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If "Popular" (9 p.m. Wednesday, 8 p.m. Thursday, Channel 49) is judged by its look and style, WB may have another small-size demographic hit on its hands.

If it's judged by its smarts, well, that's a very different story.

But I'll say this for the latest high school series: The producers made some grade A refinements from the original pilot, curtailing the role of an annoying troubadour and changing the actors in a few key roles.

The most annoying thing about the series remains the number of times one of the supposed high school sophomores uses the word "so," as in this is "so lame" or "so weird."

There also is the little issue of the actors' age. High school sophomores? More likely college sophomores.

Sam McPherson (Carly Pope) is the bright, dark-haired star of the school newspaper. She bemoans the pressure of looking like a model for Seventeen magazine and hangs around with an eclectic group of friends who aren't in the "in" crowd.

Sam wears her need to be different on her sleeve -- and later on her nose.

Brooke McQueen (Leslie Bibb) is the skinny, blond beauty who feels a need to be perfect, popular and happy and discovers that two out of three isn't a bad average in high school.

Sam and Brooke have one thing in common -- they are being raised in single-parent households by parents who we learn late Thursday are a little impulsive and get to know each other very quickly.

Sam and Brooke don't really know each other, but that doesn't prevent them from disliking each other even after they are paired as lab partners in biology. If you can't bond while dissecting a frog, when can you?

As in most high schools, who Sam and Brooke are is determined by the friends they hang out with during meals.

Harry (Christopher Gorham) has been Sam's best friend since she was 5. He doesn't cut her much slack when she misbehaves or is insensitive to her friends.

Carmen Ferrara (Sara Rue) is the Camryn Manheim of Sam's club, a heavy girl with talent who tests the theory that talent -- and not looks -- gets one on the cheerleading squad.

Lily Esposito (Tamara Mello) is another friend with attitude who gives Sam some much-need reality checks.

Brooke's best friend, Nicole (Lynn Michaels), seems to have used Heather Locklear's character, Amanda, on "Melrose Place," as a role model. Nicole is a viper whose sole mission in life is to look good and make others feel bad.

Brooke has made a wiser boyfriend choice in Josh Ford (Bryce Johnson), the star quarterback at Kennedy High School who would trade his shoulder pads in a minute for the lead in the school production of "South Pacific."

Josh's best friend, Sugar Daddy (Ron Lester), is a very heavy football teammate who knows that his popularity is based on his friendship with the quarterback. But at least a boy can be heavy and popular.

Pope and Bibb are typical Seventeen and WB beauties, who light up the screen. Pope is so attractive that the idea that Sam would have any trouble fitting in seems a little strained.

It isn't the only thing that makes one pause during the first two hours. According to "Popular," the primary way teen-age girls get validated is still to make the cheerleading squad.

And you might have thought that changed decades ago and that Mia Hamm and Brandy Chastain put the nail in the coffin this summer when the U.S. women won soccer's World Cup.

It's, like, so amusing to see a network that lives on attractive young women carrying a series that tries to educate kids that beauty is skin-deep. And that even beautiful, popular, seemingly secure people have feelings, too.

In the TV season after Columbine, "Popular" appears ready to deliver some good lessons about being different. The revised pilot certainly is a little better than the "so-so" original.

But after dissecting its lack of smarts, don't expect this critic to be the head cheerleader.

Rating: 3 stars out of 5.

The impact of the lockout of technicians and engineers at Channel 4 was most evident at 11 p.m. Monday when anchor Don Postles presided over a train wreck of a newscast that saw the wrong video being run for the first three stories. In one case, the wrong footage ran for more than 30 seconds, an incredibly long time before a mistake is corrected.

The problems started even before the newscast began, when the wrong pre-taped promo featuring Postles was carried.

"It was not a show you would use as an audition tape or I'd want people to see around the country," conceded Postles. "After we got past the early gremlins, it was a a pretty good show."

WIVB-TV is fortunate that its current labor strife is occurring now rather than in November, when local ratings are measured. The station clearly has had momentum on its side in the news popularity battle with Channel 7, which has seen veterans Irv Weinstein and Tom Jolls retire in the past year.

But more newcasts like Monday's and the negative publicity generated by the lockout could cost Channel 4 dearly.

"There is no good timing," said Lou Verruto, Channel 4's general manager.

News personalities are not in the same union as the technicians and engineers and understandably are staying out of the public eye to avoid problems with management. But privately they would like this issue to be resolved quickly so the station can attempt to repair the atmosphere inside the newsroom.

Verruto said he didn't see the foul-ups on Monday's newscast and added the out-of-town personnel from other stations owned by LIN television will be more familiar with Channel 4's state-of-the-art equipment in a few days or the weeks to come.

"I would hope it would end today," Verruto said of the lockout. "God knows how long it can go on for. We are trying very hard to get this done."

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