IT WAS JUST A YEAR ago that the most learned observers o the television scene assured an anxious and concerned American public that they could count on two shows surviving in the increasingly competitive prime-time environment -- "Chicken Soup" and "The Famous Teddy Z."
That performance last year means that the reliability ranking otelevision pundits now rivals that of the President's Council of Economic Advisers and the 1973 Vega.
Nevertheless, we now return, battered but unbowed, wiser, perhaps a bit less strident, ready to charge like some electronic Light Brigade, People Meters to the left of us, remote controls to the right of us, onward, ever onward.
Frankly, and this is not just because of last season's chastening experience, this year is a tough one to call. No shows stand out as can't-miss hits (i.e., there are no comedians doing 40-year-old Borscht belt schtick that you know heartland America is just going to love), but few stand out as absolute stinkeroos.
Add to that the fact that shows these days survive not on `D absolute ratings, but on their ability to cut a thin slice of a desired demographic pie, or to shore up a weak time slot, or because their producers have enough clout to force the network to keep them on (see "Grand" on NBC, a piece of blackmail by the producers of "The Cosby Show"), and you get an idea of what a tough job this prognosticating is.
But, here goes:
* Show Most Likely To Survive: "Evening Shade," because it would be hard to imagine a network as hard up as CBS telling Burt Reynolds, a superb supporting cast and producer Linda Bloodworth-Thomason to take a hike, particularly after Thomason's other show, "Designing Women," became a hit despite a couple of years of shabby treatment by the network. It also happens to be a good show.
* Show Least Likely To Survive -- It's a tossup between two CBS dramas, "E.A.R.T.H. Force" and "Sons and Daughters." Network execs virtually admit that "E.A.R.T.H. Force" is just a stopgap until something else is ready, while the rumor a few weeks ago was that "Sons and Daughters" would be yanked before its scheduled October start.
* First Show To Be Canceled -- While the two CBS dramas above are the favorites in this category, and obviously "Sons and
Daughters" would take it if there's a pre-emptive strike, here's a bet on a dark horse, "Ferris Bueller." If "Fresh Prince of Bel Air" develops any traction at 8 o'clock on Monday and "Ferris Bueller" loses it at 8:30, it'll disappear faster than the principal went down that trap door in this poorly conceived series' opening scene.
* Show That Could Be This Year's "Chicken Soup" -- None other than "Fresh Prince of Bel Air." Like "Chicken Soup," it's got the hype and a spotlight shining on its breakout star, rapper Will Smith. And its rap orientation could go over in Middle America like Jackie Mason's brand of humor. "What'd he say, Martha?" Still, it's a better show than "Chicken Soup," and Smith has too much potential for the quick hook, so it gets a survival vote.
* Best New Hour of Television -- NBC on Saturday, 8 to 9 o'clock with two classy comedies, "Parenthood" and "Working it Out." Neither is going to zoom to the top of the ratings with this time slot, but both should make it through to their second season.
* First Show To Be Moved -- CBS should yank "The Flash" out of the cross fire between "The Cosby Show" and "The Simpsons" on Thursday at 8, probably sending it to the Saturday at 9 slot temporarily occupied by "E.A.R.T.H. Force." "The Flash" is one of those shows that might survive in spite of low numbers because its production company, Warners, had so much tied up in marketing with the series -- the comic books, toys and other stuff -- it might be willing to give the show to CBS for free just to keep its merchandise moving.
* Other Shows that Will Survive -- "Parker Lewis Can't Lose" and "Get a Life" on Fox, "Lenny" on CBS, "The Fanelli Boys" on NBC.
* Other Shows that Will Not Survive -- "The Family Man" and "Uncle Buck" on CBS, "Gabriel's Fire" on ABC, "Lifestories" on NBC, hardly anything on Fox.
* Show That Is the Toughest to Call in a Season of Shows That are Tough to Call -- ABC's "Cop Rock" could attract a large cult that's attractive to advertisers or could sink like a stone.
Who Will Win the "Cosby"-"Simpsons" Battle -- Early victories will go to "Cosby" but they'll be about even by the end of the year. Fox might claim victory in this battle but will lose the war because the rest of its Thursday night will disappear down the dumper.
* Worst Actor in a New Show -- Gil Gerard of "E.A.R.T.H. Force" who handles his lines like a butcher working on a side of beef.
* Best Actor in a New Show -- James Earl Jones of "Gabriel's Fire." No explanation needed.
*And finally, here are a few possible ripoff shows if some of the season's more unusual series actually succeed:
* First Ripoff if "Fresh Prince" Is a Hit -- "Hammer and Tong" Hilarity results when rap star M.C. Hammer plays a rapping, streetwise police detective teamed with an older, by-the-book partner, Jack Tong. Pat Morita co-stars.
* First Ripoff if "Cop Rock" Is a Hit -- "Hospital Hip-Hop" The orderlies rap, the emergency room rocks, the surgeons sing arias, and the nurses croon melodies in this harmonizing hospital. Robert Goulet, Dolly Parton and Billy Idol star.
* First Ripoff if "Lifestories," "Cop Rock," "Law and Order" and Fox's undertaker sitcom "Good Grief" Are All Hits -- "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" A comedy-drama with music that follows a patient from the time he gets to the hospital, through his death, autopsy, embalming, casket selection and funeral, ending with a point-of-view shot of the dirt coming down in the grave. In the second season, they tackle cremation. Starring Nell Carter, David Clayton-Thomas, Sinead O'Connor and Don Knotts as the undertaker.