Laurence A. Tisch, the president and chief executive officer of CBS, Inc., was asked recently about his network's chances of unseating NBC, the reigning TV ratings champion.

"We'll creep up this year," he said. "I'd love to overtake them the following year ... We're in better shape than the other networks. We're independent, rich and can move much faster than anyone else."

Last season, CBS was rich, fast, independent and in second place. This fall the network has a programming strategy built around a core of unusual -- possibly ground-breaking -- series.

"Our focus is at 8 o'clock," said David Poltrack, the CBS Broadcast Group's vice president for research. "We're going after the adult audience as never before. We want to establish a beachhead with the male -- and especially young male -- audience. Eight o'clock is where that opportunity exists."

The shows CBS has scheduled in the high-priority 8 p.m. slots this fall include three high-risk programs: "Tour of Duty," network television's first series centered on the Vietnam War; "Beauty and the Beast," a contemporary fantasy that will test the bounds of plausibility, and "Frank's Place," a show built around a black ensemble of realistic characters.

In finishing second last season, CBS programs fared poorly on Tuesday and Saturday, improved somewhat on Wednesday, placed second on Monday, and first on Friday. CBS simply owned Sunday, and Thursday belonged to NBC. As the networks begin rolling out their new shows and revised schedules this week, CBS will be trying to shore up the weak spots and maintain its grip on Friday and Sunday.

With Poltrack serving as tour guide, here is a walk through this fall's prime-time schedule with the CBS strategy in mind. The mini-grids display the new season schedule that will take effect in a few weeks after all new shows have been introduced.

The big news on Sunday is that "Family Ties" is moving out of its comfortable timeslot beind "The Cosby Show" to challenge CBS' "Murder, She Wrote."

"We were encouraged by what happened ... the first time they went head to head" in summer reruns, said Poltrack. "'Murder, She Wrote' had a 15.0 rating and a 26 share to 'Family Ties'' 12.7 and 22 share." "Murder" was No. 12 for the week, "Ties" No. 27. "That's a good sign for us that 'Murder, She Wrote' will hold up against 'Family Ties,'" he said. "The problem is for NBC -- a show that had a 30 share last year may be just an average show this year."

For "60 Minutes," he said, "there's no significant problem, and the competition -- 'Our House,' 'Disney' -- is the same."

The CBS Sunday Night Movie will compete against one movie, rather than two. "And it's our only movie night," said Poltrack, "so we can concentrate our powerhouse offerings."

ABC is relying on "Dolly," a variety show hosted by Dolly Parton, to help break CBS's hold on the evening. "There'll be a lot of curiosity about the show at the beginning," said Poltrack. "But in the long run, I question whether variety can work. It's a format that invites channel-switching."

In the old days, he said, the "Ed Sullivan Show" would hold a family -- "Dad would wait for the dancing girls, Mom would want to see Maria Callas and the kids were looking for the Beatles." But now there's the remote control and a roomful of twitchy fingers: "It's less likely a family will sit through the parts that aren't interesting."

Poltrack feels that two of the mainstays of variety programming -- music and comedy -- have been siphoned of by cable and pay television. "On cable you can see whole concerts and comics doing uncensored material," he said. "You're less likely to get a top comic like Eddie Murphy to go on 'Dolly' if the material has to be edited."

"Buck James," a series starring folksy Dennis Weaver as a Texas surgeon, picks up where "Dolly" left off with its rural appeal. Poltrack noted that if it fails to hold "Dolly's" audience, it could hurt "Dolly" itself: If people watch Dolly and don't like Dennis, they might abandon the tandom entirely for a 9 p.m. movie on CBS or NBC rather jump into the middle of a film after "Dolly."

And there's "My Two Dads," a sit-com in which two men are bequeathed custody of the daughter of a woman with whom both men were in love. "Its success totally depends on its lead-in," said Poltrack. "It will live off 'Family Ties.'"

On Monday, "Alf," a show many thought ludicrous when it debuted last season, has found a steady audience. "Valerie's Family," the reworked version of "Valerie" with Sandy Duncan replacing Valerie Harper, "is a big question mark."

"NBC will be a little stronger because of 'Alf,'" said Poltrack. "And ABC has a stronger lineup of football games. We'll bounce back in midseason" after football's over.

The only new show Monday night is "Everything's Relative," a sit-com featuring bachelor brothers who share an apartment. It is cradled between the popular "Kate & Allie" and "Newhart" and opposite the retooled "Valerie." "The normal expectation is for the show to place in the ratings between the two shows" before and after it, said Poltrack. "If 'Valerie' is weakened by Valerie Harper's absence, we may see a pickup in audience."

