HITTING THE PIT STOPS FOR SURFIN' CABLE DIAL

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The march of viewers and ad dollars to cable is quickening. There is an explosion of new programming options. To get an idea of who is up and who is down in the new era, we rejected the latest scientific research techniques and came up instead with the following highly subjective analysis:

Nick the Knife: By reinvesting profits from huge cost-per-thousand increases into programming, Nickelodeon and Nick at Nite are staying on the cutting edge of kid's programming and cherry-picking the best of '60s and '70s reruns for the older folks.

I scream, you scream ....: Growing fascination with other people's tragedies has helped lift Court TV off the bottom rungs of the cable ladder. From the Menendez Brothers to O.J. to the next high-profile trial, the zany antics of that wacky criminal justice system are guaranteed to keep Court TV's ratings in an upward spiral.

Something completely different: Comedy Central has managed to cut through the clutter by creating cult hits like "Mystery Science Theater 3000" and slash-and-burn satire such as "Politically Incorrect." An offbeat marketing campaign has buyers buzzing; ads are way up.

Pat on the back: Family Channel is hell-bent on removing its image as the voice of the religious right. While "The 700 Club" still sits in the middle of daytime, prime time and late night, a new surge of original programming and more select use of "Bonanza" reruns has some buyers-and the public-taking another look.

Juiced up: As the world lurches from crisis to crisis, it always spells big ratings for a network dedicated to getting there first with the most. Throw in the O.J. Simpson trial and CNN is on an upswing again.

And the first shall be last: TBS seems destined to go the way of Pan Am.

It beat everyone to the punch and virtually created a category, only to get fat, lazy and vulnerable. Ad money may be up, but ratings are down. The lack of Braves baseball isn't helping Ted Turner's first-born and neither are reruns more cryogenically frozen in time than Walt Disney.

Roger that: NBC had better not miss any child support payments for

America's Talking because it isn't. In fact, nobody-least of all Madison Ave.-is talking about this network. The market for inside-the-beltway blowhards is a small one at best and C-SPAN brings them to us warts and all.

The verdict on VH-1's recent repositioning is still out and whether they will be able to cross-promote Lean Cuisine with Bubble Yum is an interesting question. Problem is, time waits for no one.

Moribundle of joy: Headline News' once-fresh format now seems like that episode of "Star Trek" where a rip in the space-time continuum has the

crew repeating their actions over and over. The cute tricks of a toddler get

a bit old by the time the child reaches puberty, and if Headline News wants

to attract new ad revenues, it better grow up in a hurry.

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