," about the New York Police Department; ABC's "Missing Persons," about a division of the Chicago Police Department; NBC's "Against the Grain," dealing with a small-town high school football coach and his family; and CBS' "Angel Falls," about a woman and her son who return to her hometown.

CBS' "Harts of the West," with Beau Bridges in a tale of a big-city family that takes over a dude ranch, may have the makings. And NBC's hour drama entry from Steven Spielberg, "SeaQuest DSV," set aboard a submarine that explores the oceanic frontier, is described as "action-adventure," but the relationship of the characters could also have possibilities.

"SeaQuest DSV," which stars Roy Scheider, will be involved in perhaps the most intriguing matchup of the fall--a high-profile, four-way struggle for control of the 8-9 p.m. Sunday slot that has long been dominated by CBS' "Murder, She Wrote." Besides "SeaQuest DSV," the challengers for the time period include ABC's hourlong "Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman" and two Fox comedies--the successful "Martin" and the new "My Girls," about four black women in New York City.

In addition to the spate of new sitcoms, there are two new variety hours that are expected to be primarily comedy: Fox's "Townsend Television," starring Robert Townsend, and ABC's "The Paula Poundstone Show."

Probably influenced by the surprise CBS hit "Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman," the debate over family values raised by former Vice President Dan Quayle and the growing pressure from Congress and the public over violence, at least 19 of the 38 new fall series are involved with families.

These range from CBS' "Dave's World" and "Family Album" to ABC's "Grace Under Fire," "Thea" and "Boy Meets World" to NBC's "Mommies" and "The Second Half" to Fox's "Daddy Dearest" and "Sinbad," which may be one of the season's breakout hits with the ingratiating comedian getting the coveted time slot following "The Simpsons."

One of the significant developments of the past season was the success of the tepid "Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman" compared to the relatively disappointing ratings performances of the sexy, more sophisticated sitcoms "Love & War," "Hearts Afire" and "Mad About You." Some viewers made no bones about delivering a message.

Both "Love & War" and "Hearts Afire," which were counted on to make CBS' strong Monday night lineup even stronger, are being retooled. And the future of NBC's "Mad About You," whose first and last episodes had the husband-and-wife lead characters having sex on a kitchen table, will be an interesting study as it moves to the 8 p.m. Thursday slot, an hour when many children tune in.

Certainly on the positive side, the number of reality series has been reduced as advertisers find them less and less attractive. Such series as "American Detective" and "FBI: The Untold Stories" have bitten the dust. Nonetheless, reality series will still be a presence, from Fox's "Cops" to CBS' "Rescue 911" to NBC's "I Witness Video."

What viewers will have to keep an eye on is whether the flood of network newsmagazines, in their desperate search to be different from each other and sell their stories, will sink--as they have often done--further into the lower depths of reality-type programming, under the guise of being news shows.

If this happens, the reduction of flat-out reality shows will be meaningless as the networks have their cake and eat it too--mixing trash with legitimate stories and pocketing the profits rather than having to pay outside producers.

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