It was a small line in a since-forgotten TV show, but the words struck a nerve for actress Kathleen Nolan.

"I was playing a successful real-estate broker in a scene with several men," recalls Nolan, best known as Kate in "The Real McCoys."

"When it came time to make a decision, my line was something like 'Honey, you make the decisions, and I'll make the coffee.'

"I though to myself, 'We should go talk to someone and say this isn't the way it is. That woman should have a part in the decision.' That's when I decided to become an activist."

Nolan went on to become president of the Screen Actor's Guild (SAG) and a board member of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Last fall, before her presidential term expired, SAG coreleased a study confirming her suspicion that television discriminates against women, minority and older actors and portrays them in stereotyped roles.

The report by the Annenberg School of Communications' George Gerbner and Nancy Signorielli -- "Women and Minorities in Television Drama 1969-1978" -- traces a sample of more than 1,300 network dramatic programs. Some of the findings:

Male characters outnumber females 3-to-1 in prime time.

Sixty-eight percent of all prime-time characters were white males in 1969 and 62 percent were white males a decade later.

The proportion of female leads has been rising, but the percent of all female characters has changed little since 1969.

Women "age" faster than men -- more women are cast in older roles than male characters of the same chronological age.

White men dominate the age of dramatic authority between 35 and 45, while nonwhite men and all women are concentrated between 25 and 35.

"For the majority of groups in our society," the report notes, "television viewing may serve to perpetrate traditional sex roles . . . that women should stay home, a woman should not work if her husband can support her (and) men are better suited emotionally for politics.

"Marriage, romance and family are women's concerns in the world of television. Such typecasting indicates not only a concentration of women's roles in these areas but also a restriction of opportunities."

These findings are "a clear indictment of network policies and employment practices," says Nolan. "For our minority and female actors, that means a real-life work situation with fewer opportunities and less satisfying roles.

"I'm not saying we should eliminate 'Charlie's Angels' -- just have a variety of choices, instead of being limited to 'Three Girls in a Tub,' 'Three Girls in a Tree' or 'Three Girls on the Beach.'"

Although the SAG contract requires producers to give actors and actresses equal access to roles where the character's race or sex is not determined by the script, Nolan says, "Most casting directors still see the word doctor, lawyer or government official and read white male."

In October, SAG filed unfair labor practice charges against the Association of Motion Picture and Television Producers for its failure to provide contractually-required statistics and hold meetings on hiring practices.

While some charges had to be refiled on technicalities, SAG information director Kim Fellner says, "Figures are slowly beginning to trickle in. Some producers are saying that they didn't realize things were so bad."

Part of the problem is the limited number of women in television management, production and writing jobs, contends Kathy Bonk, who heads the National Organization for Women's (NOW) new Media Reform Project. The pilot program seeks to improve the image and employment of women in the media.

"In 1978, only 28 percent of the broadcasting industry's employes were female, and one in every three of these jobs these women are in clerical jobs," she says. Women constitute less than 2 percent ownership of commercial broadcast stations, according to a study by American Women in Radio and Television.

"When you get more women at higher levels, they'll start writing about their own experience," says Bonk, noting that recent efforts to integrate women into prime-time programs often result in "men's ideas of women's adventures and the proliferation of 'jiggly' shows.

"Since 98 percent of the television producers and 92 percent of its writers are men, it is not unreasonable to suggest that such programming results from the composition of the staff that creates it."

As part of the plan to encourage quality programming, the media project is urging local NOW chapters to promote shows that realistically portray women's concerns and complain about those that rely on offensive stereotypes.

Their first rave review goes to "The $5.20 An Hour Dream," featuring "Alice) star Linda Lavin as a factory worker struggling to become the first woman employed on an assembly line. (Tomorrow night from 9 to 11 on Channel 9.)

Financially strapped by her ex-husband's failure to pay child support for their 12-year-old daughter, Lavin fights the union, management and the all-male assembly workers. When she gets the job -- only after mentioning her legal rights -- her work is sabotaged, she is run through grueling tests and her sister-in-law advises her to quit before she loses her capacity to bear more children.

"It is a special film about a real person," says Bonk. "Not upper-class women in Dallas or two wacky women working in a factory."

"Television too often trivializes and glamorizes real issues of real people," added Federal Communications Commission Chairman Charles Ferris at a recent screening of the movie. "This film's dose of reality is a healthy and welcome change.

"I think TV is a powerful shaper of social consciousness, for good and evil, and reflects in some areas our lack of sensitivity . . . to blacks, Chicanos, women and the aged.

"I'm somewhat personally involved in this issue. As the father of two young women I'm hopeful as they take their place in society that they will be able to achieve their aspirations." CAPTION: Picture 1, Stereotype . . . , Jenny Sherman and Jack Klugman in "Quincy"; Picture 2, . . . or Reality? Linda Lavin in "The $5.20 An Hour Dream"