WHETHER A FIFTH, SIXTH OR SEVENTH “network” goes on the air in the next 15 months, the Big Three and Fox Broadcasting Co. may have discovered the perfect way to hang on to audience share: movies.

As independent stations hop on the original programming bandwagon with the likes of “Baywatch” and “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine,” networks seem to be finding again and again that feature films, properly scheduled, can capture vast numbers of viewers — sometimes in second or third runs.

This is hardly a new phenomenon. Many will remember growing up with the James Bond movies playing time and again on ABC, or such perennials as “The Ten Commandments” and “The Wizard of Oz.”

Still, the assumption that homevideo, pay cable, pay-per-view and a variety of other options would undercut the viability of feature films on TV has failed to materialize.

The theory at least makes sense. Why would someone watch an edited, commercial-interrupted, poorly dubbed (or as they said in the TV version of Brian De Palma’s “Scarface,””Forget you, you freak!”) movie after they’ve seen the same flick in a theater, on video or on cable?

Certain movies lend themselves to repeated viewing, particularly in selected demographics. Kids, for example, can watch the same thing until the tape breaks, so it’s not surprising that “Beethoven” or last week’s Thanksgiving-night telecast of “Home Alone” would capture significant ratings.

Yet the evidence shows adults are no less susceptible. Consider the following , within the last few months:

  • Nov. 14: “Backdraft” captures a huge share of the 18-49 demographic and a 15.6/23 in households against the opening of “Return to Lonesome Dove.”

  • Nov. 7: “Dances With Wolves” and “Ghost,” airing opposite each other, combine for a 51 share from 9-11 p.m.

  • Oct. 17: ABC’s repeat telecast of “Pretty Woman” captures a 21.1/33 — better than its first airing — opposite the World Series and the opening installment of an NBC miniseries.

  • Sept. 26: “Sleeping With the Enemy” rouses a 17.2/28 for CBS, crushing made-fors on ABC and NBC.

  • May 2: NBC’s “Fried Green Tomatoes” knocks everyone on its ear with a 23.8/ 38, the highest rating for a feature film on TV in seven years.

  • April 4: Moses rises, again, for ABC, as “The Ten Commandments” wins the 9- 11 p.m. slot.

PART OF THIS PHENOMENON may have to do with the blurring of the lines between movies and TV. You probably know someone with a 48- or 50-inch TV set that, unlike earlier models, offers almost crystal clarity. You’ve also probably seen a movie at a multiplex where the screens don’t appear to be much larger than that.

Another big factor may be that folks are less willing to commit to an ongoing series but don’t mind revisiting a movie they’ve seen before. Would oft-repeated fare like “Miracle on 34th Street” or “It’s a Wonderful Life” play in network primetime during the holidays? It’s an intriguing notion. None of this conjecture may explain why features seem to work so well on TV, but one thing seems clear: With independent stations devoting more and more time to original product, the networks seem to have both an opportunity and an incentive to become America’s in-home revival house.

NEWS IS SUCH SWEEPS SORROW: Local news continued its descent down the evolutionary ladder during the November sweeps, with a major assist from Michael Jackson, the Menendez brothers, Heidi Fleiss, Lorena Bobbitt and supporting players like sexually marauding clergy. Jackson and Bobbitt deserve special kudos, opening the gates for anchors to use words like “penis” and “genitalia” with regularity. “NYPD Blue,” eat your heart out.

Tabloid newsmagazines, meanwhile, caved in to their worst tendencies, despite protestations that they’re not really the tawdry exercises they used to be. Tell that to anyone who watched “A Current Affair” shamelessly chasing Jackson rumors around Europe.

KNBC-TV anchor Kelly Lange also deserves congratulations for her get-there-last interview with Fleiss. The multipart series did offer an exclusive look inside the alleged Hollywood madam’s home, which should send the station’s ratings skyrocketing among the interior designer demographic.

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