Uncontrolled, poorly planned tourism and the resultant commercialism have been criticized -- often deservedly so -- for adversely affecting the culture of underveloped or developing nations. If you plan to visit American Samoa soon, you may become aware of a different -- but relocated -- kind of "threat."

Every evening in a small village not far from Apir, the capital of Western Samoa, a conch shell blows, announcing a communal gathering where villagers pray, read the Bible and share the day's experiences.

This gathering, called a lotu, is an ancient and much-valued part of "Fr'a Samoa," the Samoan way, one fiercely and diligently maintained by the village elders against the inroads of modern life.

But in recent years, the elders themselves -- tribal chiefs marked with elaborate tattoos from waist to knee -- have altered the custom in this village. They have changed the time for the Sunday lotu so they can watch their favorite television program, "All-Star Wrestling."

This is just one sign of television's arrival in the isolated South Pacific, one of the few regions in the world where entire countries still exist without TV.

In the village of Alao in American Samoa, in a coastline compound of fales (huts) with no walls and thatched roofs woven from sugarcane leaves, 10 men sit cross-legged on the floor, eating a meal of boiled curried bananas and a steamed local fish called pone. The food is prepared and served by the women of the village, who eat later, in the rear of the fale. Roosters and small brown pigs stroll through the surrounding banana trees and thick bushes of scarlet hibiscus. A central guest hut is open to whoever passes by.

The scene could be unfolding a hundred years ago -- except that as the villagers pick food off bananaleaf mats, a television set in the corner of the hut shows the NBC "Game of the Week" between the Pittsburgh Pirates and the St. Louis Cardinals. The Pirates score two runs in the first inning. The scene cuts to commercials, taped off KRON-TV San Francisco, for Pentax cameras, Delco shock absorbers, Ortho lawn fertilizer, State Farm Insurance and Gillette Foamy shaving lather.

In the nearby village of Lauli', Imo Tiapula, 8, rises early on Saturday morning to make his father's coffee and finish his other chores -- so he can watch the Saturday morning Godzilla cartoons.

On historic, remote Savai'i, considered by anthropologists to be the cradle of Polynesian culture, Mapuilesua Pelenato plugged in the island's first television set last February, four months after the first electric power poles appeared along the island's eastern edge. The children and some adults in his village, who used to gather on the road most evenings to talk, now come to Pelenato's fale every night at 6, turn on the TV and keep it on until the broadcast day ends at 11 p.m.

The villagers watch whatever is on the screen, although they particularly like Westerns, police stories and "The Midnight Special." Late at night, Pelenato gently awakens youngsters who have fallen asleep before the TV. He does not mind: "It gives people here something to do and it helps them learn better English."

American Samoa is a place worth examining, because TV researchers call it a classic example of what usually happens when TV is introduced anywhere.

President Kennedy dispatched H. Rex Lee to this island territory as governor in 1962 with orders to upgrade the place. So during his tenure, Lee built roads, installed utilities, improved medical care -- and introduced television.

The initial purpose was educational. The government wanted Samoans to be competent in English, but lacked enough English-speaking teachers. So in 1964, the Department of Education pulled together what English-speaking teachers they could find, put them before TV cameras, installed television sets in every classroom and began broadcasting to all Samoan schools.

At its peak, the Department of Education was producing 180 live programs a week over six channels and drawing a good deal of attention for what was considered a novel experiment. In one such program, a teacher appears on the screen, holding a bottle of paint: "This is a bottle of paint. Listen again . . . Shhh . . . This is a bottle of paint. Now you tell me . . . (pause) . . . Tell me again . . . (pause) . . . Now . . . Shhh . . . Listen. This is a brush. Now you tell me . . ."

Then Samoan TV made a fateful move -- it added a handful of entertainment programs to the schedule in 1966, including "Cheyenne," "The Mickey Mouse Club," "Top Star Bowling," "Hawaiian Eye," the "Andy Williams Show" and "Bonanza."

Although these programs were being warmly embraced by Samoan viewers, educational TV was faltering. The television had become the primary tool in the classroom, rather than a supplement. Students' language skills improved, but they missed the human contact. All classes had to proceed at the pace set by the television, teachers in the classroom grew restless in their limited role as monitor, the first students graduating from the program floundered when they entered college and some observers took to calling the whole program a "white elephant."

