IF YOU LISTEN closely this week, you can hear the sound of very large tokens being dropped into huge slot machines. Of enormous dice being tossed on very-high-stakes crap tables. Of expensive balls rolling round and round and round an electronic roulette wheel.
It's premiere week and millions of dollars are on the table as the networks wait to see what the American viewing public has as its hole card. The four networks are putting more than 25 new shows on this fall -- the count varies depending on how you score revamped ones. Six showed up over this past weekend, 15 more will premiere over the next two weeks.
The vast majority will go flop in the night. A small handful -- two, three, four -- will capture the imagination of the country. If they are popular enough for long enough, millions and millions of dollars in profit will flow to the shows' networks, creators, producers and their studios. The bets will pay off, big time.
The odds are long and the losses great if you fail, much greater these days than in the past because the plethora of choices means that a low-rated show attracts such a minuscule audience that its advertising revenue won't cover the network's bet. And the lack of syndication sales would mean the producing studio also has a big deficit to cover.
Of course, as in any season, the best shows aren't always the ones that pay off. Indeed, the best new pilot of the season is a sensitive drama about a small Southern town in the era of the civil rights movement. Called "I'll Fly Away," it's from Josh Brand and John Falsey, the team behind "Northern Exposure." NBC is running it at 8 o'clock on Tuesdays where it has to be considered a long shot to find a family audience. This one doesn't premiere until Oct. 8.
One of the results of the network financial cutbacks is that fewer and fewer pilots are being made. CBS provided critics with a script of the pilotless "Brooklyn Bridge," a poignant half-hour about growing up in the '50s. It's from Gary David Goldberg, who did "Family Ties," and it reads great. The set looks great. If the acting, directing and producing follow, the show will be great. But, for it to be a hit, CBS has to move it from Friday night where it will premiere with a one-hour episode this week.
"Eerie, Indiana" is another great-looking show in search of a decent time slot. A weird, off-the-wall, funny look at "The Twilight Zone" through the eyes of a couple of pre-teen-type kids, "Eerie, Indiana" is up against "60 Minutes" on Sundays at 7:30. It premiered last night.
A couple of safer bets feature characters that could, as they say in Hollywood, break out. Tim Allen is a funny comedian with a stand-up act that examines the odd relationship between masculinity and power tools. ABC's "Home Improvement" nicely packages that humor in a half-hour form. In the pre-"Roseanne" Tuesday at 8:30 time slot, this one could make it. It premieres tomorrow night.
NBC's "Flesh 'n Blood" isn't the greatest half-hour around, but David Keith's character of good ol' boy Arlo Weed -- who has come to Baltimore to mooch off his long-lost sister, an assistant state's attorney -- is positively hilarious. It's going to have trouble on Friday nights, though it gets an introduction this Thursday at 10 p.m..
As usual, some of the worst newcomers have a decent chance of turning up winners. "Step by Step" is a prime example. This bunch of blended family hooey -- with Suzanne Somers and Patrick Duffey -- gets a slot in ABC's Friday night kiddie lineup this week where even "Baby Talk" was a hit.
"P.S. I Luv You" looks like the worst new show of the season, a throwback escapist drama about an odd-couple crime-solving team who get together in Palm Springs under the federal witness protection program. Connie Selleca and Greg Evigan star. CBS gave it a movie send-off last night. Now it moves to Fridays at 10 o'clock where it is hoped that people will avoid it like a disease.
Also debuting last night was NBC's revamped Sunday 8 to 9 o'clock hour. James Garner might eventually be enough to lift the disappointing "Man of the People" out of mediocrity, but Robert Guillaume is stuffed in a turkey called "Pacific Station."
CBS could have a hit with Redd Foxx's raunch in "Royal Family." He's teamed with Della Reese, playing a just-retired Atlanta mailman with a daughter and grandchildren moving back home. It's on CBS Wednesdays at 8 o'clock starting this week. But its 8:30 running mate, "Teech" -- about a black teacher in a snooty prep school -- might slow down the team with its lame cliches.
"Nurses" isn't exactly ground-breaking, but if it finds enough laughs in this hospital crew it could stay healthy in the midst of NBC's Saturday night schedule. It premiered this past weekend.
That same Saturday lineup might also help nurture "The Torklesons," a nicely offbeat show that looks at life on the financial edge through the eyes of a 13-year-old girl who's embarrassed by her family and its travails. That will debut next Saturday.
Fox is hoping its one protected time slot, between "The Simpsons" and "Beverly Hills 90210" on Thursdays, will finally yield a hit with "Drexell's Class," Dabney Coleman's return to series television as a teacher. It begins this week.
On Sunday night, the lame-brained "Herman's Head," which premiered a week ago, has a better chance of surviving than the other junk Fox has put after "Married . . . with Children." And here's hoping the cards turn up right for Fox's other Sunday newcomer, "Roc," which has aired four episodes.
ABC is hoping that "Homefront," a continuing drama about life in America just after World War II that shows up Sept. 24, will have the broad audience appeal that "thirtysomething" did not at the end of its strong Tuesday night lineup, but the road for nighttime soaps has been rocky lately.
And ABC has two comedies with impeccable casts and breeding -- Marsha Mason in "Sibs," a comedy about sisters written by "Cheers" and "Tracey Ullman" veteran Heidi Perlman; and Teri Garr in "Good & Evil" as prolific producer Susan Harris returns to her "Soap" roots. But the concepts -- no pilot was available on "Sibs" -- seem a bit cluttered and off-center so they still have to be considered long shots. "Sibs" gets a kickoff tomorrow while "Good & Evil" shows up on Sept. 25.
One dark-horse contender is NBC's "Reasonable Doubts," lurking in the tough time slot of Friday at 10 p.m. where "Miami Vice" beat the odds to strike pay dirt. The teaming of Mark Harmon and Oscar-winner Marlee Matlin could attract a big female audience to the traditional high-male-appeal genre of the cop show, the way "Cagney & Lacey" once did. That gets a boost from a Thursday premiere on Sept. 26.
CBS has high hopes for its "Princesses," but this pilot about three single women sharing a New York penthouse apartment seems silly and strained. Then again, silly might work Friday at 8 o'clock. See what you think starting Sept. 27.
You, the viewers, are the slot machine, the remote controls in your hand making the cherries, lemons and oranges pop up in the windows of the Nielsen ratings.
Best new shows
1. "I'll Fly Away" (NBC) Tuesdays at 8 p.m., starts Oct. 8.
2. "Eerie, Indiana" (NBC) Sundays at 7:30 p.m.
3. "Roc" (Fox) Sundays at 8:30 p.m.
4. "Brooklyn Bridge" (CBS) Fridays at 8:30 p.m., starts this week.
5. "Home Improvement" (ABC) Tuesdays at 8:30 p.m., starts Tuesday
This week's debuts
Tuesday: "Home Improvement" (ABC) Channel 13 (WJZ) at 8:30 p.m.
"Sibs" (ABC) Channel 13 at 9:30 p.m.
Wednesday: "Royal Family" (CBS) Channel 11 (WBAL) at 8 p.m.
"Teech" (CBS) Channel 11 at 8:30 p.m.
Thursday: "Drexell's Class" (Fox) Channel 45 (WBFF) at 8:30 p.m.
"Flesh 'n' Blood" (NBC) Channel 2 (WMAR) at 10 p.m.
Friday: "Brooklyn Bridge" (CBS) Channel 11 at 8 p.m.
"Step by Step" (ABC) Channel 13 at 8:30 p.m.
Saturday: "The Torklesons" (NBC) Channel 2 at 8:30 p.m.