Paul Klein may be full of malarky or he may be the most brilliant programmer in network television or he may be both. NBC is counting on him, whatever he is, to rescue the network from ratings ruin and a possible third-place finish for the season - something each network considers unthinkable for itself, even though one of them is sure to land there.

Klein, who escaped from NBC's executive suites in 1970 to form his own company, was lured back to a key programming position in 1976, after ABC had upset the precarious applecart of big-buck TV by copping the top ratings spot for itself after years of also-running. When Klein returned, it was announced he was not going to replace top programmer Marvin Antonowsky.

Nineteen months later, he did. Klein was named "executive vice president, programs," in a corporate shuffle in October. He is now well into battle with ABC's Fred Silverman and CBS' Robert Daly in the helter-skelter ratings and money TV sweepstakes.

And he is also up against persistent rumors that NBC's fortunes have never looked bleaker. A recent Wall Street Journal profile of the network contended that morale there had sagged, that its 1973 profits would be down, and that a common joke around the network goes. "What's the difference between NBC and the Titanic? The Titanic had an orchestra."

"It's nonsense," says Klein, in his spartan third-floor Rockefeller Center office. "It was a terrible nonsensical article. NBC has a minimal risk of being the Titanic. We make a lot of money. We're very well protected.

"There's only one network that ever reported a loss, and that's ABC; the year that Fred Pierce took over they had a S17-million loss. Ain't gonna happen here. Ain't gonna be a loss. Ain't gonna be a loss."

Klein, 48, is an agreeably burly, fast-talking sharpshooter, a man known for bluntness and keen commercial ingenuity. One top NBC producer scoffs, "Paul Klein read that he was an elemental force a few years ago and he's been trying to act like one ever since," but another marvels. "Paul has theories; they may not all be correct, but at least he cares enough about the business to have them."

One of Klein's most famous operating maxims in the Least Objectionable Program theory - the idea that people do not watch programs, they watch television, and they pick not the shows they like most, but the ones they dislike least. He still subscribes to this particular gospel.

Klein is asked if there is one major, abiding misconception that have naive people have about television.

"Yes," he says.

What is it?

"That the content matters."

Nevertheless, Klein wants to up grade the content of NBC network shows to compete with ABC. He insists that ABC's top position is not the unblemished glory it appears to be the ABC has made a mistake in aiming most of its programs at "kids and dummies," and that NBC can be a bigger success than the other networks without the official rank of No. 1 in ratings.

"I think my goal is 10 per cent more audience than we now have, but I don't want to pick up The National Tatler audience," he says. "I'd rather have The Washington Post, New York Times, L.A. Times, Newsday audience. I think the advertiser will pay more money for my shows at a 31 share than their (ABC's) shows at a 38-share level.

"See, they've got a Hula Hoop. They constantly have to hype those shows. There's no stopping it. You gotta hype the next one and the next one and eventually the Hula Hoop wears out. Eventually, it goes. Take 'The Bionic Women.' Last year at this time it was on ABC and it was the No. 1 show in television. By the end of the season, Silverman had canceled it, didn't even show the repeats. The No. 1 show!

"What ABC is doing is no different from what Jim Aubrey did at CBS (1959-1965). Some of the finest things in television came out of the fight against Jim Aubrey. you wanna look at his schedule, 1962, 1963? It was one mindless situation comedy after another, bangbangbangbang, and they had 80, 90 shares of the kids in the audience. But if you focus on kids, you can't promote your news, you can't promote you quality stuff, you can only promote that which you've already got.

"That's called segmenting the market, and once you've segmented the market, then the evaluator - the advertiser - can no longer look at homes as the basis for ratings. This happened before in radio, and ABC did this too, made the whole station for kids all rock 'n' roll - in fact, the record never ended, the sound continued on and on, bplbplbplbplbplbpl . . ."

This imitation of Top-40 radio sounds funny.

