The nighttime soap opera "Ally McBeal" lights up TV screens across the Washington area, but daytime soap operas such as "All My Children" don't. At local movie theaters, the sophisticated romp "Shakespeare in Love" sold more tickets than the crude comedy "Big Daddy" -- the reverse of national preferences. On area coffee tables, you're nearly twice as likely to find a copy of Scientific American or Gourmet magazine as you are in households across the nation.

This is a good place to be if you're selling books for policy wonks or poetry by Pablo Neruda. It's a bad place, relatively speaking, for rock concerts, but an exceptional one for symphony, ballet and black gospel radio.

As the traditional fall season begins for TV programs, theater performances and symphony concerts, people in the Washington area will buy, watch, read and listen to many of the same things that people in Cleveland, Seattle or Minneapolis will. But in many respects, the Washington area has singular and sometimes surprising tastes when it comes to consuming entertainment and information.

You would think, for example, that those Sunday-morning TV public-affairs shows, featuring shout-offs between Washington insiders, would be boffo around Washington; in fact, "Face the Nation" and "This Week" draw more viewers in Philadelphia than around the Capital Beltway. "Fox News Sunday" is a bigger hit in New York.

As a rule, the region's disproportionate share of high-income, well-educated adults steers more toward the upscale, the refined and the somewhat more sophisticated than do people in other major metropolitan areas. At the same time, above-average percentages of baby boomers and African Americans create demand for entertainment tailored specifically to them. The region's work-oriented culture dictates more serious types of books, movies and TV programs.

"This is an international center with a diversity of audiences," said Douglas Wheeler, president of the Washington Performing Arts Society. "We have a high income base, a high education base that can support a huge volume of art activity."

When entertainment marketers look at the Washington area, they see a region ranked at the top among metropolitan areas in household income, proportion of college-educated adults and people with professional or management jobs. They see a region that is racially diverse, with an African American population that ranks among the nation's top three metropolitan areas. They see that nearly a third of people here were born in the baby boom years (1946 to 1964), among the highest proportion in the country.

They also see a culture dominated by work and, to a lesser extent, by politics. It is a region in which an extraordinarily high proportion of women hold jobs and a large share of all workers are employed, directly or indirectly, by the government.

These broad demographic attributes translate directly into mass behavior -- or the lack of it. TV programmers, for instance, know that people in the region watch less TV, on average, than people in every other top-10 market except San Francisco. With nearly full employment levels, daytime hours are particularly deadly; between the hours of 9 a.m. and 4 p.m., fewer than one-quarter of the region's TV sets are on, compared with nearly two-thirds during prime time (8 to 11 p.m.).

Demographically, "Ally McBeal" may be the most perfectly tailored program on TV for Washington. Ally, after all, is a young, single, working woman -- a lawyer. Washington has plenty of lawyers and plenty of working women; according to Nielsen Media Research, it has the highest percentage of employed adult women in the major U.S. markets. That may explain why the show finished the past TV season as the eighth most-watched program locally, compared with its No. 25 ranking nationally. WTTG-TV (Channel 5), the Fox affiliate, said the show's local ratings are the highest among all the Fox stations that carry it.

The military presence -- largest among metropolitan areas -- similarly helps fuel the disproportionate local appeal of "JAG," a CBS series about Navy lawyers. (It finished 17th in the national Nielsen but 12th locally.)

"You can't do gimmicks on the news here. You can't get away with the things you can do in other markets," said Laureen Ong, general manager of WTTG. Her former station in Phoenix ran many light news pieces, such as a feature on hair dryers. "You can't go anywhere near that here," she said. "You can't fool people. They know it's not news and they don't want to hear about it."

Movie theaters in the area are likely to show the same mainstream films that play across the country, and they find much the same kind of reception. The top 10 moneymaking movies nationally over the past year -- such as the latest "Star Wars" and "Austin Powers" -- all made it into this area's top 15.

But movies that appeal to refined tastes do better here than elsewhere. Over the past year, "Shakespeare in Love" ranked seventh in revenues locally; nationally, it was 22nd. "Elizabeth," "An Ideal Husband" and "A Midsummer Night's Dream" also performed far better here than they did nationally.

"The upscale films, the sophisticated films tend to do very well," said Tom Borys, president of AC Nielsen EDI, which tracks movie revenue figures.

The region also is known as a good market for foreign movies and other off-the-beaten-track films. It's home to a number of nonprofit cinemas that offer this type of fare -- museums, the American Film Institute and embassies. Landmark Theater Corp., a Los Angeles-based theater chain, is building an eight-screen art-house complex off Pennsylvania Avenue in downtown Washington.

"There's huge disposable income," said Alan Rubin, a longtime owner of the Biograph, the art-house theater that ran profitably for nearly 30 years in Georgetown, before losing its lease in 1996. "There's probably a lot of single people who go out to the movies a lot, and there's a large foreign-language capability."

