THE three major television networks - ABC, CBS, and NBC - are in trouble. It's not that they are losing money. Far from it. In fact, their advertising revenues are climbing steadily, if not at the same rate as in earlier years. But more and more people have stopped looking at network programs - partly because of the sharply increased competition from cable, independent stations, the budding Fox Broadcasting Network, and videocassette recorders - and partly because they just don't seem satisfied with the programming the networks offer.
Network viewership is down dramatically. Not long ago, 85 percent of American TV viewers automatically and uncritically tuned in to one of the three networks. This summer audiences abandoned the networks to such an extent that ABC, CBS, and NBC garnered only 53 percent of all viewers. That's the worst performance in network TV history and, inevitably, is generating a good deal of discussion and unease among both television executives and sponsors.
Criticism focuses particularly on the network news divisions and their tendency to turn news coverage into ``infotainment,'' a mixture of news and entertainment designed to attract - and amuse - more viewers.
IN a recent speech before a group of television executives, Av Westin, senior vice president in charge of reality-based programming for King World, a major TV producer and syndicator, predicted flatly that ``within the next five to seven years, TV network news will be irrelevant.''
Mr. Westin, originator of the popular ABC ``20/20'' news program and producer of the current syndicated news program ``Inside Edition,'' said the networks' news functions, along with their highly paid anchors, were being overtaken by new technologies which favored local anchors and local coverage, which included ``feeds'' from abroad.
While industry executives tend to admire the excellence and intelligent thoroughness of the hour-long MacNeil-Lehrer Newshour on the non-commercial Public Broadcasting System, which commands an influential viewership, none have seen fit to allocate funds to extend their evening newscasts.
Nor has there been an attempt to copy the format of the Cable News Network, which has a wide impact here and worldwide.
In fact, the notion that news must be made profitable dictates policy at all three networks. CBS has just replaced David W. Burke, the president of its news division, with Eric Ober, a CBS veteran of 25 years.
The story that has leaked out is that the CBS management is unhappy with the $300 million spent by CBS News so far this year, and that it wants cuts made. Making the situation worse is the fact that ``CBS News with Dan Rather'' is playing second fiddle to ABC and anchor Peter Jennings in the important evening TV news ratings.
The correlation between news and the profit motive has always been a sore point with the networks. It became even more pronounced in the '80s when the Reagan administration deregulated the broadcast sector.
In a 1984 speech, Mark Fowler, then chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, put it succinctly. It was time to stop regarding the networks as ``trustees,'' he said. ``It is time to treat them as almost everyone else in society does - that is as a business.''
``Television is just another appliance. It's a toaster with pictures.''
IN a new book, ``One Nation Under Television: The Rise and Decline of Network TV,'' published by Pantheon Books, J. Fred MacDonald acknowledges the penetrating influence of television on American life during the past several decades.
``Because of what it did and did not show, Americans in many ways are what they are - spiritually, morally, economically, intellectually, historically, and ideologically.
``If there is disarray in the industry, it is due to the way it has operated since its inception. If viewers are deserting `free' TV, it is because they were never fully served by broadcasting.''
As Mr. MacDonald sees it, United States television had built-in, fatal flaws which created the network predicament today. ``At every step, television served interests seeking to amalgamate Americans. Audiences were to be as large as possible, shows as popular as possible, and program content was to be as common as possible to attract viewers. The US may have been the most pluralistic civilization on Earth, but network monopolistic practices confined the population to sameness.''
MacDonald, and others, argue that the coming years will see much more ``narrow-casting,'' a tendency - via more available cable channels - to address a wide range of special interests.
Further, maintains ``One Nation Under Television,'' the American view of television will be spread - and is already being spread - abroad. ``Television is moving toward a rearrangement into global spheres of influence,'' MacDonald predicts, adding that broadcasting worldwide will be controlled by fewer and fewer corporations.
In the US, the TV structure is splintering, with the networks losing ground steadily. Yet, because of their unique ability to deliver programming into so many millions of homes, the three networks - despite all the new competition - still attract a steady stream of advertising.
Last year, according to Veronis, Suhler & Associates, an investment banking firm, the networks took in better than $9 billion in advertising, which represented a disappointing 1 percent growth over 1988. By comparison, total advertiser spending on TV commercials, including cable, was up 6 percent in 1989.
Industry executives say that, despite the audience erosion, advertisers still see the networks delivering huge numbers of people nationally, and that this accounts for their willingness to continue to support network TV.
In his book, MacDonald offers a partial analysis of network TV's current problems. ``National television has never offered viewers what they wanted: It offered what audiences most accepted,'' he writes.
``As a result there were entertainment genres that never appeared in prime time. Among the forgotten forms were foreign language shows, literary programs, intellectual shows, all-news formats, racially and regionally oriented programs, sexually explicit entertainment, and business information.
``Also missing, except in peripheral viewing hours, was a consistent commitment to educational, children's, and fine arts programming, public service shows, round-table discussions, and documentaries.''
Robert Sarnoff, then president of NBC, formulated the credo of commercial broadcasting in a speech back in 1961.
``It is a mistake to assume that viewing can take place without the consent of the viewers,'' he said. ``The ultimate decision on what the public sees can come only from the public itself, as long as it is free to watch or not to watch as it pleases.''
Three decades later, network audiences, perhaps a little more sophisticated and demanding, are taking that message to heart.