It's not so much a new network TV season as it is a cry for help. As the century ends and a new millennium awaits, the networks continue to shrivel in significance, drawing fewer viewers than ever and existing now as small cogs in giant corporate wheels.

Where once they made the ground tremble, they now tremble themselves, dinosaurs shivering as the ice age approaches.

Even though all the increased competition from other sources means the networks have to fight harder than ever for viewers, they don't seem any more willing than in the past to take provocative, intriguing risks and chances. All they do each year is ratchet up the dirty talk and sexual references permitted in prime-time programming, and that's part of what the new season has in store.

Sex, sex, sex, sex, sex, sex, sex.

Not everyone looks askance at that. Rolling Stone jubilantly headlines its preview of the new TV season "Hot and Horny!" Many of the shows, of course, are about and aimed at the high-school-age group which currently has a hammerlock on American pop culture and apparently thinks about sex 95 percent of the time. Much TV is directed at them because they go to malls in hordes and buy things in wretched excess.

There are lots of lawyers in the new shows as well as lots of angsty teens. "Horndog" has become a common term. The most conspicuous gimmick so far is to have characters in sitcoms and dramas speak directly to the camera. They do it, annoyingly, on ABC's "Once and Again," they do it on Fox's unreal "Get Real," they do it on NBC's blatantly doomed "Mike O'Malley Show." It's corny but it's also kind of plaintive, as if the actors are spokespeople for the television industry and saying to viewers, "Please, please continue watching. It might get better."

But odds are, it won't.

Industry analysts predict no new hits that are not time-slot sure things. A mainly mangy sitcom called "Stark Raving Mad" is projected to score the highest ratings of any new series but only because it airs between "Frasier" and "ER" on NBC Thursday nights, where your youngest child could finger paint and still draw an audience. Meanwhile, a Broadcasting & Cable magazine survey of ad agencies predicts that fewer than half the new shows (just 17 out of 38) will earn Nielsen "shares" of 10 or better (a 20 share is a hit), whereas two years ago, 29 of 38 new shows scored above the 10-share borderline.

The new season starts officially tomorrow, and by the time it ends next spring, analysts predict the "Big Four" networks will have suffered further audience erosion, continuing a seemingly unstoppable trend. One of the "Tiny Two" networks, UPN, may not even exist, a victim of very low ratings, very bad shows and the recent merger between CBS and Viacom.

Hoping to lure young viewers, UPN has resorted to a prime-time wrestling hour, "WWF Smackdown!," which already premiered. Thus does network TV come full circle; wrestling aired in prime time in the '50s when the medium was new and didn't have enough programming to fill all its nightly slots. All these years, all this time, all the improvements in TV technology, and this is where we end up--back in the caves watching Ogg and Ugg beat each other's brains out. Only now they're wearing colorful tights.

Television is morphing into something other than the medium of fun, frolic and information that dominated the second half of the century. It's in a transitional phase, a time of technological uncertainty and great apprehensiveness, a time when Internet surfing is slowly replacing TV viewing as the national pastime. But you know what they say: The shows must go on.

Indeed they will. And here they are now:

New on ABC

"Once and Again" is the latest sensitivity training session in drama drag from producers Ed Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz, who gave television "thirtysomething" (the word caught on more than the show did) and "My So-Called Life." In a continuing saga bound to be dubbed "fortysomething," we follow two survivors of bad marriages--the grand Sela Ward and the bland Billy Campbell--who fall hesitantly in love. Unfortunately, their story is regularly interrupted by black-and-white soliloquies in which they jabber their Innermost Thoughts--e.g., "So here I am. But I don't know where 'here' is." That may be innermost, but it barely qualifies as a thought. (Tuesdays, 10 p.m., premiering Sept. 21)

"Oh Grow Up" traffics in guy stuff and gay stuff and stubbornly refuses to amuse. Three lifelong male friends share a place in Brooklyn, one of them having discovered his homosexuality after getting married. All three men are insufferable in different ways, so that a viewer is likely to concur with the gay man's ex-wife when she says, "I need to be in a room where none of you are." (Wednesdays, 9:30 p.m., Sept. 22)

"Wasteland" certainly proves itself aptly titled. Kevin Williamson, the overpraised Wunderkind behind the "Scream" movies and the WB's "Dawson's Creek," created this dreary, bleary drama about six upwardly mobile young adults just out of college but dying to talk about college endlessly. They live and work and sometimes interact (but mostly overact) in Manhattan, and it's darn hard to give a rat's hat about any of 'em. (Thursdays, 9 p.m., Oct. 7)

