The fall of the networks is at hand.

When the TV season officially begins tomorrow, about half of the new fall pilots will already have made appearances on the air -- some of them twice -- a jump-the-gun exercise that is part of the networks' vast and intricate plan to postpone for a few more minutes their own obsolescence.

See them squirm, the poor little polliwogs!

For the networks, most trends are down and most signs are distressing. In July, CBS scored the lowest ratings ever for a loser of the July Nielsen "sweeps." But that's not all there is to that. NBC scored the lowest ratings ever for a winner.

"NBC to Reduce Payments to Affiliates by 10% as Network's Ratings Decline," noted an August headline in the Wall Street Journal. When Nielsen early this year gave all the networks the bad news of a sudden drastic drop in TV viewing, compounding the erosion that had been going on for years, the networks hastily devised new formulas for selling ad time that don't depend solely on grim-reaper Nielsen numbers.

Yes, the networks are reworking, restructuring, regrouping. But are they rethinking? The new fall shows, taken en masse, hardly constitute a revolution. Sitcoms are by far the dominant form again, more so even than last year, and most have a lulling sameness relieved only by smatterings of naughty words. Drama's down, fluff's up.

Brandon Tartikoff, chairman of NBC's entertainment division, ballyhooing the new season, declared majestically that in network television, "the tried and true is dead and buried." Oh really? The new shows suggest somebody went to the graveyard and dug it up.

Maybe it's the Season of the Living Dead and Buried.

In its fall season forecast, the Saatchi & Saatchi ad agency thought it detected "a bolder, more aggressive approach" by the networks. But the agency also came to the sobering conclusion that among the 31 new shows, "none ... can be rated as a potential hit."

Young & Rubicam, a bit more bluntly, finds "no runaway hits among the mostly standard program concepts premiering" and predicts no new show will hit the 30-share mark that signifies a smash. It used to be a 40-share mark (a share is a percentage of sets in use at the time the rating is taken), but expectations have been adjusted.

"The Cosby Show" routinely got shares of 40 or above in its heyday. Networks need a new "Cosby" even more urgently than the nation needs a new energy source.

Ad man Paul Schulman, whose New York firm directs advertisers to the best buys in commercial time, says one show may hit a 30 share "eventually, by January or February of 1991": NBC's "Fresh Prince of Bel Air." Otherwise, Schulman concurs that a megaton blockbuster seems beyond the networks' reach.

Schulman does see some new shows getting "respectable numbers" in the weeks ahead, among them "Evening Shade," the CBS comedy starring Burt Reynolds; "Law & Order," a crime & punishment drama on NBC; and "Gabriel's Fire," the sturdy James Earl Jones vehicle on ABC.

"Good Grief," a Fox farce starring Howie Mandel as a madcap mortician, could do well, Schulman thinks, and he's also partial to "The Trials of Rosie O'Neill," starring Sharon Gless on CBS; "The Fanelli Boys," a rogue sitcom on NBC; and "WIOU," Grant Tinker's drama about a run-down TV station, on CBS.

Top candidate for first show to be canceled: the windy CBS ecology adventure "E.A.R.T.H. Force."

We have, of course, 3 1/2 networks now, and in one of the season's daring (or foolish) moves, fledgling Fox is expanding programming from three nights a week to five (Thursday through Monday) and adding nine new shows. With reckless generosity, the Federal Communications Commission earlier this year awarded Fox a one-year waiver that essentially gives it the benefits of networking but not the restrictions; unlike ABC, CBS and NBC, Fox is not enjoined from syndicating, and profiting from, its own programs.

The other networks didn't scream too much when this happened, because they'd like the rules relaxed for them too. And the likelihood is they will be, perhaps next year.

If this year's programming is not going to be particularly fascinating, watching the networks wriggle and haggle might be. Statistical wizard David F. Poltrack, a CBS Inc. vice president, points out that the networks' problems with audience erosion can be traced to forces beyond their control -- and not just to the fact that network executives are dopes.

"In 1980, the average viewer had five choices on the dial," Poltrack says. "Today, the average is more than 30. We have 50 national television alternatives out there, thanks to cable. The networks are three brand names in a category that went from five or six brands to 50 or more, and they've still managed to retain about 62 percent of the audience."

It's not the 90 percent they had in 1980, of course, but it's something. "The assumption that some super manager at one of the networks would still have the three-network share at 90 percent just isn't realistic," Poltrack says. "It's inevitable that we're going to be losing market share."

