ON Feb. 27, 1979, TV-watchers in the Tri-Cities area of eastern Washington State (Richland, Pasco, and Kennewick) unwittingly became the subjects of an experiment whose implications are both fascinating and disturbing.
At 7:30 on that evening, the local CBS, NBC, and ABC affiliates simultaneously broadcast a half-hour program entitled ''The Great American Values Test.'' Co-hosted by Ed Asner (star of the television show ''Lou Grant'') and Sandy Hill (then anchor woman of ABC's ''Good Morning, America''), it was the work of a team of sociologists at Washington State University (WSU) who wanted to answer a pressing question: How much influence does television really have on our behavior and values?
Most of us, I suspect, would answer, ''A great deal.'' But how to prove it? One can, of course, invite people into a studio and ask them to fill out questionnaires before and after watching a show. But can one devise ways to judge the effect of a show viewed voluntarily, at home, and with no hint of experimentation?
That was the challenge facing Sandra J. Ball-Rokeach, Milton Rokeach, and Joel W. Grube. Now, in their new book, ''The Great American Values Test: Influencing Behavior and Belief Through Television,'' they assess their sobering experiment. ''A single 30-minute exposure to a TV program designed to conform to certain theoretical considerations,'' they conclude, ''can significantly affect the beliefs and behaviors of large numbers of people for at least several weeks or months subsequently.''
Their experiment was elaborate. First they selected two areas of eastern Washington with similar characteristics: Tri-Cities (the ''experimental city'') and Yakima (the ''control city,'' where the program would not be shown). The program itself was based on earlier research in value surveys - the sort that ask participants to rank 18 different values (such as ''a comfortable life,'' ''a sense of accomplishment,'' and ''self-control'') in priority order. Focusing on three such values - ''freedom,'' ''equality'' (relating to racial and women's issues), and ''a world of beauty'' (relating to environmental issues) - the show sought to modify their rankings in the viewers' minds. After explaining, for example, that in national surveys Americans ranked ''freedom'' third and ''equality'' 12th, Asner commented:
''Americans feel that freedom is very important. . . . But they also feel that equality is considerably less important. . . . Does (that) suggest that Americans . . . are much more interested in their own freedom than they are in freedom for other people? By comparing your values with those results, you should be able to decide for yourself whether you agree with the average American's feelings.''
How did viewers respond? Faced with embarrassing contradictions between what they felt and what they thought they ought to have felt, did they shift their rankings? To test that question, 30 trained operators called 1,699 viewers in the experimental city immediately after the show. In the following weeks, these viewers received mail solicitations (carefully coordinated by the researchers and appearing to be unrelated to the show) from three local groups whose success in fund-raising would naturally depend on the values discussed on the show: the Afro-American Players (a theater group for black children), the Women's Intercollegiate Athletic Program at WSU (promoting equal treatment for female athletes), and an ad hoc environmental organization supporting the state's proposed bottle bill.
The results of this experiment are unequivocal. Those who watched the program without interruption responded far more positively to the solicitations - and gave more money - than those who had not. In this case, of course, the shift in values was in a positive direction. But the authors raise a troubling query. ''Can a Hitler, or any politician, or Madison Avenue apply our work for their benefit?'' The authors won't quite say, ''Yes.'' But so worrisome were their data that they thought hard about ''the ethical desirability of not reporting the outcome . . . .''
To a nation hurtling toward an election the book stands as a most timely warning. And to a nation whose TV sets (according to the latest Nielsen survey) are on for an average of 6 hours and 55 minutes each day, it is warning that must be taken in lively earnest.