"Odd Man Out" introduces its high-school-freshman hero in a towel as he waits outside a bathroom occupied by one of the five women, including his mom and sister, with whom he shares living quarters. Then it's on to the next task, losing his virginity to an "older" (by a year or two) woman who does not live in the house. Erik von Detten as the boy may become a star in Tiger Beat magazine, but the show does him no favors, nor viewers, either. (Fridays, 9:30 p.m., Sept. 24)

"Snoops" aims to prove that David E. Kelley is not pooped. The almost supernaturally prolific writer-producer, who just copped Emmys for his drama "The Practice" and his comedy "Ally McBeal," tries to stuff his coffers even fuller with a quirky action-comedy about a wacky pair of detectives, two women--one played by the gorgeous Gina Gershon--and a male techno-whiz played by Danny Nucci, the nice Italian lad who played Leonardo di Caprio's ill-fated friend in, and on the, "Titanic." Only a snippet was available for preview--but it looked cute. (Sundays, 9 p.m., Sept. 26)

New on CBS

"Ladies Man" proves CBS capable of even worse domestic comedies than "King of Queens," which precedes it. The very frightening Alfred Molina plays the title role, a noisy schlemiel who, like the young hero of ABC's "Odd Man Out," lives in a house surrounded by women. One of them is wife Sharon Lawrence, formerly of "NYPD Blue," who gives birth in the first episode. Another is Betty White, playing a sassy granny but not looking happy to be there. When even Betty White can't breathe life into a show, it's definitely deadly. (Mondays, 8:30 p.m. as of tomorrow night)

"Family Law" has its virtues, chief among them Kathleen Quinlan as a lawyer whose husband abruptly leaves her--taking half their law firm with him--in the opening scene. Holt & Holt becomes just Holt. And then Holt & Associates. Quinlan is admirable and believable as a woman who won't let setbacks set her back; she's easy to root for. The able supporting cast includes Dixie Carter, who will also be seen in the recurring role of the other sassy granny on "Ladies' Man." (Mondays, 10 p.m., as of tomorrow night)

"Judging Amy" plays like a reject from the Lifetime cable network. Amy Brenneman--and her amazing assortment of overdone hairdos--stars as a New York lawyer who returns to her small hometown (not unlike the heroine of NBC's "Providence") and takes a job as a judge. The soundtrack is wall-to-wall oldies, more tunes than in a Nora Ephron movie, and it's meant to disguise the fact that the drama is intolerably empty and false. ("Sneak preview" tonight at 8; regular time slot Tuesdays at 10 as of Sept. 21)

"Work With Me" offers, good grief, more lawyers, in a sitcom about as pleasurable as salmonella poisoning. Abrasive Kevin Pollak and hapless Nancy Travis are the attorneys; he joins her firm when he fails to be promoted at his own. High jinks do not ensue; not even much suing ensues. Just lame sex jokes, as when the wife barks at a pawing client: "If you touch me again, I'll cut your privates off and mount them on the wall like a moose head." Ugh. (Wednesdays, 8:30 p.m., premiering Sept. 29)

"Love & Money" is an old-fashioned situation comedy that benefits terrifically from a terrific cast: Swoosie Kurtz as a rich Manhattan snob and David Ogden Stiers as her pompous spouse. Their pampered lives hit a snag when their daughter decides, on her wedding day, that she'd rather marry a janitor than her intended blue-blooded boyfriend. Brian Doyle-Murray is crustily funny as the janitor's dad. (Fridays, 8:30 p.m., Oct. 8)

"Now and Again," not to be confused with ABC's "Once and Again," could be the most unorthodox and captivating drama since the early, eerie days of "Twin Peaks." Glenn Gordon Caron ("Moonlighting") created this imaginative hybrid that owes a little something to the classic sci-fi movie "Seconds," in that a man pronounced dead gets a chance to live again in a synthetically produced young body (in this case, John Goodman turns into Eric Close). Meanwhile, though, there's this mysterious Asian fellow carrying a grocery bag from Hong Kong to Paris. The pilot, at least, is a fascinating shocker. (Fridays, 9 p.m., Sept. 24)

New on NBC

"Law & Order: Special Victims Unit," a spinoff from the long-running and well-done "Law & Order" series, was originally to be titled "Sex Crimes" until NBC executives persuaded producer Dick Wolf to play it sane. This series will deal with cops and not with lawyers and judges, although some members of the "Law & Order" cast may drop by. Also transplanted from another show: Richard Belzer, who continues in the role of Detective Munch that he originated on "Homicide: Life on the Street." (Mondays, 9 p.m. starting tomorrow night)

"The Mike O'Malley Show" looks like a prime contender for first new series to be canceled. Sad sack O'Malley plays a sports-loving loser whose first words in the pilot are the ominous "Aw, crap." He speaks into the camera from his roof when he isn't bumbling through anemic misadventures indoors. "O'Malley" also gets the prize for Tackiest Sitcom Apartment on TV, at least among the new batch. (Tuesdays, 9:30 p.m., Sept. 21)

