Television coverage of the first-ever around-the-world manned balloon flight, "Expedition Earth: Earthwinds Balloon Flight," begins Wednesday with a one-hour preview of the flight.

ESPN, a co-sponsor of the flight with Virgin Atlantic Airways, plans to cover the launch from Akron, Ohio; keep viewers posted with nightly reports during the flight, and add another one-hour special within two weeks of the flight's conclusion. The date and time for the launch are flexible, depending on weather conditions. The launch window stretches from this month to late February.

The balloon will be manned by record-breaking balloonists Larry Newman of the United States, Richard Branson of the United Kingdom (and president of Virgin Atlantic Airways) and Soviet cosmonaut Vladimir Dzhanibekov.

ESPN plans to follow the 20,000-mile journey between the Earth's 40th and 50th parallels with two cameras outside the 24-foot gondola and two inside. The cameras are just five inches long and two inches in diameter. Producer/director John Wilcox will operate one camera from on the chase plane. Wilcox has 19 Emmy Awards to his credit, dating back to his "The American Sportsman" shows on ABC and his "Spirit of 1978: Flight of the Double Eagle," about Newman's historic trans-Atlantic balloon flight.

"Earthwinds" is expected to float about 35,000 to 45,000 feet above sea level. The estimated ground speed is 75 miles per hour, or about 1,800 miles a day. The journey should take between 12 and 21 days, depending on weather conditions.

From Akron, it will travel northeast on a track that passes over Boston, south of Halifax, over Ireland, England, France, Germany, Czechoslovakia and Poland, along central U.S.S.R. north of China, the Kuril Islands, north of Hawaii, and back over the United States near San Francisco before heading back to Akron.

The balloon travels only within its air mass, in the same way that an object floating in a river does not move; it is the river and the air mass that move. The gondola weighs only 2,000 pounds, but the total weight of 20,000 pounds includes the capsule, 3,000 pounds of cryogenic liquid helium, radios, and other components of the balloon system.

Sunday on Cinemax You can spend six hours watching Michelle Pfeiffer. At 9 p.m. comes the cable debut of "The Fabulous Baker Boys," for which Pfeiffer was nominated for a best actress Oscar. The film co-stars Jeff and Beau Bridges. At 11 p.m., it's "Tequila Sunrise" with Pfeiffer, Mel Gibson and Kurt Russell. At 1 a.m., it's Pfeiffer, Glenn Close and John Malkovich in "Dangerous Liaisons."

Sunday on The Disney Channel at 7 p.m. 36 educators will be honored on "The American Teacher Awards" during a two-hour "The Magical World of Disney" special.

Tuesday on A&E at 9 p.m. "West Side Story: The Making of an Album," a two-hour special with the late Leonard Bernstein conducting his most successful composition for the first time. The special was made in 1984, 27 years after the Broadway hit musical opened, enabling Bernstein to concentrate solely on the sound of his score and Stephen Sondheim's lyrics. Kiri Te Kenawa sings Maria, Jose Carreras is Tony, Tatiana Troyanos is Anita and Kurt Ollman is Riff.

Wednesday on The Nashville Network at 8 p.m. the premiere of "The Comedy Concert Hour" hosted by Dick Van Patten and featuring comics Jack Carter, Bill Engvall, Steve Harvey, Pamela Matteson and Dan Menendez. Repeats at 11 p.m.