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And in This Corner . . . : The fall class of 1998 will push 53 sitcoms and 43 dramas into the ring. (Cable's another contender.)


Tim Allen, Helen Hunt and Paul Reiser will earn their $1 million per episode salaries in September slugging it out for viewers against each other, Fox's animated grouch Hank Hill and "Moesha" star Brandy, who can't even drink legally in California.

If you're looking for laughs on Tuesday night at 8, which of them would you watch?

Such are the choices provided by the upcoming television season, which again visits potential viewers with more than three dozen new series, while network executives contemplate a number of riddles that, once resolved, can make or break their careers.

"Just Shoot Me" or "Spin City"? What about "Beverly Hills, 90210" vs. "Dawson's Creek"?

Those questions and others will be answered in the fall, though media buyers lay down their bets over the next few weeks, gambling billions of dollars on what's known as "upfront" purchases of advertising time.

As usual, the numbers sound overwhelming. With the WB and UPN networks each branching out to five nights of programming, six broadcast networks will serve up 53 sitcoms and 43 dramas, some of them so alike conceptually it's hard to imagine that even the producers can discern which is which.

The number of dramas actually has risen, from 40 last season and three dozen the year before. Situation comedies--which generally cost less to produce and earn more if they become the next "Seinfeld" or "Home Improvement"--remain the most popular genre, although their ranks have thinned from more than 60 the last two years.

Newsmagazines also remain abundant, with 10 scheduled, including five editions of "Dateline NBC." On Sunday evenings, "60 Minutes" will be followed by "Dateline" and "20/20," meaning network news programming will be on every hour between 7 and 10 p.m.

With so much programming available, the networks have realized that too many changes--from adding new series to returning programs in different time periods--can confuse and alienate viewers, contributing to the high attrition rate for new fare.

Just six of 36 programs launched last fall are coming back for a second year, with another half-dozen surviving from the crop of midseason tryouts, including "Kids Say the Darndest Things," "Two Guys, a Girl and a Pizza Place," "Getting Personal" and "Love Boat: The Next Wave."

While 37 more newcomers will arrive in the fall, next season's lineups appear less confounding. Fox brings back Monday, Wednesday and Saturday nights unaltered, while CBS did the same Thursdays and Sundays and made only minor switches for Tuesdays, Fridays and Saturdays.

"It seems like they're paying more attention to people's viewing habits," said Tim Spengler, senior vice president and deputy director of national television at ad buyer Western International Media. "People like watching certain shows on certain nights."

Spengler does like one of the biggest scheduling moves--NBC's decision to relocate four-time Emmy winner "Frasier" to Thursdays in place of "Seinfeld." "I thought they put their best sitcom in their most important time period," he said.

The other networks seemed to agree. For all the talk about top-rated NBC's vulnerability without "Seinfeld" (ABC even took out ads suggesting as much), no one really challenged the Thursday "Must-See TV" roster.

"It's still a potent lineup," said one television agent, citing the "Friends"-"Frasier"-"ER" troika. "They're strong at 8, 9 and 10 [o'clock]."

The WB network will venture into that night with four comedies featuring mostly African American casts (including the NBC castaway "For Your Love"), a strategy Fox has employed before. Fox, meanwhile, perhaps appropriately gave a macabre new drama from horror director Wes Craven, "Hollyweird," the hair-raising assignment of challenging "Frasier."

The "Frasier" move did add suspense to Tuesdays, with Fox choosing to attack on that front by moving its Sunday night hit "King of the Hill" against the aging "Home Improvement" and "Mad About You."

UPN's "Moesha" and WB's "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" will tussle for younger viewers, while CBS' dramatic alternative is "JAG"--a rare survivor among programs that switched networks, having made the jump two seasons ago from NBC.

How the 8 p.m. face-off goes will likely influence another key duel, with Michael J. Fox's "Spin City" opposite "Just Shoot Me" at 9 p.m. Tuesdays. Both programs will be well-traveled as they begin their third seasons, occupying their third and fourth different time slots, respectively.

The WB's family-friendly image may suffer by shifting the sex-minded teen drama "Dawson's Creek" to 8 p.m., but handicappers believe it's a savvy move with "Beverly Hills, 90210" now a senior citizen by TV standards, about to begin its ninth year.

The strategy also reflects the shortage of programming for children in prime time, with broadcasters conceding that audience to cable's Nickelodeon and others.

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