"The West Wing," NBC's most mercilessly promoted new show, is set amid the hubbub, hoopla and hysteria of the White House staff, with Rob Lowe as the deputy communications director who, in the pilot, accidentally trades pagers with a hooker he spent the night with. Martin Sheen is the diminutive but authoritative president. It's all very eventful and earnest but oddly underwhelming. (Wednesdays, 9 p.m., Sept. 22)

"Stark Raving Mad" is an ugly little item on many levels. Tony Shalhoub, miscast as an eccentric author of horror books, plays pesky but liberating nemesis to Neil Patrick Harris as the nerdy hypochondriac assigned by the publisher to keep the author authoring. Strained pranks and smutty jokes reach their epitome in the show's big inspiration: having a dog fall in love with Harris's leg. Producer Steven Levitan also created "Just Shoot Me"; he should just shoot this show, and not with a camera, either. (Thursdays, 9:30 p.m., Sept. 23)

"Cold Feet" presents an unattractive group of people doing and saying unpleasant things--pretty much the recipe for several of the new fall shows. In this case, the people are three couples staggering around Portland and struggling with Relationship Issues. They're six characters in search of a show, and this isn't it. Dumb, dull and dirty, "Cold Feet" ranks as one of the season's rankest. (Friday, 10 p.m., Sept. 24)

"Freaks and Geeks" invites us to revisit high school, normally an invitation easily resisted but in this case worth accepting. The comedy-drama brings a fresh, sane, smart attitude to a very tired genre. Set at William McKinley High, somewhere in the Michigan of 1980, the show focuses on ordinary, slightly geeky kids struggling against the odds and the jocks to triumph or, at least, survive. Unexpectedly charming and consistently funny. (Saturdays, 8 p.m., Sept. 25)

"Third Watch" does for paramedics what "ER" does for emergency room workers, and is from the same producer. In the premiere, it's one harrowing heart-stopper after another for the big-city corps of cops and rescuers who respond to emergency situations. In homage to the old show "Emergency!," which dealt in a much milder manner with the same manic milieu, series creator John Wells named the house dalmatian "Mantooth." (Randolph Mantooth was "Emergency's" star.) This is riveting and explosive entertainment. (Sundays, 8 p.m. as of Sept. 26 following a "sneak preview" Thursday, Sept. 23 at 10)

New on Fox

"Time of Your Life," spun off from the on-its-last-legs "Party of Five," stars Jennifer Love Hewitt in her old role of Sarah, but now on her own in the big city (New York). (Mondays, 8 p.m., premiering Oct. 25)

"Ally" represents a Fox recycling brainstorm: Old episodes of "Ally McBeal" are cut down from an hour to a half-hour (actually from 44 minutes to 22 without commercials), and what was a comedy/drama becomes just a comedy. Or maybe just a drama. Or maybe just a "/". Whatever, it seems a crummy way to exploit a hit and further feather creator David E. Kelley's nest. (Tuesdays, Sept. 28)

"Get Real" should do us all a favor and get canceled. A painfully crude and coarse dysfunctional-

family comedy, the series seems a lowering of taste standards even for Fox, which can't have been easy. (Wednesdays, 9 p.m., premiered Sept. 8)

"Manchester Prep," another trotting-by of troubled teens, has no official air date yet but is expected to premiere in December. Not available for preview.

"Action" is the season's naughtiest, bawdiest and probably funniest new show. Though one can deplore in theory the spread of once-verboten words and topics in prime time, the rawness of "Action" is part of its mad charm and integral to the setting: the motion picture industry, show business, circa Right Now. Jay Mohr makes an ingratiating heel as monster-mogul Peter Dragon, and Illeana Douglas slays Dragon and likely most viewers as a child star turned prostitute turned studio executive. The cutting-edge comedy of the year, but some may find that edge too cutting to touch. (Thursdays, 9:30 p.m., premiered last week)

"The Badland," a reputedly gritty new big-city crime drama, was not available for preview. (Fridays, 8 p.m., Oct. 15)

"Harsh Realm" gives overextended "X-Files" producer Chris Carter another chance to do-do that voodoo that few do so well. It all has something to do with a video game that goes from virtual reality to real reality and the hero who must contend with it. (Fridays, 9 p.m., Oct. 8)

"Malcolm in the Middle" is another of those hero-talks-

to-the-camera shows, but this one justifies the gambit. A kind of live-action version of a Nickelodeon cartoon, "Malcolm" views the world from the vantage point of its young central character, whose first words to viewers are, "You know what the best thing about childhood is? At some point, it stops." Well, not for everybody. Malcolm's world is populated by his wacky earthy mother, who answers the front door topless; his harrowingly hirsute father, whose back must be shaved weekly by mom; and a young friend in a wheelchair who gasps out his words. If it sounds off-putting, it isn't, but unfortunately Fox will put it off until after the football season. Thus--unless circumstances change radically--no "Malcolm" until next millennium. (Sundays, 7 p.m., premiere date to be announced)

New on WB and UPN

The Warner Bros.-owned, part-time WB network courts youthful viewers almost exclusively, but sometimes with shows so smart even an adult can love them.

