Television has always considered the Oscar show a sure thing. And why not? It's said to be second only to the Super Bowl in total number of viewers and offers a three-hour parade of superstars for free.

What could be a more certain hit than Barbra Streisand or Ryan O'Neil -- live and in color?

But this year the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and ABC-TV are taking a risk with the Oscar telecast: Instead of spotlighting sexy superstars such as Clint Eastwood and Raquel Welch or old standbys like James Garner and Lauren Bacall, the Academy has assembled a list of Oscar presenters that is creatively significant, but somewhat short on sex symbols and almost devoid of television's stars of the moment such as Larry Hagman or Loni Anderson.

Of course, there will be plenty of big names tomorrow night.Among them: Robert Redford (presenting a special Oscar to Henry Fonda), Dustin Hoffman, Sally Field, Jane Seymour, Dyan Cannon, Peter O'Toole, Angie Dickinson, Billy Dee Williams, Nastassia Kinsky, Peter Ustinov, Sissy Spacek, Richard Pryor, Lily Tomlin, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Mary Tyler Moore, Lesley-Anne Down, Steve Martin, Bernadette Peters, Alan Arkin, Sean Connery, Sigourney Weaver and Luciano Pavarotti.

Who could ask for more? Apparently, the viewers could. Two years ago when ABC, which pays the Academy more than $2 million for the rights to the presentation, did a ratings survey, the results showed that America was getting bored with the aged Oscar winners of yesteryear and with the unknown but newly nominated actors of the day. According to that survey, viewers were demanding more sex and glitter, less nostalgia and more glimpses of a radiant Suzanne Sommers or hot rock stars singing their newest movie hits.

The message was strong and clear: Update the Oscars with faces the public knows instantly and cut down on the dragging presentations of awards for best achievement in sound or film editing.

But the Academy is slow to respond, and the only significant change in the past three years has been the presence of Johnny Carson as emcee. Even before the 1979 viewer study, ABC's ratings men had told them that Bob Hope was far too outdated to continue to carry the Oscar show on his back. And the network and the Academy began quickly searching for a upbeat substitute. Carson was a ratings magnet, and they got him -- at a $15,000 fee.

"There was an announcement that Bob Hope had decided to call it a day himself," says a public-relations spokesman for the Academy. "But the truth was, we needed a newer face and fresher jokes."

Despite Carson's video charisma, the ratings for last year's telecast came as a shock to network executives: The show's audience had dropped for the first time in 29 years. The modest decline -- less than one Neilsen ratings point -- was less distressing than the fact that the audience (estimated at 300 million world-wide by both the Academy and ABC) didn't grow for the first time since the original Oscar telecast of 1953.

"Fix it!" the men at ABC told the academy.

But the Academy doesn't have to listen to anybody, as tomorrow night's show amply demonstrates. At whatever cost to the ratings, this year's Oscars have fewer sex symbols and television names than any year in recent memory. And fewer rock stars. (For example, the hot group "Blondie," which produced a hit film song, "Call Me," from "American Gigolo," was ignored by the Academy.)

Instead, the Oscarcast will rely on the presenters and guests mentioned above, President Reagan's televised address to the gathering, and an opening number in which Lucie Arnaz and 22 hoofers dance their way through "Hurray for Hollywood" and the clips from 25 old movies.

Old movies play a prominent part in the telecast: Clips from 155 of them (most in black-and-white) will appear throughout the show, lumped under the unimaginative these, "Film Is Forever."

"We're giving America what it apparently wants -- nostalgia," says one Oscar executive. If they want more, they will get it in the persons of Lillian Gish, 85 -- who will have the signal honor of presenting the Best Picture Award by herself -- and in George Cukor, 81, and King Vidor, 87, who will present the Oscar for Best Director.

"What's involved isn't new content, but new packaging," according to Marty Pasetta, who will be directing his 10th Oscar telecast tomorrow. "The closest analogy is the old 'Hit Parade,' where week after week they had the same songs, but each time they had to produce them differently."