Tuesday is a good night for ABC and a tough one for CBS. "ABC will remain very strong, providing they get enough original episodes of 'Moonlighting' and enough Cybill Shepherd exposure," said Poltrack. The show's production schedule has regularly fallen short of a full season of shows, and Shepherd is pregnant.

So CBS will deploy its young-male strategy with a series of male-dominated shows, kicking off the evening with "Houston Knights," featuring two young crime busters, alongside NBC's "Matlock," which, Poltrack said, skews older in its audience profile. ABC's "Who's the Boss?" and "Growing Pains" are for the women and kids.

At 9, CBS offers "Jake and the Fatman," contending with NBC's new "J.J. Starbuck" for the audience not committed to "Moonlighting." "'Jake' and 'J.J.' are similar in design and appeal," said Poltrack, pitting veteran stars William Conrad and Dale Robertson against each other. The difference between the two shows is Jake. "The unique element is Joe Penny, the young male lead teamed with the fatman. The show should appeal to the young male audience that 'J.J.' does not have."

At 10 comes "The Law and Harry McGraw" starring Jerry Orbach as a private investigator. "We get older as the night goes on," quipped Poltrack. ABC offers "Thirtysomething," a yuppie-oriented show revolving around young marrieds and positioned to pick up the "Moonlighting" devotees. NBC slots "Crime Story" here, with its young, male, urban appeal, while CBS serves up "McGraw," a spinoff from "Murder, She Wrote." "We think we'll be more competitive with NBC," said Poltrack. Both figure to be behind ABC.

CBS has lived with the question this summer as to whether Edward Woodward, star of "The Equalizer," would be able to return to the series, and if so, when. The answer appears to be yes, but not for a while. Woodward, who's recovering from a heart attack, is expected back at work next month. Meantime, a two-part episode is planned in which The Equalizer is missing. And when Woodward does come back, look for the show to be a bit more cerebral and less action-packed as Woodward gets back up to speed.

All that's happening at 10 o'clock. At the front end of the evening, CBS offers a new show, "The Oldest Rookie," starring Paul Sorvino as a middle-aged policeman who decides he wants to give up his cushy job in public affairs and get back on the street. He's teamed with a more-experienced, but much younger cop, played by D. W. Moffett. ABC has a solid lineup of comedy in that hour -- "Perfect Strangers," "Head of the Class" -- and Poltrack expects "Rookie" to make some elbow room at the expense of "Highway to Heaven."

"It's a dying show," he said, without laughing. "We can take some of its audience with the warmth of Paul Sorvino, who scored well in audience tests."

At 9, ABC tests the theory that Steven Bochco, Terry Louise Fisher and John Ritter are a terrific combination (Bochco and Fisher conspired on "L.A. Law" and "Hill Street Blues" for NBC), and teams Dabney Coleman and Jay Tarses, the same duo that gave us "Buffalo Bill" a while back. The pilot of "Hooperman," which has Ritter in the comic-dramatic role of a policeman, is impressive. "But we don't know what the show will turn out to be" when Fisher and Bochco become mere consultants rather than executive producers of the show and refocus on "Law," said Poltrack. And Coleman in "The 'Slap' Maxwell Story" is "really high quality work but they haven't shown the ability to develop a show with wide appeal. 'Buffalo Bill' was unique but not broad in appeal."

And there's "A Year in the Life," which Poltrack dismisses. "It's too soft. It didn't do well the first time out as a miniseries or in reruns." The fall series picks up where the limited series left off, with Richard Kiley as the widowed head of a family.

"Slap" and "Life" will form the competition for "Magnum, P.I." which heads into its eighth and final season. "ABC will do well with its comedies and 'Year in the Life' will fade,'" said Poltrack. "Magnum," pulling out the stops when it comes to plot twists, "will do better than it did last year against 'Dynasty.' It's the show's final season, and a great deal will be made of that."

It is for Thursday night that Poltrack offers a prediction: NBC, which dominates the night in the Nielsens, will fall 20 percent in the ratings. "'Cosby' has begun to show some weakness," he said. "This summer the ratings have run below those of last summer. It's the first time the show hasn't shown growth in its audience. It's not dying, of course, but it has stopped growing."

And this season "Cosby" is followed by a "questionable program. 'Family Ties' held most of Cosby's audience. We don't think 'A Different World' {a "Cosby" spinoff starring "Cosby" daughter Lisa Bonet} will hold that audience because of its heavily female slant."

That's where "Tour of Duty" marches in. The only soft spot in the demographics of the "Cosby" audience was among young males, said Poltrack, and this year it's followed by, essentially, an all-girl show as Denise Huxtable goes to college. In CBS' view, that gives the male-oriented "Tour" a chance, especially if males tune in at 8:30 and decide they want to see the whole show the following week.