The task now isn't so much winning as it is slowing down the losses.

It wouldn't be fair, either, to try to assess the TV year ahead just on the basis of the next few weeks. Even the networks themselves now pooh-pooh the "new fall season" mind-set, because shows are introduced all year long. When the last fall season began, "Twin Peaks" was still in the distance, "America's Funniest Home Videos" was but a gleam in a producer's eye, and "The Simpsons" had only been peeped in sketches on "The Tracey Ullman Show."

All these shows were midseason entries, and the way TV has changed, "midseason" can now arrive in October. Fickler and fickler viewers mean quicker and quicker cancellations and new arrivals.

These, then, are our networks -- struggling to swim against the tide, bailing water at every turn, sending frail new frigates into a sea of troubles and hoping to keep as many of them afloat as possible.

Once more onto the beach, dear friends -- once more!

Note: Shows without premiere dates have already made their debuts, not necessarily in their regular time slots.

New ABC Series

"Married People." Take a Harlem brownstone (please), add three married couples of different generations and two races, and what have you got? A good reason to leave the TV off, as it happens. This belabored and implausible sitcom wastes the talents of, among others, winsome perkette Bess Armstrong, and never gets as good as its title tune, "I Think About You," sung by Patti LaBelle. (Wednesday, 9:30 p.m., premiering Sept. 19.)

"Cop Rock," ambitious and challenging, is the boldest departure of the season, and many industry observers think it will boldly depart after only a few weeks. In Steven Bochco's grim urban netherworld, cops and robbers stop in their tracks about four times per show for original musical numbers -- on the premiere, a rap song, a love ballad, a gospel rouser and a lullaby, all written by Randy Newman. Other composers will contribute; the cast includes Ronny Cox as the chief of police, and Bochco's wife, Barbara Bosson, miscast (again!) as the mayor. (Wednesday, 10 p.m., Sept. 26; the premiere repeats at 10 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 29.)

"Gabriel's Fire" brings James Earl Jones back to series television as Gabriel Bird, disgruntled ex-con turned reluctant investigator for yet another of TV's many high-powered lawyers (aren't there any low-powered lawyers out there?). Some sponsors committed their dollars to this strong, rewarding show after screening only one scene from the premiere: Jones ebulliently tasting freedom in the form of a street-corner hot dog. Not many actors can get bravos buying a weenie. (Thursday, 9 p.m.)

"Going Places" gives the vox-pop producing team of Thomas L. Miller and Robert L. Boyett a four-show sitcom block on ABC, but this chip may fall off the old block soon. A kind of "Four's Company" about two gabby guys and two glib gals sharing a house and working on a candid-camera TV show, "Going Places" mainly just sits there, though it is visually blessed by the presence of Heather Locklear as a member of the group. To paraphrase Groucho, if her dress were any tighter, it would be behind her. (Friday, 9:30 p.m., Sept. 21.)

New CBS Series "Uncle Buck." Derived from the John Candy movie of the same name, this knockabout sitcom stars satisfactory Candy substitute Kevin Meaney as the lovable slobbola who agrees to care for his dead brother's three sassy kids. Audrey Meadows guest-stars as their suspicious, watchful granny. When the teenage girl in the house asks him, "Has anyone ever mentioned that you're incredibly crude?" Buck smilingly replies, "Almost everyone." (Monday, 8 p.m.)

"The Trials of Rosie O'Neill," like "Uncle Buck," stretches the language barrier in prime time, especially in the premiere, when the heroine, a corporate lawyer (medium-powered) turned public defender, tells her psychiatrist, "I'm thinking about maybe having my {breasts} done." It's either downhill or uphill from there, depending on one's point of view, but nobody can say Sharon Gless doesn't do a tip-top job in the lead role. She's Rosie the riveting, eminently watchable. (Monday, 10 p.m., Sept. 17.)

"Lenny" is CBS's answer to "Roseanne," but is "Roseanne" a question? Comic Lenny Clarke plays salt-of-the-earthy Lenny Callahan, a Boston bruiser struggling to eke out a life with his wife, two kids and one baby, plus cranky parents and a sleazoid brother. Loudly do they yell; little do they say. (Wednesday, 8 p.m.)

