February follies begin as TV sweeps month brings flash, trash FOR BETTER OR WORSE

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The Fresh Prince gets shot, Homer Simpson gets abducted by the Mafia, Heather Locklear gets undressed and Glenn Close gives the made-for-TV movie performance of the year.

The February sweeps ratings period starts tonight, which means television is going to be both better and worse than it usually is for the next 30 days. Stars such as Sidney Poitier and Sally Field, who rarely do television, will appear, and anniversaries and strange events will dominate such regular series as "Seinfeld" and "The Simpsons."

Sweeps are mostly about business, not art or culture. Audiences are measured and those ratings are used to set future advertising rates. February is the most intense of the four sweeps months because winter weather makes for more potential viewers than in November, May or July. Furthermore, with the ink still wet on scores of affiliate contracts, the networks are trying especially hard to please their new local partners with strong programming.

But, even at its most commercially crass, television is always teaching -- for better or worse. Amid the silliness this month will be programs talking about violence in schools, the black experience in America and gays in the military. They include several quality, thought-provoking productions, such as NBC's "Serving in Silence: The Margarethe Cammermeyer Story," and "The Piano Lesson" on CBS.

This February will also be noteworthy for what viewers do not see. For the first time in four years, viewers won't be flooded with nostalgia programming aimed at baby boomers.

CBS led that parade with Ed Sullivan retrospectives and reunions of what seemed like every series it ever aired. But the network bet too heavily on baby boomers and older viewers in recent years. Now it has an audience so old that many advertisers want nothing to do with it.

The network has only one nostalgia trip planned this month, taking viewers back to Waltons Mountain yet again, this time for "John-Boy's Wedding," starring Richard Thomas.

CBS and NBC will be doing most of the event programming, while top-rated ABC sticks for the most part with its hit series. But everybody, including cable and PBS, will be getting in the act to some extent. Here are some of the programs worth noting:

* Tonight -- "Mad About You" has a one-hour episode at 8 p.m. about the wedding of Jamie (Helen Hunt) and Paul (Paul Reiser), which includes a guest appearance by Lyle Lovett. It's followed at 9 by a one-hour "Seinfeld" special that revisits highlights of the series' 100 episodes. Yes, the episode titled "The Contest" is included. Both are on NBC, WBAL (Channel 11).

RTC * Sunday -- Hallmark Hall of Fame presents "The Piano Lesson" with Charles Dutton and Alfre Woodard. This adaptation of August Wilson's Pulitzer Prize-winning play is written by Wilson and directed by Lloyd Richards, who directed the stage play. Dutton is wonderful as Boy Willie. It airs at 9 on CBS, WJZ (Channel 13).

Also on Sunday, "Married . . . With Children" celebrates 200 episodes with a special hosted by George Plimpton. That's right, the literary George Plimpton. What could be more perfect for the Bundys? Not available for preview. It airs at 8:30 on Fox, WBFF (Channel 45).

* Monday -- In an episode titled "Bullets Over Bel-Air," Will (Will Smith) gets shot when he and Carlton (Alfonso Ribeiro) are robbed in the "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air." It's not the first sitcom or drama to do a gun episode. "Blossom," "Roc" and "My So-Called Life" have done them. But I can't remember one in which the star gets shot. Not available for preview. It airs at 8:30 on NBC, WBAL (Channel 11).

And Glenn Close is wonderful-and-then-some as a decorated officer drummed out of the Army because she's a lesbian in "Serving in Silence: The Margarethe Cammermeyer Story." It's written by Alison Cross, screenwriter for another splendid work of social conscience, the 1989 NBC film "Roe vs. Wade." It airs at 9 on NBC, WBAL (Channel 11).

* Thursday -- The second-best sleuth on television, the melancholy Inspector Morse (John Thaw) returns in a delicious episode of "Mystery!" that takes Morse to Italy. The delight is in guessing how many seconds it will take for the emotionally maimed Morse to fall under the spell of a high-strung diva involved in his investigation. There are two more weeks of Morse in February and then he is gone forever. Airs at 9 p.m. on WMPT (Channels 22 and 67) and WETA (Channel 26). (The best sleuth, if you were wondering, is Robbie Coltrane's Eddie "Fitz" Fitzgerald in A&E;'s "Cracker.")

* Feb. 10 -- ABC's "Family Matters" tackles violence in the schools with an episode in which Laura (Kellie Williams) is mugged in the school parking lot and then threatened with a gun if she testifies against her assailant. This is fairly heavy stuff for the young audience attracted by the network's T.G.I.F. package. Not available for preview. It airs at 8 on WMAR (Channel 2).

* Feb. 12 -- The Discovery cable channel launches a major documentary series, "The Promised Land." It's an outstanding study of the migration of 5 million African-Americans from the South to the North between 1940 and 1970.

Also on the 12th, ABC starts its big event -- a two-night mini-series, "Texas Justice," starring Heather Locklear and Peter Strauss. He's a Texas millionaire accused of killing his wife. She's his sexy wife. I timed the opening. It took 98 seconds for the producers to get Locklear in a motel room with most of her clothes off. "Texas Justice" airs at 9 on Feb. 12 and 13 on WMAR (Channel 2).

On CBS, Ralph Waite and Michael Learned will return along with Richard Thomas in "John-Boy's Wedding." Not surprisingly, it's about John-Boy's getting married (finally). Not available for preview. It airs at 9 on WJZ (Channel 13).

On an even lighter note, Homer Simpson graduates from Krusty's Clown College and is promptly abducted by the Mafia in retaliation for Krusty's bad debts. Guest voices are Dick Cavett, Joe Mantegna and Johnny Unitas. Yes, Baltimore's Johnny Unitas. On Feb. 19, Bart Simpson becomes involved in an insult to the Australian government and is about to be given "the boot," Australia's answer to caning. "The Simpsons" airs at 8 on Fox, WBFF (Channel 45).

And, just in case there was not enough of an overload on this night, PBS' "Masterpiece Theatre" launches a three-part drama, "The Cinder Path," set in Edwardian England. Not available for preview, it airs Feb. 12, 19 and 26 at 9 on MPT (Channels 22 and 67) and WETA (Channel 26).

* Feb. 19 -- NBC begins a three-night mini-series, "A Woman of Independent Means," starring Sally Field. It's based on the best-selling novel of the same title by Elizabeth Forsythe Hailey about one Texas woman's journey through the first 70 years of this century. Co-stars are Ron Silver and Charles Durning. Not available for preview. It airs at 9 on Feb 19, 20 and 22 on WBAL (Channel 11).

* Feb. 26 -- "Tom Clancy's Op Center" features Harry Hamlin as head of an agency that handles global crises. Don't be fooled by the title. Clancy wrote neither the book nor the screenplay. He is one of four executive producers, though. Not available for preview. Airs Feb. 26 and 27 at 9 on NBC, WBAL (Channel 11).

CBS ends its month with the "Children of the Dust" mini-series, starring Poitier, Regina Taylor, Farrah Fawcett and Michael Moriarty. It's about the founding of a town in Oklahoma by a group of former slaves in the 1880s. Not available for preview. It airs at 9 on WJZ (Channel 13).

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