The always rugged competition for news audiences in the Washington market is going to rugged up considerably starting Monday, Jan. 27 . . .

That evening, Channel 7 will introduce a revised early news schedule that will start with a brand-new local news at 5 p.m. and then move "ABC World News Tonight With Peter Jennings" from 7 back to the 6:30 time slot . . .

And, as revealed over the weekend, popular anchor Jim Vance will return to Channel 4's 6 p.m. and 11 p.m. newscasts that same evening, replacing Bob McBride, the veteran who announced his retirement last Friday . . .

A couple of executives from Channel 9, the early evening news leader, just happened to be here Friday attending a Gannett Co. broadcasting management meeting . . .

Informed of the moves by WJLA and WRC, they exchanged worried glances once they thought Captain Airwaves wasn't looking . . .

But for the record they managed to conceal any excitement over the new strategies of their rivals and said Nine, which will become the property of Gannett about Feb. 15, plans no particular changes in its successful format at this time . . . At Channel 7

They will introduce a news program at 5 p.m. for the first time, after several years of catching up at 5:30 with news audiences already tuned to the other stations . . .

The hour-long 5 p.m. newscast will feature Doris McMillon, Paul Berry and Dan Lewis, plus sportscaster Frank Herzog and weatherman Dave Sweeney, plus live reports from WJLA's recently established Northern Virginia and Maryland news bureaus, the Target 7 consumer investigative unit and "Seven on Your Side" . . .

Renee Poussaint and Wes Sarginson will anchor the half-hour 6 p.m. newscast, which will also feature the investigative reports of WJLA's "I Team" . . .

They will be followed by the ABC evening newscast out of New York at 6:30 . . .

A check with local broadcasters indicates that Channel 4 flirted with a 6:30 p.m. network newscast for a while in the mid-1970s. But in recent years, all three network shows have gone head-to-head in this market at 7 p.m.

Channel 7 will move the game show "Jeopardy" from its present 5 p.m. time slot to 7 p.m. on Jan. 27 . . .

Rumors had circulated for months that WJLA was going to try a 5 p.m. local newscast, but apparently the cancellation of the syndicated one-hour "America" (which had gone very well for Seven at 4 p.m. despite its failure elsewhere) at the end of the year had caused WJLA to move up its timetable -- in time for the February ratings sweep . . .

Those sweeps get under way on Jan. 25 with the Arbitron book and on Jan. 26 with Nielsen. Both run 28 days) . . .

Cynics Friday were quick to point out that Seven will boost revenues by devoting the entire 7-to-8-p.m. primetime access period to syndicated shows . . . but the radical step of moving "ABC World News Tonight" from its customary 7 p.m. time slot could cancel out those gains, at least at first . . .

Tom Cookerly, president and general manager of WJLA, insisted Friday that the changes were made for "news ratings reasons only" . . .

"We think a streamlined, hard-hitting half hour at 6, combined with 'World News Tonight,' is going to make a lot of sense here" . . .

He said the WRC experiment some years ago, when what is now "NBC Nightly News" was aired at 6:30 preceded by a one-hour local telecast, failed, in part, because "it's tough, as we know, to introduce a local news show on the half hour."

In the November ratings WJLA did poorly in the early evening in the Nielsen ratings, although it was competitive with WRC in the Arbitron book.

At 11, depending on which ratings service you chose, all three network stations were competitive . . .

Cookerly said that although plans for changes in the news room set are in the works, they won't be made when the Jan. 27 changeover takes place . . . Meanwhile, at WRC

The big news, as the February sweeps begin, is the retirement of McBride and Vance's return . . .

But with the changes in the evening news shows, Channel 4 is also dropping its low-rated noon news show Jan. 27 in favor of "Here's Lucy" . . .

Coanchor Pat Lawson moves to the 5 o'clock news while noon coanchor Barbara Harrison remains as early morning news anchor at 6:45, and continues to handle the half-hour news breaks on the "Today" show, and reporting on the 5 and 6 p.m. news shows . . .

McBride, 60, is retiring after 43 years in the business that included a stint as anchor at WBBM in Chicago. He joined WRC in 1982 after years in management at WJBK in Detroit . . .

In a statement issued Friday, McBride said, "I've been planning for several years to retire and Jim's return to Channel 4 at this time meshes perfectly . . .

"After 43 years in the media, many of them with six-day weeks and 14- to 16-hour days, I've been looking forward to more travel and more volunteer service and a few thousand missed tennis matches" . . .

As for Vance's return, McBride said, "Personally I'm very delighted. It's where he belongs" . . .

Vance will join coanchor Susan King for the 6 p.m. newscast and Dave Marash at 11, starting Jan. 27 . . .

Lea Thompson and Marash will continue with the one-hour "Live at 5" . . .

Vance has been off the air since mid-June of last year following a recurrence of drug-related problems . . .

In January 1985 he had taken leave for treatment at the Betty Ford Center in California . . .

He returned to the air on WRC after only six weeks, however, and the continuing pressures connected with the job apparently caused a relapse last summer. He has been under treatment since then while remaining in the Washington area . . .

On Friday, WRC Vice President and General Manager Fred DeMarco, whose decision it was to return Vance to the air, said that "the doctors think he's doing wonderfully" . . .

He's getting better all the time," DeMarco added. "But it will always be a day-to-day thing. Jim feels fine, he feels ready, and all the professional people think he's ready . . .

"I love the guy. And the broadcast needs him" . . .

Vance joined WRC as a general assignment reporter in 1969. A year later he was a weekend anchor and became a weeknight coanchor in 1972. In 1984 he joined Lea Thompson as coanchor on the 5 p.m. news and McBride at 11 p.m. . . .

He reportedly has about five months on his current contract, but if everything works out, it is expected WRC will jump at the chance to sign him up again . . .

Vance was not available for comment . . .