"WIOU" is set at WNDY -- logically enough -- but this run-down TV station has much in common with the hospital of "St. Elsewhere" or the cabbies' garage of "Taxi"; it's a purgatorial twilight zone where the bad and the beautiful hoi and polloi. Will the station pull its news ratings out of the gutter? Will the anchorman remove his his hand from the female correspondent's thigh? The questions get scintillating answers, sometimes funny, sometimes sad, in this smart and satirical ensemble drama. (Wednesday, 10 p.m., Oct. 24.)

"The Flash." Forensics scientist Barry Allen (John Wesley Shipp) is puttering around the lab one day when -- blooey! The next thing he knows, he's a superspeedy powerhouse in skintight tights who can eat multiple pizzas at a single sitting. Wait -- can't everybody do that? Well, all right, he can even eat multiple pizzas while running! Domino's has to chase this guy for blocks! Alas, only 12 minutes' worth of this kitschy sci-fi fantasy was available for preview, but it had a certain something. (Thursday, 8 p.m.; two-hour premiere Sept. 20.)

"Sons and Daughters." Egregious. Lucie Arnaz stars, but gets lost in, this criminally overpopulated sensitivity greeting card about the heavy-hearted Hammersmiths, a very big, very extended family whining and dining in the Pacific Northwest. Lots of chic cliches tossed into a blender and pureed. (Thursday, 9 p.m., Oct. 25.)

"Evening Shade" assembles the starriest cast of the year: Burt Reynolds, Marilu Henner, Ossie Davis, Charles Durning, Hal Holbrook, Elizabeth Ashley, plus several potent discoveries, for another look at modern small-town Southern life -- Arkansas this time -- from "Designing Women" producers Linda Bloodworth-Thomason and Harry Thomason. Burt's a 48-year-old ex-pro football player now coaching a high school team; he has a young wife (Henner), three kids and a baby on the way, and all heck keeps breaking loose. "Evening Shade" is sweet and warm, a June breeze to see one through the winter. (Friday, 8 p.m., Sept. 21.)

"Over My Dead Body," the most aptly titled show of the year, brings back Edward "The Equalizer" Woodward but casts him as a prissy, fussy wimp, an obit writer nurturing a furtive fantasy life as a crime solver. It's "Murder, He Thought," but witless and irritating, with Jessica Lundy as Woodward's obnoxious accomplice. (Friday, 9 p.m., Oct. 26.)

"E.A.R.T.H. Force." A dying billionaire assembles an elite corps of adventurous scientists when his nuclear reactor goes on the fritz. After they patch that one up and retrieve some swiped plutonium, they decide to stay together as a kind of E-Team -- ecological do-gooders correcting crimes against nature. Unfortunately, this show seems like one of them -- bodacious ka-ka. (Saturday, 9 p.m., after a two-hour premiere tonight at 9.)

New NBC Series "Hull High" combines "Grease" with, well, "Grease II." But also with "Fame." It's life at a rock-and-roll high school, one where production numbers break out instead of fights. Or in addition to. The songs and dances are fine, but the kids and teachers are haplessly humdrum. Directed by Kenny "Flashdance" Ortega. (Sunday, 7 p.m.)

"Lifestories" is a medical anthology show not about courageous doctors or nurses, but about courageous patients. High-minded and earnest, the show's weekly accounts of the ill and their illnesses are marred by excessive narration and a stilted self-consciousness. But heaven knows it means well. (Sunday, 8 p.m.)

"Fresh Prince of Bel Air." Fresh is right. Will Smith, the gifted rapper who stars in this slight but bubbly new sitcom, is camera-ready and fun to watch, whether tweaking blue bloods (he plays a West Philly street kid sent to live with rich relatives in L.A.) or tinkling the ivories or, for that matter, tinkling the drinking glasses at the dinner table. Clearly deserving of a better-made vehicle, Smith nevertheless makes this paper airplane fly. (Monday, 8 p.m.)

"Ferris Bueller." A weak TV copy of not that strong a feature film, "Ferris Bueller's Day Off," this feebly faxed clone has a grating leading man in Charlie Schlatter (too, too toothy -- goodbye!) in an unpleasant role: the smugly manipulative high school Bilko who knows how to beat the system, and does. He's a Pyrrhic victor. (Monday, 8:30 p.m.)

"Law & Order" is two, two, two shows in one: a crime-solving show, in which the cops track down the culprit, and a courtroom show, in which the district attorney's office tries to wreak justice. The plots are topical (a subway vigilante, a debutante's call-girl ring) and the drama docu. Unfortunately, the one-hour length cramps things, but this is still stern, serious and substantial. (Tuesday, 10 p.m.)

