September 20, 1987: The start of a new television season! Cause for jubilant celebration? Or for a national day of mourning? The answer, as with many answers, lies somewhere in between. In television, most things do.

Crime and comedy may saturate the schedules, but from the ambitiousness of the CBS Vietnam drama "Tour of Duty," to the risks being taken by ABC with the variety hour "Dolly," to the intelligent tenderness of NBC's domestic saga "A Year in the Life," the new TV season dares one to call it uninteresting.

It looms a bit more eerily than some, in part because it has been programmed to please a machine: the new A.C. Nielsen "people meter," which promises networks and advertisers more sophisticated, detailed ratings data than ever before. People meters kicked in last week and the first thing that happened was, the computer broke down and everything was all fouled up.

Aha, an omen!

All three commercial networks have watched their combined share of the audience dwindle in recent years as viewing alternatives multiplied. CBS finished last season with a more than $100 million drop in operating profits, while ABC actually lost money, the network equivalent of mortal sin. Only NBC's profits went up. It will be charging an estimated $300,000 to $400,000 for a 30-second spot on the top-rated "Cosby Show" this season.

The networks are not dopes, evidence to the contrary notwithstanding; they can see national viewership fractionalizing. Catering to the lowest common denominator has never botheredthem, unless you're talking in terms of median household income, and then you scare them silly. They don't want to be left with the low-income households while upscale viewers wander off to cable or rent taped movies for their VCRs. People meters will help the networks enter a new age of more selective demographics.

As a result, network fare this year is a touch more sophisticated and less goofy than in the past. It's sort of Manifest Density; programs have richer textures, like fine Corinthian leather -- even if many turn out to be weathered Naugahyde.

This may also be the season in which CBS, which had a lock on first place for nearly 30 years, and which has fallen to second, may fall still further to third. Ad agencies in New York are predicting it, particularly since ABC not only has a brighter roster of new series than CBS does but also because ABC will be airing megamonster events like the World Series, the Super Bowl and the Winter Olympics.

CBS could become the Collapsible Broadcasting System. NBC is again expected to be No. 1.

Paul Schulman, whose Paul Schulman Co. buys $170 million a year in network time for advertisers, is one of those predicting an ABC comeback. "ABC could really make a run for it," Schulman says. "It's a great opportunity to make inroads." And CBS? "They have some problems."

While Schulman agrees with other industry savants that ABC's "Hooperman," with John Ritter, looks to be the year's first smash hit, there's a more guaranteed -- if much less deserving -- success in the ranks: "A Different World," the "Cosby Show" spinoff starring Lisa Bonet that occupies the catbird seat following "Cosby" Thursday nights on NBC.

" 'Meet Your Potato Grower' could work in that time slot," says Schulman. "A good test pattern could work between 'Cosby' and 'Cheers.' "

An expert at gauging commercial prospects, if not esthetic subtleties (there are so few of those in TV anyway), Schulman expects many shows to flop, including "Leg Work," "Wiseguy," "Jake and the Fat Man" and "Everything's Relative" on CBS; "A Year in the Life" on NBC ("a little too slow," Schulman thinks); and, on ABC, "Once a Hero" ("the first cancellation of the year") and "Thirtysomething" ("a downer").

NBC is suffering from the anomie of victory. A certain lethargy stasis has set in; call it Boredom Tartikoff, in honor of NBC Entertainment President Brandon. The new NBC shows are not bright lights, and Tartikoff's so-called "designated hitters" -- series like "Mama's Boy" and "Beverly Hills Buntz" that will air monthly until some other weekly shows are canceled to make room for them -- have the aroma of disaster about them.

But Schulman thinks two NBC holdovers that were borderline hits last season will become all-out gangbusters roofraisers this season: "L.A. Law" (especially if it wins oodles of Emmys tonight) and "ALF," the sitcom that stars a puppet from outer space.

Schulman says "ALF" will have little trouble defeating the supposedly more formidable holdover "Kate and Allie" on CBS Monday nights. Why? Schulman answers with a question: "When was the last time you were at an airport and saw somebody with a 'Kate and Allie' doll?" The merchandising of "ALF" has helped build it into a hit.

Despite perpetual network whining about sagging fortunes, rising costs and escalating competition, Schulman says all three "had a party this year" when it came to so-called "upfront" buying, done well before the season starts. The networks had only a $2 billion inventory of such time, moved it quickly, and could have sold $3 billion, Schulman says. The fledgling Fox network will be able to eke out a living merely on network leftovers.

So what should we think when the networks whimper and moan? "Divide by two," says Schulman. "It's half as bad as they say it is, at worst."