But teenage movies don't do as well as in other cities. Films such as "She's All That," "There's Something About Mary" and "Never Been Kissed" performed better in the rest of the nation than here.

Marketing data show that people here are more likely to buy books than go to the movies, the opposite of Los Angeles and Miami. More adults -- two of every five -- have bought a hardcover book in the past three months than in any other large metropolitan area, according to consumer surveys conducted by Scarborough Research.

Some bestsellers here echo the national list, but book dealers say area readers have deeper tastes for serious books about history and policy issues.

"Regional studies does well -- books on politics in Latin America, and even such odd countries as Haiti and Ethiopia," said Jim Tenney, senior buyer at Olsson's in Georgetown. The Washington area is home to one of the largest concentrations of Ethiopian immigrants in North America.

Bookstore owners also say there is a good audience for poetry here, in part because of the presence of colleges and universities. "Each year, we sell more poetry than the year before," said Carla Cohen, co-owner of Politics and Prose in upper Northwest. "Last year, we sold [only] a few thousand dollars less in poetry than we did in mystery."

Other highbrow culture thrives here, compared with other areas. Attendance at the symphony or opera is above average, with one in every eight adults going to one or the other in the past year.

However, that doesn't necessarily translate into better-funded arts programs. "In Washington, the city does not make a major commitment" to the arts, said Wheeler, of the Washington Performing Arts Society. "The city has many challenges, and the arts haven't been one of them."

The region's large African American population (one in four people here is black, compared with one in eight nationally) helped boost ticket sales for "Life," "The Wood," "Beloved" and other movies with black stars and themes. They were higher in the local box-office rankings than in national rankings.

Entertainment here also is influenced by the baby boomers, people in their mid-thirties to mid-fifties who have been catered to by marketers because there are so many of them.

The high education levels make this a serious place, but so does the work-oriented culture. Federal Times is a bestseller here among magazines, as are magazines appealing to the military.

The women's magazine Family Circle doesn't sell as well here as elsewhere, but Working Woman has above-average readership. So do George and Harper's.

"When I think about what sells here, I always think of the obvious -- history books, political science, books about the media," said Mary Ann Brownlow, community relations coordinator for Borders Books in downtown Washington. "It's mostly people reading about themselves."

Still, the Biograph's Rubin said, when he screened political movies at the Biograph, Washingtonians did not flock to see them. "They do not do as well as you'd think, probably because national news is local news and people have had enough of it," he said. "Or maybe there are not many very good political films."

Research associate David J. Barie contributed to this report.

WHAT WE LIKE . . .

Washington area residents have particular tastes when it comes to entertainment.

BOOK CHOICES

* The Washington area ranked 1st among top 25 metropolitan regions in percentage of adults who buy hard-cover books.

* 39.5 percent of Washington area adults bought a hardcover book in the past three months.

* What sells well here, besides politics? Poetry

MOVIE TASTES

* Unexpected movie hits in Washington: Animation

* What doesn't do as well here as you might think: Political movies

* Who went to at least three movies in three months: 28.6%

* How area tastes compared to national preferences Sept. 1998-99:

Movie title: Rush Hour

Local rank: 4

Nat'l rank: 10

Movie title: Shakespeare in Love

Local rank: 7

Nat'l rank: 22

Movie title: The Thomas Crown Affair

Local rank: 30

Nat'l rank: 44

Movie title: Elizabeth

Local rank: 40

Nat'l rank: 69

Movie title: She's All That

Local rank: 42

Nat'l rank: 33

Movie title: The Wood

Local rank: 43

Nat'l rank: 76

Movie title: Life

Local rank: 24

Nat'l rank: 32

Movie title: Waking Ned Devine

Local rank: 47

Nat'l rank: 75

Movie title: Beloved

Local rank: 62

Nat'l rank: 80

Movie title: An Ideal Husband

Local rank: 66

Nat'l rank: 93

Movie title: Tea With Mussolini

Local rank: 79

Nat'l rank: 108

MUSEUM MAVENS

* More than one in three Washington area adults -- 35 percent -- went to a museum or gallery in the past year (about the same as New York, but higher than most other metropolitan areas).

MAGAZINES

* Above-average readership here: Essence, Federal Times, George

* Below-average readership: Family Circle, Outdoor Life, Popular Mechanics

TV RATINGS

* Washington area viewers ranked 9th in time spent watching TV (among viewers in 10 largest markets).

* The following shows are more popular with area viewers:

Will & Grace NBC (about a single woman and her gay roommate)

Local rank: 6

Nat'l rank: 35

Ally McBeal Fox (about a single female lawyer) (tie)

Local rank: 8

Nat'l rank: 25

JAG CBS (about military lawyers)

Local rank: 12

Nat'l rank: 17

Spin City ABC (about a politician and his handlers) (tie)

Local rank: 18

Nat'l rank: 27

SOURCE: