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.