"You're laughing at that, but take a look at ABC television tonight. You'll hear that there is never, EVER, a pause in the sound, it's just bplbplbplbplbpl all night long. You come right out of the commercial and bplbplbplbpl and they have laugh tracks even on the promos (ads for other show)! Laugh tracks on the promos! Constant pounding-pounding to the same audience. My daughter, she's getting to be 15 now, and she's drifting away from that. She watched 'I, Claudius' instead of bplbplbplbpl. Kids say they love those ABC shows, the way we loved 'The Shadow,' but they drift out of that, they leave them, and it's not part of their life after that."

In other words, Paul Klein is out with a net, hoping to snare viewers who decide they've grown too old and too smart for the balm of "Happy Days." He says. "We've got to take some of that audience away - not necessarily the kids. I'd like to take the older teen-agers and young adults. The problem is the 7-year-old kid who lives with his mother who is 30 years old, and unless they have two sets and there's something very compelling on, she'll sit down with him, and there's the least objectionable program, the 'Happy Days' syndrome.

"Everybody says 'Happy Days' beat "The Godfather," but we know that 7 million homes had two programs on. The kids were watching 'Happy Days' and the adults were watching "Godfather."

ABC's ratings dominance is something of a paper tiger anywap, Klein maintains. He says the network sold time on various shows based on high ratings projections that didn't materialize. Now they have to renegotiate with advertisers at cheaper rates.

Of course, NBC's line-up isn't exactly imposing. If the network were to cancel the Thursday night cop show "Chips," that would mean its entire slate of new-season programs, introduced just three months ago, would have been dumped. Klein says "Chips" won't be canceled. But doesn't the high flop ratio mean something is wrong? If it weren't, says Klein, "then you wouldn't be interviewing me. You'd be interviewing Marvin Antonowsky. At this very moment."

It's also been said that NBC's few ratings triumphs have been made through expensive stunting, which means programming high-cost specials that draw one-time audiences who do not necessarily return the next week. Klein says stunting with a mini series is cheaper than replacing flop shows with new shows. And he thinks ABC out-spent NBC on this score anyway. "The first week of the season, they spent more money on stunts than we will spend the entire year, with 'Washington: Behind Closed Doors,' which cost $11.5 million and which they'll never repeat."

How does he know they'll never repeat it?

'I'll bet you a dollar," he says.

Klein says heightened network competition results in betters programming for viewers, but there is evidence the public does not see it just this way. Nielsen reports that TV viewing is down for all three networks, and the FCC recently noted a new high in the number of letters it receives complaining about television.

"There hasn't been that much of a loss in prime time, although in daytime there's been a big loss," says Klein. "But I've been through ups and downs before, for years and years and years. People always bad-mouth the most popular medium. It's traditional. Movies were terrible when I was a kid, but we went, ritualistically, anyway."

Klein's office doesn't really look like a war room, which it is, except for one thing - a big magnetic board which all three networks' primetime schedules on it. Each show's title is written on a separate red, blue or green card, and the cards can be moved around. And are.

There is also, at the top of the board, a crowd of little white cards with titles on them, all waiting to filter down among the red, blue and green cards. What's on the white cards? "The white cards are new programs," Klein says. "Pieces of some of them are. They'll never get done. Some of them could be really good. Another day, another dollar."

Klein thinks the distant media future will belong to "computer television," which also is the name of a company he founded while a civilian in the network wars and which will mean "an infinite number" of possible program sources available to viewers, rather than the limited array available now.

When that happens, then over-the-air commercial TV will become "a sports and news medium, an immediacy medium." When will it happen? "I thought it would happen by now."

Obviously, Paul Klein is not always right, despite "seven years of psychotherapy" which have made him, he thinks, relatively immune to the management pressures of network television. So he confidently rather than nervously asserts his belief that NBC will out-class and out-profit ABC through cunning appeals to sophisticated adult tastes - and by sophisticated he means "79 Park Avenue."

ABC is catering to "low-class tastes" of people with low-class jobs" and "less money" to throw around, he says. "Those people are in the market for some products - for Lava Soap - and reaching them is worthwhile, but if you have a whole schedule of things reaching them, then you're wasting your advertising dollars because you're reaching them over and over again and they only have so much disposable, discretionary money.

"So therefored," he says, pounding with emphasis on his round conference table, "the advertisers are spending all this money on a segmented audience, and that's crazy, that's all I can say about it.

"They're crazy and they don't know what they're doing."