That television is not distinguished by its display of fine manners has always failed to bother Miss Manners.

She is aware that she disappoints those who report to her numerous examples of poor eating habits in advertisements and inconsiderate behavior by characters in serial dramatizations, in the hope of getting Miss Manners all steamed up. (Perhaps they suppose, correctly, that that would itself be no small dramatic spectacle.) Nevertheless, Miss Manners has hardly managed to get worked up enough about this to mark her place in her book with a languid finger while offering such wisdom as "Goodness, what did you expect?"and advice on the level of "If it offends you, why don't you turn the silly thing off?"

For this uncharacteristically high threshold of indignation and low standard of public service, Miss Manners made the following excuses to herself:

1. Television does not pretend to demonstrate model behavior. It naturally reflects the range of existing behavior, which, as Miss Manners and her informers well know, is not of unrelieved excellence. Reasonable people ought not to look to television as an example.

2. No dramatic medium could allow itself to be limited to a single set of manners, any more than to one way of speaking. Manners -- how people behave -- are an extremely important dramatic tool. In gesture, as well as in speech, factors of background and individuality are used to illuminate character. Uniform manners, no matter how laudable, would eliminate the vital clues a dramatist must be able to provide.

3. It is hard enough for poor Miss Manners to try to get people to behave, without her wearing herself out fussing over the manners of shadows in a box.

That last reason need concern no one but Miss Manners herself, who would be shamed into withdrawing it if there were no other. And she is afraid she is being forced to reconsider the others.

The weak part of the first excuse is that television is often watched by people who do not fit the definition of "reasonable," namely children.

Now, one knows that responsible parents are obliged to teach their children to evaluate television behavior -- and, for that matter, all other behavior they observe -- critically. Children cannot be allowed simply to pick up ethics from news clips, or driving habits from car-chase scenes, so they should not be left undisturbed in the notion that manners displayed on television are necessarily acceptable.

The pronouncement of "I don't care what Everyone Else does -- we expect something different" has been recognized as a major parental chore for some generations now.

However, a particular letter from a hard-working but exasperated parent alerted Miss Manners to the extent to which the apparent failure of her third reason has made the chore of television evaluating nearly impossible.

"My 3 1/2-year-old daughter had table manners that most people will never have," the mother wrote. But now "TV has become an interest, and she thinks I'm bonkers when I enforce them. She says to me, 'Look, Mom, that girl on TV is talking with her mouth full.' In other words, if she is allowed, why can't I?

"I can't see myself not allowing her to watch her favorite shows because of the manners they portray. She hardly indulges at all, and to cut her off totally would be selfish on my part."

Suddenly Miss Manners realized that the mother was not describing a scene in which she could easily say, "Sure she's talking with her mouth full -- she's supposed to be a disgusting little girl no one can stand to eat with; don't you see that? Watch what happens to her." The bad manners were just routinely being passed off as standard manners.

This destroys Miss Manners' noble defense of dramatists' and actors' need to use manners creatively. If these people are ignorant of manners, they are performing their own jobs badly, never mind what they are doing to Miss Manners' field. If the girl on television was supposed to be a winning little creature whom everyone adores, complete with a view of half-chewed pizza, they have seriously misled their viewers.

In real life, little girls who open their mouths to display their dinners seldom win people's hearts. Often, their own parents can hardly bear to look at them.

If this is carelessly portrayed otherwise, viewers who know good manners will be misled about the character, and viewers who don't, or who are unsure, will be misled about what society considers acceptable.

In that case, Miss Manners is not going to defend their dramatic freedom. She is even going to stop defending their immunity from obligation to set an example, although she thinks it unfortunate to expect that of people who haven't even been able to learn their own business.

Q: When my son's college friends visit our home, their answer to "Would you like a Coke or something to eat or drink (or whatever)?" is "I'm fine."

This is so strange to me. I was taught to say, "No, thank you." I am not asking how they are -- I'm asking if they would like something to drink, etc. If they would first say "No, thank you" and then "I'm fine," I would understand.

Is this a new form of etiquette? Is it just another shortcut to avoid wasting words? I will still insist that my son reply, "No, thank you," unless I hear it is correct to say, "I'm fine" -- but I don't believe I will.

Q: No, you won't, but Miss Manners would settle for this new cliche' if she could just get a "thank you" into it. "I'm fine" is presumably a way of heading off a series of offers at once. ("Would you like a lemonade?" "No, thank you." "Would you like some coffee?" "No, thank you." "Well, then, would you like some tea?" And so on.) But "No, thank you -- I don't care for anything" would be just as preemptive without annoying you (and rankling Miss Manners, just a little).