PREDICTING the future of television has never been a more precarious profession. The crystal ball is always full of static, the horizontal keeps jumping, the vertical will not hold.
But wait a minute! Put a piece of aluminum foil on the antenna, up near the top. Now, pull it down toward the floor. Hold it there. If you stand in the corner and put your body kind of sideways, the picture of the coming 12 months begins to come into focus . . .
January -- At the Super Bowl, the NFL players announce that the United Way will no longer be their designated charity. Instead, they will make those slick spots for a new organization called the Help the Networks Fund.
The NFL players make the move after learning of the dire financial straits of the broadcast networks, including all the money they are losing on their NFL contracts.
"Hey, those networks pay the money that pays our salaries," nose-guard Butch "No Neck" Lemdowzki explains. "If they start paying the NFL less, we'll be in big trouble. You might see a starting quarterback making less than $1 million a season! Can you imagine?"
February -- Despite objections from Jean-Claude Killy and other organizers of the Albertville Winter Olympics, slalom skiers are required to wear bibs promoting CBS shows.
For instance, when Italian Alberto Tomba heads down the course, viewers can clearly see printed on his bib, "If I fall, call 'Rescue 911,' Tuesdays on CBS."
"We were going to put them on the downhill skiers, but they go by too fast to read," Neal Pilson, CBS Sports president, explains.
In addition, the winner of the ladies' figure skating gold medal, when asked in a post-competition interview what she's going to do next, instead of saying "I'm going to Disney World," is required to say, "I'm going home to watch 'Jake and the Fatman.'"
"We had to get something for our $300 million," CBS chairman Larry Tisch says.
March -- Slightly ahead of schedule -- this is television -- Murphy Brown gives birth to a baby that looks and sounds exactly like William Conrad of "Jake and the Fatman," with hair that seems to have been borrowed from William Shatner of "Rescue 911." It's blamed on the fact that, unbeknown to Murphy, Elden has been using lead-based paints all these years.
"We wanted to take advantage of our promotional base," CBS president Jeff Sagansky says of the odd conclusion to the pregnancy.
April -- CBS squeaks out a victory in the tightest Nielsen ratings race ever, by less than one tenth of a point. After extensive analysis, ABC researchers announce that the victory was due to Lem Stallings, a member of a Nielsen family in Nebraska, who fell asleep during an episode of "Jake and the Fatman" and failed to punch out on his People Meter pad, giving CBS credit for millions of extra viewers for the following installment of "48 Hours," which was a lighthearted expose on escort services.
May -- In the final episode of "The Cosby Show," it is revealed that Cliff Huxtable is really a serial killer who murdered his previous family in Ohio 20 years ago before assuming his current identity. This comes out when a light bulb blows in the Huxtable town house -- the first thing to go wrong in seven years in that house -- and Cliff blows an internal fuse, holds his family hostage at gunpoint, sniping at police from the bedroom window.
"It was a sweeps month," Warren Littlefield, NBC Entertainment president, says of the bizarre finale. "We were up against some tough movies."
June -- After canceling "Homefront," the show that was put on in place of the canceled "thirtysomething," ABC announces "Homefront" will be replaced by "teensomething," in which a group of teen-agers, some committed, some searching, some paired off, some alone, seek to fulfill their angst-ridden dreams.
"We thought we had Macauley Culkin signed for this," ABC Entertainment president Robert Iger says. "But CBS seems to have tied him up with some sort of long-term deal."
July -- With ratings declining to the point of the ridiculous for its reruns, ABC decides to shut down for the month. A protest by the Ohio-based Urkel Fan Club fizzles for lack of interest.
August -- Finalists in the 100-meter -- at the Barcelona Olympic Games are required to dress in the colors of the NBC Peacock, and another lane is added to the track so Willard Scott can compete in the race.
"We had to get something for our $400 million," says NBC president Bob Wright, who also is allowed to carry an NBC banner in the opening ceremonies at the head of the otherwise flag-less team from the erstwhile Soviet Union and sing "To Dream the Impossible Dream" at the closing ceremonies.
September -- "Cheers" returns for its 11th season after General Electric buys Rockefeller Center back from Japanese investors and presents it to series star Ted Danson.
October -- Faced with a continuing decline in ratings for its evening news broadcast, CBS announces that Dan Rather has been removed as anchor. His replacement is young actor Macauley Culkin.