Nobody seems to remember that the Academy used the film-clip glut technique (originated by Gower Champion, who produced the 1969 ceremonies) only three years ago in 1978 to celebrate the Oscars' 50th birthday. The Pandora's box of old stars and black-and-white clips provoked a number of public complaints to television stations across America.

By 1980, the Oscars had returned to their old stand-by -- mixing sexy superstars, dazzling gowns, a bit of rock music and a lot of major-name stars. Last year, for instance, the Academy called up Ann-Margaret (always a crowd pleaser), Farrah Fawcett, Bo Derek, Richard Dreyfuss, Richard Gere, Goldie Hawn, Jack Lemon, Walter Matthau, Liza Minelli, Tatum O'Neil, Kristy McNichol, Christopher Reeve, Robert Hays (of "Airport" and "Angie"), Telly Savalas, "Star Trek's" William Shatner.

And although tomorrow's list of notables is long, it does not include many proven telegenic talents. Where are Rock Hudson, Cary Grant, Shirely Maclaine, Fred Astaire, Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, Carol Burnett, Diane Keaton, Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra and Ingrid Bergman? By late Friday, none of them had asked the Academy for tickets.

"People just don't want to go because the thing has become a zoo, hardly worth all the trouble," says Jacque Green, a top Hollywood publicist. hMany of her clients are not attending. "They figure to get too little out of it," she says.

Of course, it has been argued that it is wrong for TV superstars such as Farrah Fawcett and Kristy McNichol to hand out Hollywood's serious prizes. And reporters were critical of 1980 presenter Robert Hays -- of "Angie" and "Airplane" -- characterizing his appearance as a blatant conflict of interest since his selection seemed to be tied to his starring role in "Airplane," a film produced by Howard Koch -- also producer of the Oscars. Because of the controversy, Farrah Fawcett threatened not to go on. But she was finally persuaded. And Robert Hays presented his award slightly red in the face and fumbling for excuses for his appearance with Kristy McNichol. "This is big stuff for newcomers like us," he stammered.

Whatever the reason, this year's show is wiped clean of TV superstars such as Ed Asner, who is the chairman of Oscars own Award Committee, or Robert Wagner and Natalie Wood, who are both big stars and in town right now.

"This year they're supplying film clips instead of glamor -- hoping to daze viewers with shots of Mae West and W. C. Fields while such lackluster stars as Blythe Danner and Sigourney Weaver pass out the awards," says a former public-relations director for the Oscars. "They've tried this before -- at least five times. But the viewers have always been more interested in Cher's hemlines than in Sissy Spacek's acting credits."

So the show will be risky. But, as always, it will have its moments. Among those to watch for:

Arrivals: There will be no Raquel Welch, no Farrah Fawcett, and not even a Kristy McNichol. The glamour girl set to arrive in the California sunset is Angie Dickinson, the star of "Dressed to Kill," who will be wearing a $4,000 Halston gown. Superstars Barbra Streisand, Ryan O'Neal, Diana Ross, Burt Reynolds, John Travolta and Jane Fonda have all failed to indicate they will attend. It seems likely, however, that both Jane and Peter will appear from backstage when their father is honored.

Clothes: In Oscar's 53 years, the type, cut and style of an actress' often carries with it the hint of a winner. For instance, when Joanne Woodward rushed into a ceremoney in the '50s wearing a dress made on her Singer sewing machine, gossip columnists immediately predicted that she would not win for "The Three Faces of Eve." The columinists had to eat their words (done nightly in Hollywood) but they were able to predict again in 1980 that perhaps Sally Field was a bit too underdressed to be a winner. The implicit fashion rules must be outdated, since Jane Fonda wore the same dress two years in a row, taking home her "Coming Home" Oscar on one of those nights.