"The Fanelli Boys" are four men who -- like the comrades of "Diner" or the layabouts of Fellini's "I Vitelloni" -- haven't quite grown up. So what do they do? Hey, they move back in with Mama! And the sitcom laughs ensue, not quite so mechanically (or heartlessly) as on other shows. Richard Libertini is up to his usual scene-stealing, this time as the family priest. And they need one. (Wednesday, 9 p.m.)

"Parenthood" worked as a movie largely because of Steve Martin, playing a yuppie father at very loose ends. With Ed Begley Jr. inheriting the role for the TV series, the energy level plummets, and now the whole enterprise -- intended to be a gently comic look at the rigors of raising kids -- seems kind of wan and droopy. As with too many shows this year, there's a crucial absence of Someone to Root For. (Saturday, 8 p.m.)

"Working It Out." Jane Curtin single-handedly elevates this plain-spoken saga of a '90s courtship: two formerly marrieds who fight their mutual attraction for fear of repeating old mistakes. The man who gloms on to her in cooking class, as played by Stephen Collins, is a dull vanilla wafer, but Curtin crackles. (Saturday, 8:30 p.m.)

"American Dreamer" is, like "Working It Out," half well cast. Carol Kane is a cuckoo delight as a young divorcee and one-woman Age of Anxiety who signs on as assistant to a former TV journalist now living in Wisconsin and editing a local newspaper. He's played, unbelievably and uninterestingly, by one-time tough guy Robert Urich, and the show is also encumbered with artsy soliloquies and flashbacks that interrupt the action. In one, Urich looks into the camera and somberly declares, "I am filled with the wonder of life." Maybe so, but it's not filled with the wonder of him. (Saturday, 10:30 p.m., Sept. 22.)

New Fox Series "True Colors." An interracial marriage brings two large families together in one noisy Baltimore town house. The situation is provocative, but real issues are avoided, and the comedy quality ranges from standard to sub-.(Sunday, 7 p.m.)

"Parker Lewis Can't Lose." Another high school show, and another adolescent wiseacre, and another waste of time. Parker Bueller -- er, Ferris Lewis, whatever his name is -- cruises the halls in search of cool, while a cartoonish principal (Melanie Chartoff) shrieks, "Find me someone to expel!" How about the Fox executive who okayed this show? (Sunday, 7:30 p.m.)

"Get a Life." Chris Elliott, having fled the lair of national worrywart David Letterman, is on his own in this, the looniest new sitcom of the season, the story of a 30-year-old paper boy living above his parents' garage somewhere in outer Minnesota. The parents are played by real-life dad Bob Elliott and Elinor Donahue, once Betty on "Father Knows Best." What does a 30-year-old paper boy do? On the pilot, he tries to drag a married friend into his life of pitiful sloth. "Gladys, were you smoking heavily when you were pregnant with Chris?" asks Dad at the breakfast table. Truly and distinctively funny -- the "Twin Peaks" of sitcoms. (Sunday, 8:30 p.m., Sept. 23.)

"Good Grief" stars maximum-overdrive comic Howie Mandel in a dark comedy about a freaky funeral director. Unavailable for preview. (Sunday, 9:30 p.m., Sept. 30.)

"Against the Law" sounds like an imitation of NBC's excellent "Shannon's Deal," still in production and due back as a midseason replacement. Fox's show stars Michael O'Keefe as a "street-smart, unconventional Boston attorney" who breaks out of his upholstered law firm to fight for justice right out there on the streets! Gee, it sounds a little like CBS's "The Trials of Rosie O'Neill" too. (Sunday, 10 p.m., but a 90-minute premiere airs at 9:30, Sept. 23.)

"Babes." Three fat sisters slug it out with size-bigots and naysayers in a hostile, thin-minded world. Wendie Jo Sperber leads a very large cast (get it?) in a very broad comedy (get it?) that's enormously funny (oh -- you got it). Some of the laughs are crude and some are cheap, but then, that happens all the time in real life, so why not in a sitcom? (Thursday, 8:30 p.m.)

"Beverly Hills 90210." Like we need another show set in Beverly Hills or any other wealthy suburb of Los Angeles. This one, not made available for preview, is about twin teens who move to the Big Orange from the Midwest. (Thursday, 9 p.m., but the special 90-minute premiere airs at 8:30, Oct. 4.)