"Safe Harbor," a wholesome, like-minded companion piece to "7th Heaven, " brings us a lovable dad raising lovable kids in a lovable city by the sea. (Mondays, 9 p.m., premiering tomorrow night)

"Angel," a sexy and sneakily funny spinoff from the popular "Buffy, the Vampire Slayer," stars ex-Buffian David Boreanaz as a vampire-gone-right who is sent to Los Angeles "to fight evil and atone for his crimes" by searching out and snuffing out vampires-

gone-wrong, or at least vampires who are doin' what comes naturally to vampires. (Tuesdays, 9 p.m., Oct. 5)

"Roswell," a dreary and pretentious snoozer about three children supposedly the offspring of aliens who crashed in New Mexico many moons ago, features the gloomiest space creatures ever. How can they be teenagers when they were born in the '40s? It's explained that they spent a few years in incubation pods. Then why on Earth didn't the WB do the sensible thing and call this "The Pod Squad"? Well, it's a bore whatever one calls it. (Wednesdays, 9 p.m., Oct. 6)

"Popular," an acerbic look at high school and its social classes, uses school as a microcosm of the real world. (Thursdays at 8 p.m. as of Sept. 30, after a sneak preview Wednesday, Sept. 29 at 9 p.m.)

"Mission Hill" marks the WB's first prime-time cartoon, although Warner Bros. is of course nothing if not experienced in the animation business, from Bugs Bunny in years gone by to today's "Animaniacs." The new "Mission Hill" will aim for adult viewers as well as kids. (Fridays at 8 p.m. as of Oct. 8 after a preview Tuesday, Sept. 21 at 9)

"Jack and Jill," not available for preview, is all about a kooky couple running rampant in nutty New York. (Sundays, 9 p.m, Sept. 26)

New shows on the struggling, Paramount-owned UPN network include sitcoms "The Parkers" and "Grown Ups" (Mondays at 8:30 and 9 p.m., premiered last month); a low-brow comedy called "Shasta McNasty" (Tuesdays at 8:30, as of Oct. 5, following a "sneak preview" Sept. 30 at 9:30); a Las Vegas crime series called "The Strip" (Tuesdays, 9 p.m., Oct. 12); the abominable "WWF Smackdown!" (Thursdays, 8 p.m., already premiered); and "Blockbuster Video's Shockwave Cinema," a series of cheapie horror flicks (Fridays, 8 p.m., Oct. 8).

Public Television

One of the most auspicious new PBS shows, "An American Love Story," the 10-hour cinema verite serial about an interracial New York family, already premiered. Other highlights of the PBS season ahead (air dates to be announced):

"New York: A Documentary Film," airing under the "American Experience" umbrella and telling the story of a great city from 1624 to the present, was produced by Ric Burns, brother of filmmaker Ken. The latter will be represented by a two-part feminist saga, "Not for Ourselves Alone: The Story of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony." Also on the documentary front: a profile of Pope John Paul II on "Frontline."

The 29th season of "Mobil Masterpiece Theater" begins in October with "A Rather English Marriage" starring two of the greatest living British actors, Albert Finney and Tom Courtenay. "Life Beyond Earth" will examine just what the title indicates in a two-hour special hosted by scientist Timothy Ferris. Another scholar, Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., is the guide for "Wonders of the African World" in which, according to PBS, Gates "challenges the widespread Western view of Africa as the primitive 'dark continent.' "

An epochal moment in the history of "creative differences" will be chronicled on the "American Masters" special "Hitchcock, Selznick & the End of Hollywood," a 90-minute documentary about the clashes between director Alfred Hitchcock and producer David O. Selznick before and during the filming of the Gothic romance "Rebecca." It airs in November.

PBS has its Y2K change-over plans all made, at least when it comes to the on-air celebration. "Millennium Day Broadcast," a global spectacular, will start on Friday, Dec. 31, 1999 and continue, for 24 hours, through Saturday, Jan. 1, 2000.

This, of course, is assuming that we and our planet last that long. As Judy Garland said in "The Wizard of Oz": "O, but we must! We've come so far already!"