Older people are so badly shortchanged in TV drama that viewers actually believe they are disappearing from the scene -- though in real life they are increasing.

Television's gross distortion of some basic facts about American life has been documented by a two-year project at the Annenberg School of Communications, part of the University of Pennsylvania, on a $200,000 federal grant.

Heavy-duty watchers -- the ones on the high side of the national average of 30 hours a week -- also believe that old age comes earlier in life, especially to women.

Nearly 70 specialists in education, aging and communications tossed around some possible responses to the bleak picture presented by George Gerbner and some colleagues from Annenberg yesterday at the Hyatt Regency.

The saddest thing, Gerbner noted, is that "the best and possibly only time to learn about growing old with decency and grace is in youth . . . Images of old age we absorb throughout life cultivate our concept of aging." And television, especially network drama, is telling it wrong.

Curiously for this youth-worshiping country, TV also grossly underrepresents children and adolescents, Gerbner said.

Some findings from the 10-year study of 1,365 programs and 16,688 characters:

Characters under 18 make up only 8 percent of the fictional population. In reality they are 30 percent of the American population. The over-65s, actually constituting 11 percent of Americans, appear to be hardly more than 2 percent of the TV population. In other words, a viewer meeting more than 300 speaking characters in a week will be exposed to only seven over 65.

Furthermore, the older people are shown as eccentric, stubborn, nonsexual, ineffectual and often silly.Old men are likely to possess power for evil and accordingly must die, by TV's simple code. Old women have no such powers and usually wind up as victims, especially to the violence that occurs in almost 80 percent of prime-time and children's programs.

In TV's "compelling, vivid, translucent world," men outnumber women by three to one. Fantasyland, indeed.

Women are valued only under 35, while men, the wielders of authority, thrive in the 35-44 age bracket. "The character population is structured to provide a relative abundance of younger women for older men," but not vice versa.

In children's programs, people of their parents' age group (25-35) are all but invisible. The grandparental age group is also extremely sparse.

But it is the older people who suffer most on TV, and it is the older non-whites and women who get the worst of it. Respectful, serious treatment of the elderly, and women of all ages, is less likely than otherwise, observed researcher Nancy Signorielli. The older are apt to have more negative qualities, to be married but to have no romantic interest, to be less successful, attractive or happy. With exceptions, of course.

"Marriage," the report adds, "at least in the television world, is practically devoid of romance and is the domain of older people."

One interesting aspect of this consistent skewing of truth is the TV watchers' notions about crime. In TV's world, three out of 10 older people are apt to be robbed or beaten. (The real figure is less than one percent -- less than the rate for other age groups.) A special survey of heavy watchers indicated that TV cultivates fear and a sense of danger, leading them to believe they may be mugged or attacked at any time, that even walking at night in their own neighborhood is "not safe at all."

"Heavy viewers in greater proportion that light viewers appear to generalize from observation of television's message system to real life situations, despite facts to the contrary and despite the fictional nature of most TV."

Solutions were discussed only in a general sense, but they seemed to boil down to counterpromition, alternative TV such as cable and cassette, pressure on licensing agencies.

Rep. Marc Lincoln Marks (R-Pa.) suggested organizing campaigns against offending local stations and promoting minority stations. He noted that since programs are essentially bait used by advertisers, who concentrate on the profitable 18-to-49-year-old market, an effort could be made to interest advertisers in the $60 billion market represented by older people.

Fiction, he reminded the audience, disarms its critics. Theater makes lies appear harmless, even noble, while all the time transmitting and preserving biases.