"D.E.A." stands, of course, for Drug Enforcement Administration, and this documentary-style, "reality-inspired" drama attempts to glorify the agency's global dope busting, concentrating on yet another Elite Team -- this one called the Group 9 unit -- and its exploits. (Friday, 9 p.m.)

"American Chronicles" is a pretentious travelogue from co-producers David Lynch and Mark Frost, the "Twin Peaks" tykes who, to judge from the first episode of this series, may indeed have peaked. But future installments, such few as there may be, are said to be improvements over the dank opener, a claustrophobic visit to New Orleans at Mardi Gras time. (Saturday, 9:30 p.m.)

Movies and Miniseries Although long-form programming has supposedly fallen from favor, ABC plans three miniseries for this season, surely the most promising being "Separate but Equal," the story of Thurgood Marshall's role in challenging school segregation before the Supreme Court, on which he would later serve. Sidney Poitier and Burt Lancaster star.

CBS has announced only one miniseries -- "And the Sea Will Tell," about a murder in Hawaii -- but is expected to rerun the modern classic "Lonesome Dove" in January.

NBC, bucking a trend, says it will show seven miniseries, including adaptations of Jackie Collins and Danielle Steel novels, plus "The Great Los Angeles Earthquake," a cautionary saga about the approach of The Big One.

ABC's original movies include "Call Me Anna," with Patty Duke playing herself in the TV version of her autobiography; "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," with Kathleen Turner in the sexy role that won her oohs and ahhs on Broadway; Jason Robards as Abe Lincoln in "The Perfect Tribute"; and, of all the lame ideas, a remake of "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?" starring sisters Lynn and Vanessa Redgrave.

CBS films include "The Charles Stuart Story," with "thirtysomething's" Ken Olin as the Boston man who shot and killed his wife but blamed the crime on "a black man," sending Boston cops off on a manhunt that civic leaders derided as racist; "Lucy and Desi: Before the Laughter," an account of the early careers and romance of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz; and the patently irresistible "Leona Helmsley: The Queen of Mean," with Suzanne Pleshette playing the hotel honcho everyone loves to hate.

On NBC, movies include the intriguingly titled "Honey, Let's Kill the Neighbors," starring the audacious Teri Garr; "The Dreamer of Oz: The L. Frank Baum Story," with John Ritter as the American author who wrote books the whole world really does love (they made a movie of one of them, didn't they?); and "Promises to Keep," with darling Dana Delany as a woman who finds herself with four orphaned boys to care for.

Public Television The PBS season begins on a magnificent and triumphant note with "The Civil War," an 11-hour documentary epic produced by filmmaker Ken Burns and offering the most exhaustive and authoritative view of the War Between the States ever seen on television. It airs over five nights, Sept. 23-27.

That will be followed by PBS's "Showcase Week," Sept. 30-Oct. 6, highlighting primo attractions -- among them, a new "Masterpiece Theatre" serial, "The Heat of the Day," starring Patricia Hodge.

In addition, Spike Lee and Debbie Allen will team for a "Great Performances" special Friday, Oct. 5, called "Spike & Co.: Do It A Cappella." PBS describes it as "a tour of some of the seediest spots in Brooklyn in search of some of the brightest stars in a cappella music."

Cable Cable's season can pretty much be summed up in one word: reruns, reruns, reruns. If we must have reruns, then the older the better -- and with that in mind, the new HA! comedy network owned by MTV has made a deal with comic Steve Allen to rebroadcast half-hour highlights from the riotous shows he did in the '50s, starting Monday, Oct. 1.

Hi-ho, Steverino!

The Comedy Channel, owned by HBO, has meanwhile acquired 130 half-hours made by the legendary Ernie Kovacs, and will begin offering them to subscribers in late November.

What's the next best thing to a really old rerun? Nickelodeon thinks it may have the answer in "The Sam Arnold Show," a brand new variety hour recently shot at Universal studios in Orlando, Fla., but designed to look like a show from the earliest days of live TV. It gets a trial run in November.

Original movies from HBO include one tantalizing title: "The Josephine Baker Story," with Lynn Whitfield as the pioneering and eccentric entertainer. (Unfortunately for HBO, Martin Starger is producing another Baker bio, to star Diana Ross.)

And hey, who says those tacky, shlocky basic cable networks can't come up with innovative concepts? In October, the USA Network will unleash "Dog House," a sitcom about "a family who discovers that their St. Bernard can talk." A network executive says it's part of USA's "continuing commitment to original programming."

Cable TV is Real TV's evil twin.