If that fall-off happens to NBC, then Poltrack feels CBS is in good field position with "Wiseguy," a Stephen ("A-Team") Cannell action production centering on deep-undercover operations and starring Ken Wahl. It's opposite "Cheers" and "Night Court" on NBC. "It's a good action-adventure show," said Poltrack. "It tested well and Wahl's popular with women as well as men. The question is, how will Shelley Long's absence affect 'Cheers'? 'Night Court' lives off the 'Cheers'' audience -- if 'Cheers'' audience is smaller, 'Night Court's' rating will be proportionally lower."

ABC checks in with its only movie night, getting promotional support, Poltrack noted, from ABC's strong shows on previous nights.

Those not wrapped up in the movie will choose between "Knots Landing" and "L.A. Law," two shows with strong female appeal, especially "Knots," Poltrack noted, with "Law" capturing older, college-educated upscale types, and "Knots" favored by less urban, younger high school grads.

"'L.A. Law' lost audience from its lead-in show last year," Poltrack said. "It may be hard for 'L.A. Law' if the lineup in front of it falls in the ratings."

From 9 p.m. on, CBS claims a lock on Friday night. "'Dallas' and 'Falcon Crest' have the older, 35-and-over, female audience, and there's no real competition for that audience," said Poltrack. "'Miami Vice' has the younger male audience, going into 'Private Eye,' set in the '50s, adding nostalgia appeal and possibly spreading the age range of its audience."

On ABC, there's "Max Headroom," a "trendy show, limited in its appeal. It showed no strength last year. It has a cult-type following of leading-edge types. Its audience will come from 'Miami Vice,' not 'Dallas,'" said Poltrack.

And then there's poor "20/20," shifted out of its comfortable Thursday timeslot. "It will be hurt significantly by the move," said Poltrack. "It's not compatible with 'Max.'"

The fun part of the evening is at 8, where all the shows are new to the timeslot and two are new to television. It is here that CBS checks in with "Beauty and the Beast." This show and "Tour of Duty" promise to be the trickiest programs for their creators to handle. "There's the creative challenge of continuing them over the course of the season," said Poltrack. "On 'Tour of Duty,' for example, you can't have firefights every night. There has to be character development as well. And 'Beauty and the Beast' has to be made plausible."

A tall order when the show -- with a perfectly straight-faced approach -- asks you to believe it's possible for a whole colony of social misfits, rejects and dissenters to reside under the streets of New York City. The beast, played by Ron Perlman, is Vincent, a fellow who has somehow come to resemble a cat and to possess near super-human powers; the beauty is Linda Hamilton, playing an above-ground attorney who is loved and helped by Vincent.

"Beauty" is up against "Rags to Riches" -- "Those shows don't sustain themselves well," said Poltrack -- and two new ABC comedies -- "They are unknowns right now. People may love them or hate them."

CBS has another high-risk program, "Frank's Place." Tim Reid stars as a middle class New Englander who inherits a down-home New Orleans restaurant. The risk here is that the show combines a number of elements rarely seen in a single show: It has a distinctly black ensemble cast (not characters who could be any color and happen to be black, but characters who are specifically black people); and there is humor combined with a serious attempt at character study. "It's my favorite show," said Poltrack, a student of the American South. "It's a character-study type of show, with humor. Hugh Wilson {who created "WKRP in Cincinnati"} is executive producer {with Reid}. The show won't always be as soft as the pilot. There will be humor that is not all that subtle." The format resembles "Cheers" and "Newhart" -- there's a core, ensemble cast, but other interesting folks can drop by.

"I like the feel and quality of the show," said Poltrack. "It has unique and interesting television characters." But he knows it may take a while for viewers to find and embrace the show the way he has. That's the beauty of the 8 o'clock Saturday timeslot.

"That's a place where we can afford to give a show time," he said. "We've had years of failure there."

It may also be a night when blacks are inclined to tune in -- "227" and "Amen" are on that night -- "but there's nothing for them to watch at 8 ... We'll get black viewers ... and those who may otherwise be inclined to use their VCRs on Saturday night."

At 8:30, CBS and NBC might trade the viewers not already involved in ABC's new "Once a Hero," an innovative story of comic-book heroes come to life. Poltrack expects much of the "Frank's Place" audience to go to "227," with part of the "Facts of Life" audience crossing over to "My Sister Sam."

With "Leg Work," the hope is to lure the young adult audience, and by the time "West 57th" comes on, he said, you hope the viewers who take magazine shows seriously have come home.

CBS may not make dramatic gains on what has become a dreary night. But "there's a chance," said Poltrack, "for some improvement in the demographics of the audience, if nothing else."