Schulman thinks all three networks are "playing it less conservatively" this year, and that this is good for advertisers and for viewers. Even so, one of the most talked-about and eagerly awaited new series isn't on any network: it's Paramount's syndicated "Star Trek: The Next Generation," which has been bought by 170 stations, some of them ABC affiliates that will preempt network offerings to show it in prime time.

Also on the depressing side, as far as the three networks go, are the facts that: No new drama series on any network schedule is as dazzlingly impressive as "L.A. Law," which premiered a year ago; and no new sitcom is as funny and satisfying as "The Golden Girls," which premiered two years ago.

Even so, the season is young, and programmers' axes will begin falling almost as soon as autumn leaves.

So, are your antennae up? Is your own personal people meter percolating? Plenty of ice-cold beer in the fridge? Ready, set, boldly go! You might as well watch; the networks are going to have a new television season whether any of us wants it or not.

New ABC Shows

"Dolly," this season's riskiest whirl, revives the musical-variety format for country-western star Dolly Parton, who'll be considerably urbanized for this hour of songs and sketches. Variety hasn't worked in years, so D.P. has a couple of mountains to climb. ABC gave her $40 million and a two-year commitment. The last time a network did something like that, it was NBC, Steven Spielberg, and the colossal washout "Amazing Stories." Amazing Dolly may do better. (Sundays, 9 p.m., premieres Sept. 27.)

"Buck James" recycles series perennial Dennis Weaver as a gosh-all and git-up Texas trauma surgeon, who rescues trapped workers from steel beams one minute and presides over open-heart surgery the next. "Crank him open, just as wide as you can get him," barks Buck. And it's the bunk. But Weaver's easy affability may carry it through. (Sundays, 10 p.m., Sept. 27.)

"Thirtysomething" chronicles the woes and joys, and dirtied diapers, of young marrieds, with baby, in the first real TV yup-opera. Well acted but overwrought, the show stars Ken Olin and Mel Harris as Michael and Hope, whose baby Jane is 7 months old and cranky as hell. "Sticky," one character observes. "Houses with kids are always sticky." (Tuesdays, 10 p.m., Sept. 29.)

"Hooperman": From the moment he dunks his hair in the toilet tank to rinse out shampoo -- because the water in the shower has stopped -- John Ritter seems a perfect new beleaguered hero for the '80s. Harry Hooperman, a San Francisco plainclothes detective, inherits a rundown apartment building in the first episode and goes on from there. There's nothing rundown about this tangy, half-hour comedy-drama, created by Steven Bochco and Terry Louise Fisher ("L.A. Law"), produced and directed by Gregory Hoblit ("Hill Street Blues"). This show is crazy with credentials. (Wednesdays, 9 p.m., Sept. 23.)

"The 'Slap' Maxwell Story," perfectly compatible with "Hooperman," could prove the ideal Dabney Coleman vehicle at last. Coleman plays an engaging broken shell, a 50-year-old small-town sports writer, who lives life one step ahead of bill collectors and libel lawyers. You gotta love him. "I love you, Slap," says his malaprop-dropping editor, "but love don't make the buttercup shine." Maybe not, but "Slap" makes the picture tube shine, for half an hour anyway. (Wednesdays, 9:30 p.m., Sept. 23.)

"Full House" bubbles over with likable characters and bald comedy. A widower with three daughters (aged 10, 5 and six months) invites a friend and a brother-in-law to live in his San Francisco house and help raise the kids. Their adventures in baby sitting capitalize on the kind of toddler humor brandished by the movie "Raising Arizona" and, presumably, in forthcoming features like "Three Men and a Cradle" and "Baby Boom." (Fridays, 8 p.m., previews Tuesday, Sept. 22.)

"I Married Dora": ABC refused to screen this sitcom about a man who marries his Salvadoran housekeeper to prevent her deportation. Advance word is bad, and not in a (Michael) Jacksonian sense, either. (Fridays, 8:30 p.m., previews Tuesday, Sept. 22.)

"Once a Hero" lifts a fading, literally, comic book superstar off the page and into the real world where his troubled 60-year-old creator (Milo O'Shea) is losing the will to continue. Cute and facetious, but also belabored, the comedy-adventure is not considered hit material. (Saturdays, 8 p.m., premiered yesterday.)

New CBS Shows

"Everything's Relative," a shrieking nuisance of a comedy, details the piddling plights of two bachelor brothers and their moderately meddlesome mom (Ann Jackson). A perfect zero on the laughometer. Wild horses couldn't liven it up. (Mondays, 8:30 p.m., premieres Sept. 28.)