Two years ago, the Samoan TV budget was cut almost in half (from $1.3 million to $711,000), much of the staff was dismissed and the station's channels were cut from six to three. The TV station was removed from the control of the Department of Education and virtually no new instructional programs have been produced since then.

More and more American entertainment programs were brought in to fill the evening hours, partly in response to pressure created by a community survey and phone calls to the TV station indicating that entertainment was what Samoans wanted.

"There is good and bad in TV," explains a Samoan villager, echoing the comments of others, "but I don't mind it. The shows are entertaining, TV is a good babysitter for my kids, and it expands their vision of things, puts them in contact with the outside world."

After working all day on an island plantation, this villager lies on the floor of his fale in front of his TV set, watching "Cliffhangers," "Laverne & Shirley" and "Three's Company."

By 1970 there were two evening channels; by 1973, three. This gave American Samoa, with a population of 35,000, more television programming than nearby New Zealand, with a population of 3 million.

Critics of television in other countries may note with interest that this swing to mass entertainment programming in Samoa did not come about because of commercial, advertiser pressure. Samoan TV has always been government-financed, nonprofit and noncommercial. (Last year's TV budget was $528,000, provided by the U.S. government; this year, the $593,000 budget is being paid for by the territorial government from local tax revenues.)

Although Samoan TV does not sell its own advertising, the week-old tapes from the ABC and NBC affiliates in San Francisco are broadcast with all the commercials included, unedited. A Samoan TV official says this is required by their contract with Overseas Taping Service. But Mere Betham, the territory's director of education, believes the station is simply saving the time and expense of editing tape.

Whatever the reason, Samoans now watch commercials for items they had never heard of or seen before, such as carpet cleaners, room deodorizers, antiperspirants, sugarless bubble gum and San Francisco car dealerships. A Taco Bell commercial one night posed a puzzle for one Samoan: "Wat's a taco?" he asked.

"We have ended up with publicly funded, nonprofit TV showing 'Baretta' and Burger King," Betham says. "Our merchants benefit, and taxpayers are paying for it."

"When the budget was cut," explains Kirk Walker, chief engineer for the TV station, "there was talk of lessening altogether, not just the instructional stuff. We tried, but there was all hell to pay. They wanted those programs."

A 1976 study by Survey-Hawaii concluded that "the Samoan audience is deeply fascinated with television viewing." About 96 percent of the population has "access" to a television set, the report said; there were almost 4,000 sets on American Samoa, with an average of just under eight viewers per set.

It is an odd sight to walk along the American Samoan coastline on a warm evening and pass village after village where TV screens are burning brightly in the majority of the thatched-roof fales. Programing begins at 4 p.m. and includes everything from "Days of our Lives" to "Rockford Files." One channel broadcasts PBS programs such as "Sesame Street," "Bill Moyers' Journal" and "Wall Street Week." Samoans also watch a local news show, the NBC Nightly News and the ABC Captioned News.

According to the Survey-Hawaii report, "Police Woman" was the most popular show in 1976, drawing 83 percent of the audience, followed by "Sunday Night Mystery Movie" (77 percent) and "Police Story" (75). The lowest-rated shows were PBS programs -- "Great Performances," "Visions," "Nova," "Bookbeat" and "Masterpiece Theater" -- which drew only 2 percent to 6 percent of the audience.

It is not unusual today to hear Samoan young people's conversations punctuated with suggestions to "flick your Bic"; nor is it unusual to see 14-year-old boys, after a game of cricket, celebrate victory with the clenched fist salutes and handslaps common among athletes on American television.

Apparent effects of TV can be seen everywhere in American Samoa. But it is difficult to separate TV's influence from the general impact of the American presence and American dollar.

The economy here used to involve subsistence farming and fishing and little cash. No more. Almost half the work force is employed by the territorial government, which currently operates with a $50 million budget, about 75 percent provided by the United States.

Many Samoans have moved to Hawaii or the mainland, and those who stay here have a declining interest in hard labor on the plantations or at the two private canneries. American Samoa today imports bananas, although they grow wild, in abundance, all over the island. One morning, the local hotel dining room could offer only canned peaches and pears. The waitress said they had no papayas, pineapples, bananas or coconuts, although a coconut tree swayed gracefully outside the dining room window.

With money to buy food, Samoans have shifted more and more to canned goods. The shelves of the small store in Alao are heavily stocked with canned corned beef, Spam, salmon, vegetables, fruit cocktail, sausage, beef stew and fricassee of chicken wings.

