PROGRAMMING prime-time network schedules is not only an amoral occupation, it is an alogical and abnormal one. Nothing guarantees that one's favorite show won't be squashed like a grape under an executive's foot unless it is also the favorite show of at least 400 of the 1,200 Nielsen households.
ABC has already announced its new fall schedule, and what a banal banquet of leftovers it is. You might think a network riding as high as ABC would be able to afford taking risks and experimenting with new fare and forms. ABC's answer to that is merely to spin off other shows from programs that aren't any good in the first place -- "The Ropers" from "Three's Company" and "Benson" from "Soap." The ABC fall schedule is the most shameless incitement to ennui since "Moment by Moment."
It was put together on the basis of numbers, not thoughts. But then most networks operate that way, and we can hardly expect the NBC and CBS schedules to be landslides of innovation. NBC, whose schedule may be announced as early as tomorrow, will have the largest number of new programs, because it led the networks in coming a cropper this season.
NBC can safely be expected to cancel "B.J. and the Bear," "Cliffhangers," "Sweepstakes" and "Turnabout" and to hang onto "CHiPs," "Little House on the Prairie," "Quincy," "Diff'rent Strokes" and "Hello, Larry." There also is some hope for George Schlatter's "Real People, with the number of hosts pared down to a more manageable two or three and a possible half-hour format instead of the current hour. And the network is trying to hold on to "The Rockford Files"; James Garner says he is willing to do one more season, and so is producer Meta Rosenberg.
Something will be found for Susan Anton, as in "Presenting Susan Anton," because Fred Silverman thinks she's the cat's Meow Mix and the network is convinced she has surefire "likability." She's sort of an accessible Farrah Fawcett-Majors.
CBS will probably hang on to its newly inaugurated series version of (Word Illegible> "The Bad News Bears" and to these shows "One Day at a Time." "Alice." "Just Friends." "Barnaby Jones." "The Dukes of Hazzard." "Dallas," and maybe "Hawaii Five-0." The fates of other programs are harder to preaict. Every attempt will be made to retain "All in the Family" for one more season, but this depends entirely on the moods of stars Carroll O'Connor and Jean Stapleton.
"Billy," which is just ending a trial run, didn't win any races, but the star, Steve Guttenberg, is the sort of hot trotter a network likes to keep in its corral. (He has been mentioned, along with everyone whose name ever appeared in Variety, as a possible replacement for Johnny Carson at NBC; the only ones not apparently in the running for that post are Kermit the Frog and Charley the Tuna, and don't rule out Kermit.)
Of course what networks will do and what networks should do have never been synonymous. By all the laws of decency, here is what should -- but may not -- happen to a number of current programs:
"The Paper Chase" (CBS): Flunk it out. This tedious and precious series about the dull misadventures of insular law students and their allegedly charismatic imperious professor has been over-praised from the beginning but commendably under-watched. Robin "Mork" Williams recently recalled that when he was in John "Kingsfield" Houseman's class at the Juilliard Drama School, Houseman told him, "You have a gift; don't waste it on television." Houseman, with a long and distinguished producing career behind him, should have followed his own advice. The situations depicted on this program are far removed from those that matter to the American viewer.
"The White Shadow" (CBS): Keep it on the air, and stop pre-empting it and bouncing it from timeslot to timeslot as if it were one of the basketballs on the show. This MTM production about problems and confrontations at a racially mixed inner city school has all the authenticity, depth of character and grit that "Paper Chase" lacks, and Ken Howard gives one of the best continuing performances on television as the coach who tries to wrestle with social realities and psychological problems and, unlike most other TV teacher-figures, doesn't always wrap everything up with a neat little ribbon of cliches.
"Kaz" (CBS): Give it a gold star and hold it over for one more year. Ron Leibman's portrayal of a never-say-ouch, up-from-the-streets attorney and Linda Carlson as his reporter pal Katie are certainly an odd but fundamentally a fun couple. Unfortunately, the show has fallen into the cause-of-the-week syndrome that occasionally bogs down "Lou Grant." One week they'll clear up the juvenile offender problem, the next week it'll be rape victims, and so on. It is likely CBS will cancel the series, which would be a case of cruel if not very unusual punishment.
"The Incredible Hulk" and "Wonder Woman" (CBS): Beat them to death with sticks.
"Barnaby Jones" and "Hawaii Five-0" (CBS): i/n the name of sanity, send them off to retirement village. But CBS co-produces "Five-0" -- hence it is an economical show from a cost-effective viewpoint -- and "Jones" continues to demonstrate amazing staying power, even though its life support systems should have been yanked two seasons ago.
"Supertrain" (NBC): Derail this little engine that couldn't to the roundhouse of no return. Since NBC coproduces it, however, as CBS does "Hawaii Five-0," the network will be that much more reluctant to pull the cord.
"Hello, Larry" (NBC): Cook its goose in a microwave oven. Even the folks at T.A.T. Communications, producers of this embarrassment, are red-faced about it, yet the network clings to the belief that the combination of McLean Stevenson and smirky quips about pubescent sex are an unbeatable parlay. Goodbye, Larry.
"Turnabout" (NBC): Scrub it reluctantly but find another vehicle for costar Sharon Gless. She is the most appealing new comic actress on television and could flourish in a "Mr. and Mrs. North" sort of mystery-comedy series, as derivative as that might be, and "Turnabout" costar John Shuck would be a perfect Mr. North.
"WKRP in Cincinatti" (CBS) Cease transmission. What started out as the brightest new comedy of the year degenerated into a parade of inadequate scripts and characters with too few personable qualities. Gary Sandy, the star, deserves another chance and Howard Hesseman, who stole the show as "Johnny Fever," has at least been discovered as a substantial if rumpled lump of talent, but the program was eclipsed and outclassed by the brilliantly written and endearingly performed "Taxi," the only respectable comedy on ABC and the best new show of the year.
We have probably lumbered through the last year of runaway domination by ABC in prime time. The networks are expected to be much more competitive next season, but that isn't exactly an inspiring prognosis for people who have already given up on television. For those people we have a more inspiring prognosis. The '70s will be the last three-network decade. Only this week the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) removed one more obstacle to the growth of cable TV, and Atlanta's rambunctious Ted Turner announced new plans to make his Superstation an even more attractive alternative for those served by the cable systems that now receive its signal by satellite.
The networks have largely squandered the promise and resources of television, and it remains to be seen if they will go gently into that good night. That communications revolution so many see on the horizon may be farther off than we would like to think; the question is, how long will we languish here in the Twilight Zone between eras, and how much worse will network programming get while we hold over vigil for Godot? CAPTION: Programming by the numbers, Picture 1, Susan Anton, In.; Picture 2, John Houseman and "Paper Chase," Out.; Picture 3, "The Bad News; Picture 4 "Supertrain," Out.; Picture 5, Linaa Carlson and Ron Leibman of "Kaz," In.; Picture 6 "WKRP in Cincinatti," Out but its star D.J., Howard Hesseman, In.