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September 25, 1997|MIKE PENNER

A consumer's guide to the best and worst of sports media and merchandise. Ground rules: If it can be read, played, heard, observed, worn, viewed, dialed or downloaded, it's in play here.

What: "Breaking Through:

The First Superstars"

Where: Lifetime Television.

When: Tonight at 7.

This pseudo-journalistic look at women's sports pioneers gives itself away early in the segments on Nadia Comaneci and Peggy Fleming, who are first shown, respectively, reading fan mail aloud ("I think you're the coolest gymnast ever!") and flipping through a scrapbook of old figure skating triumphs.

Video valentine, here we come.

Most of the "breaking through" achieved here was done by the publicity agents for Comaneci, Fleming and, especially, Dominique Dawes and Tara Lipinski, who get maximum exposure as "modern-day superstars" now reaping the fruits of those first seeds sown a generation ago.

"Real Sports," this is not. Of course, hard-hitting journalism has never been a regular part of the Lifetime repertoire, but adult viewers, at any rate, will want to know more about Fleming than "she is the next-door neighbor you'd very much like to have" or that Comaneci keeps her nine Olympic medals in a humble cardboard box.

If not for the grounding presence of Billie Jean King, who is also profiled, these 60 minutes might have exceeded industry standards as 100-proof fluff.

King is characteristically candid when discussing obstacles confronting her as a young female athlete in the 1950s ("I didn't feel good, I felt discounted") and fretting about the future of women's tennis.

"I do think we have trouble," King says of women's professional tennis, populated by millionaire teenagers oblivious to the sacrifices made by the players of King's era. "The next generation is what I'm worried about."

Programs like "Breaking Through" can be useful in keeping such important history alive. First, however, they must aim for more than simply scratching the surface.

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