Here comes the annual fall match game


Look, we all know that you can't judge a show by its ratings. Some of the best are down at the bottom of the Nielsens and some of the worst rise to the top. You should judge a show according to your own taste and critical sensibilities, not just flow with the crowd to whatever's popular.

That said, there is still an undeniable intrigue to the ratings races that the networks run every year, the scheduling and strategies, the syncopated counter-programming of a female-appeal movie up against "Monday Night Football," the in-your-face challenge of a "Simpsons" up against "The Cosby Show."

So, if you follow this game at all, here are some of the crucial match-ups to watch as we prepare for the fall season.

SUNDAY -- No one expects much change at 7 o'clock, dominated by CBS' "60 Minutes." The battle begins at 8 p.m. NBC is desperate to get back in the picture on this most-viewed night of the week and is counting on James Garner in "Man of the People" and Robert Guillaume in "Pacific Station" to get defectors tiring of CBS' "Murder, She Wrote" and the home video hour on ABC. Fox's ratings for the first week of its complete new schedule show that it will be a serious player throughout the night.

TUESDAY -- Monday remains the same, so the strategy people turned their attention to the next night. ABC is gambling that the kiddies will follow "Full House" from Fridays and that it and newcomer "Home Improvement" with Tim Allen will rejuvenate the top of their schedule, while "Homefront" will have a wider appeal at 10 o'clock than did "thirtysomething." NBC counters at 8 o'clock with the classy drama "I'll Fly Away," which should attract an older/family audience that will flow into "In the Heat of the Night."

WEDNESDAY -- CBS has high hopes that the combination of Redd Foxx's raunchiness and a bunch of cute kids will give "The Royal Family" a broad appeal at 8 o'clock, ABC countering with similar plans for kids and their parents watching "Dinosaurs." ABC goes with a night of all comedies, splitting "Doogie Howser, M.D." and "Anything But Love" with newcomers "Sibs" and "Good & Evil," probably to get them launched so they can be moved later.

THURSDAY -- Everyone backs off from NBC's strength except Fox, which puts one of its strongest comedies, Dabney Coleman in "Drexell's Class," at 8:30 with hopes of hanging onto that "Simpsons" audience. Fox's "Beverly Hills 90210" parleyed its hottest-show-in-high-school spin of last season into near-phenom status after its mid-summer launch and should remain strong. ABC and CBS might be left in the wake.

FRIDAY -- Despite the move of "Full House," nobody's challenging ABC's kid-appeal success. CBS is going after adults with two new comedies at 8 o'clock, "Princesses" and "Brooklyn Bridge," while NBC thinks it can inherit that audience an hour later with newcomer "Flesh n' Blood" and the returning "Dear John."

SATURDAY -- NBC's move of splitting up "The Golden Girls" and "Empty Nest" to protect two new comedies -- "The Torklesons" and "Nurses" -- should work because there's so little competition, CBS going with a movie, ABC with two tiring comedies -- "Who's the Boss?" and "Growing Pains" -- and "The Young Riders." However, the success of the uneven "Sisters" on NBC at 10 o'clock last spring made it clear that there is a female audience up for grabs then, and CBS hopes to attract it with "P.S. I Luv U." ABC counters with a more traditional Saturday action show, "The Commish."

It will be tough to make any judgments in the first few weeks, what with all the stunting and special previews and CBS' K mart game and such. Then, when all that is over, the baseball playoffs and World Series come along on CBS and the other two networks turn their schedules into mush to get non-sports fans. By the time everything gets back on an even keel, it's November sweeps month time and there will probably already be some schedule changes.

But here are some fearless predictions.

WINNERS -- Fox on Sunday and Thursday, ABC on Tuesday, CBS on Wednesday, NBC on Saturday.

LOSERS -- NBC on Sunday, CBS on Saturday, ABC on Thursday.

The first cancellation will be CBS' "P.S. I Luv U," while that network will make the first season's move, "Brooklyn Bridge" and "Major Dad" swapping their Friday and Monday time slots.

Enjoy the game.

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