This shift to canned goods even affected a traditional welcoming ceremony in a Samoan village one evening. Such a ceremony normally involves a chicken, killed and wrapped in a banana leaf. This evening, the villagers substituted chicken wings fricassee -- in a can.

But if it is an affluent wage economy and extensive travel that have most affected American Samoa, people here generally agree that the travel and migration were in turn mostly prompted by what people saw on television.

"TV makes people here think that in America everyone is rich, with two cars," says Sandy Tiapola, an American from Denver who married a Samoan and now lives in a village east of Pago Pago. "They look and say 'Wow,' then decide to journey to the mainland. They want things. I know women who didn't eat for two weeks in order to buy a sewing machine they saw advertised."

Spontaneous social gatherings have diminished since TV arrived, others say.

"When I first came here 13 years ago," says Jake King, editor of the Samoan News, "it was very usual to have village sings and socials. You could go to the villages and be entertained. Now it has almost entirely disappeared. When it happens, it's planned. Today, when you go to a village, they're more likely to be sitting around watching shootouts."

When a recent survey asked school children what they wanted to be when they grew up, the greated single response by far from boys and girls alike was "a policewoman" -- and the explanation could only have been that "Police Woman" topped the list of popular TV shows.

In stores, products that had been sitting on the shelves -- or had never been there at all -- now sell out: Johnson & Johnson shampoo, all kinds of cereals, Clorox, frozen potatoes. Betham, shaking her head when talking about this, says, "Samoans before TV never used hair shampoo or ate cereals."

Even in Apia, merchants now purposefully stock what they see advertised on television. S.V. Mackenzie & Co., the Apia General store that for 56 years has served as agent for many American products, reports sharply increased sales of such items as Tang, Scope mouthwash, Pringles and Shout.

"Pepto Bismol never sold here before at all," Vernon Mackenzie says. "Now it sells like hotcakes. Also things like Bufferin, Nytol and Sominex. And the great things is, we don't have to pay for the advertising." Business has been so good that Mackenzie is tearing down his current store and building a modern five-story supermarket with a parking lot.

Not only the merchants see good in TV's influence. "TV ended our isolation," says Pat Galeai, executive director of the vocational education advisory council, echoing comments by many others. "We can keep up with the outside world. Samoans are more outgoing, more able to express themselves now."

But others wonder how such exposure might eventually affect the Samoans.

Samoans, like most Polynesians generally, are not a competitive or commercially enterprising people, anthropologists says. The hotel at Pago Pago rarely serves fresh fish because the food manager cannot get the locals to supply any on a regular basis, they fish only for their own dinner. The scientists also say Polynesians tend to submit willingly to the strict authority of the chiefs.

So when Dr. Wilbur Schramm of the East West Center in Honolulu surveyed a carefully selected cross-section of Samoan TV watchers and non-watchers, he was interested to see that the TV watchers' answers to his questions demonstrated a much greater tendency toward materialism and competitiveness, less valuing of the family, tradition and authority and an inclination to be more independent and individual.

But the questionnaire's results also suggested that this pattern may not hold permanently. The longer Samoans watch TV, the more, it seems, they return to traditional values. At least this is one interpretation of Schramm's data, one he thinks has some validity.

University of Winnipeg anthropologists say they found the same trend among Cree Indians in Canada. Perhaps the exposure to modern values, the researchers theorize, eventually leads natives to appreciate more their own values.

One of their central conclusions: although TV has an impact, it does not alter a fundamental culture, but rather is absorbed into that culture. They say signs of Western culture, such as blue jeans and transistor radios, are misleading, because private values and concepts prevail below the surface.

The 70-year-old father of Samoan novelist Albert Wendt is one of those who has changed the time of his village's lotu in order to watch wrestling on TV. Albert Wendt tells this story to illustrate TV's impact -- but also to point out the limits of its influence. After all, he observes, the communal gathering still takes place. "Culture adopts and adjusts," he says, "but is not overwhelmed by TV."

Perhaps Wendt is right. Much of the evidence points toward his conclusion. But the fact is, no one really knows for sure. There are those who believe that television causes certain profound changes that just cannot be observed or quantified.

"We know all the statistics," says Dr. Schramm, one of the most highly regarded TV researchers. "But what we don't know are the deeper things, such as how TV affects a person's sense of time and space. We must rely on the intuitive and the anecdotal."