Singers: In spite of the slightly offbeat casting of Lucie Arnaz, the Oscar show has assembled a strong lineup of singers. The list is headed by Dolly Parton, who will sing her own "Nine to Five." The Academy feared for several weeks that Parton would not show up after she failed to gain a best supporting actress nomination for the same movie. But as Parton told Rona Barrett, "I don't want anybody else a-singin' my song." Irene Cara will sing two songs from "Fame," Willie Nelson will sing "On the Road Again," from "Honeysuckle Rose" and Dionne Warwick will sing "People Alone" from "The Competition." It goes without saying that the Oscar voters once again ignored the socko rock performances in 1980 films which included "Love on the Rocks," sung by Neil Diamond in "The Jazz Singer," and "My Mother's Eyes," sung by Bette Midler in "Divine Madness."

Unusual Singers: The Academy has always been inclined to stick in a song or two when it will help the ratings. It certainly helped the audience quotient when Angela Lansbury sang a medley of 20 tunes at one Oscar telecast in the '60s. And Debbie Reynolds, who did "Singing in the Rain," for no particular reason several years ago was likewise an added attraction.

But this year, the music is taking on a whole new air.

Just before the presentation of the Oscar to the winner of the Best Song category -- and while Angie Dickinson floats and saunters around the stage with nothing to do -- Luciano Pavarotti will sing "Torna a Sorrento" (Return to Sorrento). No reason has been given for this high-tone addition to the evening's repertoire, nor for the choice of material by Pavarotti, who is acting in his first movie this year. "Look, when you get Pavarottti to appear on an Oscar show, you let him sing whatever he wants," said a public-relations spokesman for the Academy.So "Return to Sorrento" it will be.

The Academy has often tried far less successful ploys to put celebrities on its stages. In 1974, for instance, the Academy announced that Mark Spitz would grace the stage to present the award for best achievement in sound. Rona Barrett immediately explained that the Academy must have heard the Olympic medals jingling on his chest. The next day there were 5,000 letters of protest from the Hollywood community alone. And the Academy announced, sheepishly, that Spitz, since he had not yet signed for a movie, felt it best to wait a while before presenting an Oscar. He is still waiting.

The Sidelines: Although few glimpses are permitted of the backstage area by the Academy for its own protection, an itinerant cameraman will occasionally catch a snippet of less than gracious winners. Last year, for instance, the cameras recorded Sally Field badmouthing her former television producers, the drama coaches who discovered her, her early movie directors and even by inference her long-time friend and costar Burt Reynolds. In 1979 Jane Fonda came sailing off stage with her Best Actress award and aggressively assailed the voters for naming "The Deer Hunter" the best picture of the year. "Our picture was better," said Fonda, referring to "Coming Home." Asked by a reporter if she had seen "The Deer Hunter," Fonda said, "No, but I know our film was better."

The backstage area has always been considered particularly dangerous for unwary stars. Joan Crawford referred to it as "the nine circles of hell all contained within 30 yards." Once in the '50s when Crawford exited after a presentation, a fan said, "You looked wonderful up there." Crawford whirled around and snapped, "That wasn't me up there. That was Joan Crawford."

The Filmclips: In showing scenes from more than 155 movies, the Academy will be advertising its own oversights. There is a long and loving look, for instance, at Greta Garbo, who never won an Oscar. There is the fond glimpse of the great John Barrymore, who wasn't nominated. And there is more than a touch of Marilyn Monroe, whose attempts to gain nominations for "Bus Stop" and "Some Like It Hot" were killed by the star's own studio which was seeking votes for other actresses.

Surprises: There probably won't be any this year. No Vanessa Redgrave espousing a cause. No Cher Bono showing a bit more of her body than ordered. Not even a Grace Kelly, fumbling for an acceptance speech as her hair fell over her face.

"I love the Oscars," says Bob Levinson, who publicized the awards for many years. "But I can't help noticing that the glamour is fading and the stars who do come are not as colorful.