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A QUESTION OF SURVIVAL <br> IN THE SHADOW OF LAST YEAR'S MEGA-HITS, THE MUCH-DELAYED NEW FALL TV SEASON RAISES MANY QUESTIONS

To say that network television has some tough acts to follow this fall is about as big an understatement as saying Australia put on a decent Olympic opening ceremony and is a long way from the United States.

Due to the the Sydney Games, the new season has an unusually late start for the Big Four networks. And even when it gets going, it will be interrupted by three presidential debates and the baseball playoffs.

Worse yet, the new lineup of shows has to compete with several recent success stories in network television.

The most immediate tough act to follow is the Olympics, which has had center stage on NBC for the past two weeks.

Before that, there was CBS' Olympian summer series, "Survivor," which received the kind of ratings that any of the newcomers would die for.

And then there is the memory of last season's megahit, ABC's "Who Wants to be a Millionaire," which was such a success story that its network plans four weekly editions this fall.

Finally, there is last season's best new drama, "The West Wing," which won several Emmys in its first season including one for Best Drama.

What's ahead for the Big Four networks, which also have had to schedule around the baseball postseason, the presidential debates and Election night?

To paraphrase a CBS promo, the new season will have: Twenty-three potential castaways ... one remote control ... probably four or five survivors whose stars and creators will become millionaires and eventually answers to questions on Regis Philbin's show.

If "Survivor" proved anything this summer, it is that the networks really don't have a clue as to what is going to sell with the nightly Tribal Council known as the Nielsen ratings.

Most often, the networks rely on the tried-and-true formulas, hire some big names to assure the first shows are sampled and hope that one or two different ideas capture critical or public attention.

But for every "West Wing," there are a dozen shows like "Action," the 1999 Fox comedy that had great buzz and then tanked quickly.

Starting Tuesday, we'll offer a daily overview of the programs on one network at a time. Now it is time to focus on the questions a critic most often hears during the dog days of summer before the new shows premiere and the popular established series answer their cliffhanger season finales.

When do we learn who was injured during the shootout in the season finale of "The West Wing"?

Circle Wednesday, Oct. 4. That's when NBC is carrying the two-hour season premiere of the series and we find out if President Sheen, I mean President Bartlet, was injured.

"Frasier" fans will have to wait until Oct. 24 to learn if Niles (David Hyde Pierce) and Daphne (Jane Leeves) are going to become a couple.

The season premiere of ABC's "The Practice" is Oct. 8, CBS' "Judging Amy" starts Oct. 10, NBC's "ER" premieres Oct. 12 and "Ally McBeal" on Fox tries to recover on Oct. 23.

Because of the baseball playoffs, Fox isn't premiering its Sunday lineup of "King of the Hill," "The Simpsons," "Malcolm in the Middle" and "The X-Files" until Nov. 5.

Why are feature film actors and actresses like Bette Midler, Geena Davis, Gabriel Bryne and William Petersen starring in TV series?

Have you been to any summer movies this year? Most were junk and starred young actors who appeal to fans of WB or Fox shows.

And believe it or not, actors are people, too. They want to have a normal home life or one that approximates normal. That's why Midler is starring in CBS' "Bette," Davis is starring as a woman about to become a stepmom on a show with her name in the title, and Petersen is starring in a decent crime drama for CBS, called "CSI."

How's the season overall?

Pretty routine. There are no "West Wings" or "Once and Agains," that's for sure.

What are the best new shows?

The best pilots are CBS' "Bette" (premiering Oct. 11), "That's Life" and "The Fugitive," NBC's "Ed," ABC's "Gideon's Crossing" with Andre Braugher and Fox's hyperactive "Boston Public" if David E. Kelley lessens the outrageousness of the pilot. But good pilots don't necessarily lead to good series. They have to have premises that lend themselves to a weekly treatment.

What will be the first series canceled?

NBC's "Cursed," CBS' "Yes, Dear" and ABC's "The Trouble With Normal" are the early favorites to be cursed or the most troubled.

Do any of the pilots that are being fixed, like NBC's "The Michael Richards Show," have a chance of pulling it off?

Yes. In a way, the Olympics and "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" might help. The Olympics are giving the writers more time to fix things. Richards' show, for example, doesn't premiere until Oct. 24. And John Goodman's Fox sitcom, "Normal, Ohio," doesn't premiere until Nov. 1. And all those "Millionaires" on ABC's schedule have so many writers out of work that there are more good ones available to rescue series.

When will the 15 minutes of fame for each member of the "Survivor" cast be over?

That's the $1 million question. Several of them have guest-starring appearances in dramas and sitcoms this season on a variety of networks.

When does "NYPD Blue" return?

Not until some time in January after the Monday Night Football season ends. Once and again, ABC plans on carrying "Once and Again" at 10 p.m. Tuesdays until January. Then "NYPD Blue" returns to its time slot and "Once and Again" moves to Mondays.

Why did ABC abandon its TGIF schedule that has been a hit with teens for years?

Money. The teen shows like "Sabrina: The Teen-age Witch" didn't produce enough advertising revenue to make the whole night profitable. That's why ABC is putting "Norm" and three other adult comedies on before 10 p.m. Even if its overall ratings go down, it can get more revenue if its ratings for adults 18 through 49 go up.

What are the big trends?

There is more diversity, fewer high school shows, a reliance on big stars and an abundance of action shows that deal with advances in technology to go along with the usual assortment of family comedies.

What happened to "Jesse"?

All right, one person asked. The NBC sitcom based in Buffalo was canceled due to low ratings for two seasons. Amazingly, NBC is replacing it with a sitcom, "Cursed," that is even worse.

When does the next "Survivor" premiere?

The new Richards, Rudys and Kellys will be introduced in Australia after the Super Bowl on Jan. 28, by which time most of the new fall series will be voted off their network islands.