"Jake and the Fat Man" brings back William ("Cannon") Conrad, the man with the 300-pound voice and the body to match, in a caustic, semicomic crime series about a rascally reprobate of a district attorney and his younger partner in sleuthing (Joe Penny). Conrad is so grandly incorrigible that he breathes fresh cigar smoke into a tired format. Imagine a two-ton Columbo and you're pretty much there. (Tuesdays, 9 p.m., previews Saturday, Sept. 26.)

"The Law and Harry McGraw" stretches a thin character, spun off from "Murder, She Wrote," too far. Jerry Orbach can't do much with Harry, the ultra-rumpled gumshoe, but Barbara Babcock is blithe and breezy as his high-society cohort. They solve crimes in Boston. Harry likes the phrase "Grade-A bushwa." This is Grade C. (Tuesdays, 10 p.m., previews Sunday, Sept. 27.)

"The Oldest Rookie" ensnares likable character actor Paul Sorvino in a dim charade about a police department PR man who, after 25 years on the force, decides he wants to pound a beat again, or at least pound a few crooks into submission. Painfully contrived and clunky. (Wednesdays, 8 p.m., already premiered.)

"Tour of Duty," the most ambitious new series of the season, takes viewers to "Platoon" country, Vietnam of 1967, for weekly dramas of men in combat. A first-rate cast, led by Terence Knox, combines with semigritty realism for powerful results, though week-in and week-out, the haul could be several bridges too far. (Thursdays, 8 p.m., Sept. 24.)

"Wiseguy," dissolute yet dull, casts blank Ken Wahl as a hardheaded undercover cop who infiltrates the mob. A one-way ticket to Palookaville. (Thursdays, 9 p.m., already premiered.)

"Beauty and the Beast": Manny, are you sitting down? We've got a show here called "Beauty and the Beast" -- no, it doesn't star Kathleen Sullivan and Howard Cosell -- it's a modern-day Manhattan fairy tale about a fair damsel (Linda Hamilton) and her platonic affair with this superhairy dude who lives in the sewer. Yeah, really! It's a drama! And each week Beastie Boy leaps out of a manhole to save the girl from -- Manny? Manny? Hello, Manny??? (Fridays, 8 p.m., Sept. 25.)

"Frank's Place" has heart, warmth, Tim Reid, Mrs. Tim Reid and no laugh track. As Frank, Reid inherits, reluctantly, his father's Creole restaurant and the colorful inhabitants and frequenters thereof. Generous helpings of delicious stuff. (Saturdays, 8 p.m., already premiered.)

"Leg Work" stars plenty perky Margaret Colin as a glamorous New York detective who gets into and out of weekly scrapes with the help of her Porsche 911. Great car, good star, flat show. (Saturdays, 9 p.m., Oct. 3.)

New NBC Shows

"My Two Dads" merits the year's smarm award right out of the starting gate. The premise is that two men are bequeathed custody of an illegitimate girl in her mother's will on the grounds that one of them, 13 years earlier, fathered the child. Not a savory prospect, but a light touch helps, and Paul Reiser, as one of the daddy team, has a wry way with a wisecrack. Greg Evigan plays the other potential papa, appealing Staci Keanan is the daughter. (Sundays, 8:30 p.m., premieres tonight.)

"J.J. Starbuck" is -- whoa there, big fella -- a crusty Texas billionaire (Dale Robertson, doing his Wilford Brimley impression) who likes to solve crimes as a hobby. Surrre he does. From the Steven Cannell trash factory, and worth its weight in Spam. (Tuesdays, 9 p.m., previews Saturday, Sept. 26.)

"A Year in the Life," marching onward from last season's six-hour mini-series, follows the fortunes of the Gardner family of Seattle as they struggle and survive. And struggle some more. Daughter Lindley (Jayne Atkinson) and her husband Jim (Adam Arkin) are by far the most credible characters and deserve their own series. This one is a touch too crowded. (Wednesday, 9 p.m., already premiered.)

"A Different World," the worst title of the new season, sends Lisa Bonet off to college for a bland and unfunny "Cosby Show" spinoff that is undergoing extensive remodeling after a calamitously drab pilot. Anne Beatts ("Saturday Night Live," "Square Pegs") has been brought in to sharpen the barbs. (Thursdays, 8:30 p.m., Sept. 24.)

"Private Eye," the grungiest and emptiest of all the new crime shows, teams a wooden-faced detective and a pomp-topped rockster for klutzy crime solving in L.A. circa 1956. You wouldn't want to meet this show in a dark alley. Come to think of it, this show is a dark alley. Real stylish and real stupid. (Fridays, 10 p.m., already premiered.)

Movies and Mini-Series

All networks are mini-series-shy after poor showings by various examples of the genre last year, most poorly that of ABC's dyspeptic polemic "Amerika."

