HOLLYWOOD -- The three major TV networks are girding for next season's ratings battles by dumping failing shows and adding new ones, most of which will be cancelled before the year is out.
In mid-April, traditional end of the television season -- which ushers in four dull months of relentless reruns, Mr. Nielsen gave CBS a 19.8 rating, followed by ABC at 18.2. NBC trailed the field with 16.6.
The 3.2 difference between NBC and CBS means virtually millions more viewers watched CBS during the 1980-81 season than NBC, which translates into many millions of dollars in advertising billings.
It follows as the night the day that third-place NBC would shake up its schedule most, trashing almost half its prime-time schedule. NBC will introduce 10 new series for the 1981-82 season, ABC 8, and CBS 6.
For many years NBC has been the most innovative of the three networks, and it has paid the price in ratings.
The network's executives have failed to grasp the notion that most viewers are creatures of habit. The viewers want to know they can see, say, 'M-A-S-H,' 'The Dukes of Hazzard' or 'Dallas' -- three top-rated shows -- at specific times on specific days of the week come hell or high water.
It's part of the security blanket syndrome of the tube, like going to church Sunday mornings, having aunt Martha over for dinner every Tuesday evening or bowling on Saturday nights.
Before and during Fred Silverman's reign, NBC has telecast more long-form dramas, minseries, movies for TV and theatrical films than the other networks. It was dead last with regularly scheduled weekly series.
NBC has been notoriously weak in comedy, especially in the number and quality of situation comedies, favorite fare of viewers.
NBC also failed to provide as many familiar faces in its weekly programming as CBS and ABC. It was remiss, too, in developing major TV stars who are the backbone of sitcoms and hour-long adventure dramas.
Finally, NBC fell behind the competition in taking advantage of such successful and prolific independent packagers as Spelling-Goldberg, Grant Tinker's MTM, and Norman Lear's Tandem.
In an abrupt turnaround, NBC will charge into the new season next fall with some very familiar faces indeed, among them Jim Arness, James Garner, Rock Hudson, Tony Randall, Gabe Kaplan and Mickey Rooney.
The network is also spinning off a pair of familiar faces on current shows for the new season. Nell Carter of the defunct 'Lobo' will star in 'Gimme a Break' and Merlin Olsen of 'Little House on The Prairie' will star in 'Father Murphy.'
It canceled such losers as 'Walking Tall,' 'Brady Brides,' 'Buck Rogers,' 'The Gangster Chronicles,' 'Lobo,' 'BJ and The Bear' and 'Disney's Wonderful World.'
NBC, however, is not giving up its long-form programs.
Next season it will present 'Marco Polo,' an 8-hour epic, along with a pair of specials based on best-selling novels, Sidney Sheldon's 'Rage of Angels' and Judith Krantz's 'Princess Daisy.'
The network also has TV films and feature movies lined up starring the likes of Bette Davis, Walter Matthau, Ron Howard, Melissa Gilbert and George Burns.
Front-runner CBS will make fewer changes, adding only one sitcom, 'Mr. Merlin,' starring Barnard Hughes. It has picked up the Disney anthology hour discarded by NBC and titled it 'Walt Disney Presents.'
Its four new hour-long series are 'Shannon,' starring Kevin Dobson; 'Simon & Simon,' with Jameson Parker; 'Close-up: Jessica Nova,' with Helen Shaver; and 'The Vintage Years' starring Jane Wyman.
CBS uncoupled two of its new shows -- 'Enos' and 'Palmerstown' -- along with 'The Incredible Hulk,' 'The White Shadow' and the long-running (nine years) tear-jerker, 'The Waltons.'
ABC, the network in the middle of the ratings race, bumped off some of its newest shows: 'Aloha Paradise,' 'I'm A Big Girl Now' and 'Bosom Buddies.' It also disengaged 'Eight Is Enough,' 'Those Amazing Animals' and the one-time rage of the tube, 'Soap.'
ABC, like NBC, is adding some television series veterans to its fall lineup in a trio of 60-minute dramas, including Mike Connors as an G-man in 'Today's FBI;' Lee Majors in 'Fall Guys;' Robert Stack in 'Strike Force'; and Lorne Greene in 'Code Red.'
This network is adding three sitcoms in 1981-82: 'Best of the West' with newcomer Joel Higgins; 'Open All Night' with George Dzundza; and Erma Bombeck's 'Maggie' with Miriam Flynn.
The best laid plans of all three networks, however, may go for naught.
If the Screen Directors Guild of America goes on strike in a contract dispute over home video profits participation and-or if the Writers Guild of America continues its strike, there will be no 1981-82 television season.