This year's will include, on ABC, "Elvis and Me," based on the book by Priscilla Presley; "Napoleon and Josephine: A Love Story," six hours of historical kitsch; and "Ari: The Private Life of Aristotle Onassis," all about guess what Greek.

Among ABC's original movies are "The Final Days," based on Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein's account of Nixon's twists in the twilight; "The Women of Brewster Place," starring, auspiciously enough, Oprah Winfrey, Alfre Woodard, Phylicia Rashad and Shari Belafonte-Harper; "The Baby M Story," a docudrama about surrogate mother Mary Beth Whitehead and her misfortunes; and "Roots Christmas," by Alex Haley.

On the plate at CBS are the five-hour "Echoes in the Darkness," from a real-life case of "murder and perversion" (always programming reliables); Sidney Sheldon's four-hour "Windmills of the Gods"; and eight hours of "The Frank Sinatra Story," produced by daughter Tina Sinatra and decidedly not based on any Kitty Kelley books.

CBS movies will range from "The Trial," in which a Jewish lawyer must defend an accused Arab terrorist; to "Foxfire," from the Broadway play, with Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy; to "Mistress," starring Victoria Principal and, in the same lip-smacking vein, "Mayflower Madam," starring Candice Bergen as Sydney Biddle Barrows, to air Sunday, Nov. 15.

A press release says it "promises to be the steamy sensation of the new season." And what would a new season be without steamy sensations?

NBC's mini-series lineup sounds impressive: "James Clavell's Noble House" starring Pierce Brosnan; "The Ballad of Mary Phagan," with Jack Lemmon in a story of murder and anti-Semitism; Farrah Fawcett as Barbara Hutton in "Poor Little Rich Girl"; and Sophia Loren in a four-hour version of Mario Puzo's "The Fortunate Pilgrim."

Raquel Welch sheds her glamor-girl image to play a terminally ill woman fighting for the "Right to Die" in one of NBC's movies. Raymond Burr returns for four more "Perry Mason" cases; much of the original cast reunites for, and how's this for sheer spine-tingling excitement, the "Eight Is Enough Reunion"; and soap queen Susan Lucci plays a woman who "becomes possessed by the ghost of a seductive murderer," promises NBC, in "Secret Passions."

PBS and Cable

Conspicuous among the public TV attractions for the new season are "America by Design," a five-part series on U.S. architectural history; "The Health Century," a four-parter produced to commemorate the centennial of the National Institutes of Health (premiering Monday, Sept. 21); "Only One Earth," three hours of alarm about depleting global resources; and "The Right of Truth," a six-part illustrated dissertation on "the inner workings of science" with physicist Philip Morrison. "Truth" bows Tuesday, Oct. 20.

CBS News expatriate Bill Moyers will be back on public TV with "The Secret Government: The Constitution in Crisis," about the Iran-contra affair, and "God and Politics," a look at religion in American public life. "Frontline" will offer five special reports on troubled South Africa and its notorious policy of apartheid.

"The Adams Chronicles," a pioneering PBS docudrama mini-series that first aired in 1976, will be trotted out again, and the "American Masters" series will continue with, among other programs, a tribute to cinematic comic genius Buster Keaton.

Pay-cable channels will continue supplementing their movies with comedy specials. Home Box Office spotlights the great Jackie Mason in a taped adaptation of his Broadway smash "The World According to Me." There will also be comedy concerts by Robin Williams, Billy Crystal and the avant-garde Spalding Gray.

Showtime, meanwhile, will continue with the acclaimed and clever "It's Garry Shandling's Show" while adding comedy specials by Jay Leno, Rich Hall and Elayne Boosler.

HBO's original movies lead off with "Mandela," starring Danny Glover as the jailed South African activist and Alfre Woodard as his wife Winnie; "Intimate Contact," about a married man who gets AIDS from a prostitute; and a biography of Nazi-hunter Simon Weisenthal, "Murderers Among Us."

The Disney Channel, consistently among the most pleasing and least abrasive of cable services, will feature notable revivals, including "College Bowl '87," a new edition of a one-time network TV staple, with Dick Cavett as quizmaster; "Palmerstown USA," the short-lived (1980-81) CBS series about the friendship between black and white families in a small American city (a joint venture of Norman Lear and Alex Haley); and "The Missing Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet," long unseen half-hours starring Ozzie, Harriet, David and the late Ricky.

On Oct. 3, the Disney vaults will creak open so the channel can present the world TV premiere of Disney's 1959, $6 million animated feature "Sleeping Beauty." Oh sure, it was a flop -- but it's still going to look better than a lot of the new stuff out there in Television Land.