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Networks cram quality into "sweeps' season

What will the major networks do to get viewers' attention this month?

How about: an Oprah Winfrey TV movie; a two-part, monster-filled horror drama; R&B stars Brandy and Whitney Houston in Cinderella; Angela Lansbury's return to TV in a Murder She Wrote movie; and the highly anticipated season premiere of The X-Files?

And that's just tonight.

With their viewer share defecting to cable, it seems the major networks are taking no chances with viewer attention during the all-important "sweeps" period _ when broadcasters use ratings totals to set advertising rates.

Though "sweeps" actually began Thursday _ it lasts until Nov. 26 this year _ the first, big battleground of the month emerges tonight, when every major network has blockbuster programing scheduled for the beginning of the week.

As usual, the losers may be viewers forced to choose between exceptional programing crammed into four short weeks in November, while the rest of the season meanders like a bad Tony Danza sitcom.

Still, as any TV critic will tell you, sometimes you have to take what you can get when you can get it. Here's a road map of what's coming the next few weeks:

ABC (WFTS-CH. 28): Kicking off Sunday with the one-two punch of Rodgers & Hammerstein's Cinderella (starring Brandy, Whitney Houston, Jason Alexander and Bernadette Peters in a triumph of color-blind casting) at 7 p.m. and Oprah Winfrey Presents: Before Women Had Wings at 9 p.m., the yellow-and-black network also offers ex-thirtysomething vet Peter Horton in the made-for-TV story of how eight climbers died in a deadly ascent on Mt. Everest, Into Thin Air: Death on Everest (at 9 p.m., Nov. 9).

The network recreates Charles Dickens' classic Oliver Twist with Richard Dreyfuss and Elijah Wood at 7 p.m. Nov. 16, while ex-NYPD Blue star Gail O'Grady tries to defuse a nuclear device threatening Washington, D.C., in the miniseries Medusa's Child, airing at 9 p.m. Nov. 16 and Nov. 20.

Everyone from Lou Gossett, Jr. to 10,000 Maniacs stops by ABC shows this month, beginning with Wednesday's Ellen (at 9:30 p.m.) when Gossett heads the boot camp at a Civil War re-enactment Ellen Morgan attends. On Friday, Sabrina, the teenage witch, visits every show in the network's TGIF lineup, following a time-altering cat through her own show to Boy Meets World, You Wish and Teen Angel (8 p.m. to 10 p.m.).

In later weeks Michael J. Fox reunites with ex-Family Ties co-star Meredith Baxter on Spin City, Tim Allen visits Dan Aykroyd's sitcom Soul Man and a character played by Emma Thompson considers coming out on Ellen.

CBS (WTSP-CH. 10): Angela Lansbury recreates her classic character Jessica Fletcher in a two-hour homage to legendary director Alfred Hitchcock, Murder She Wrote: South By Southwest, airing at 9 p.m. Sunday. Author Ken Follett's best-selling book about cloning gets the mini-series treatment in The Third Twin, airing at 9 p.m. Nov. 9 and Nov. 11, starring Kelly McGillis and Larry Hagman. Vanessa Redgrave and Natassja Kinski star in Bella Mafia, the story of mafia wives avenging their husbands' deaths, at 9 p.m. Nov. 16 and Nov. 18. And Matthew Modine grows up in a town where everyone assumes he is deaf and mute in What the Deaf Man Heard, at 9 p.m. Nov. 23.

There are lots of guest stars stopping by CBS series as well, with alumni of The Bob Newhart Show, Newhart, Taxi and Dear John joining stars Judd Hirsch and Bob Newhart on their new show George & Leo. Marilu Henner, Peter Scolari, Marcia Wallace, Tom Poston and more appear on the comedy, a half-hour before its normal time at 9 p.m., Monday. Murphy Brown tries medicinal marijuana at 8:30 p.m. Wednesday, while Diagnosis Murder welcomes TV spy stars Barbara Bain (Mission: Impossible), Robert Vaughn (Man From U.N.C.L.E.), Robert Culp (I Spy) and Patrick Macnee (The Avengers), 9 p.m. Nov. 13.

NBC (WFLA-CH. 8): Perhaps because it's already the No. 1 network, NBC has few special events planned for this month, offering House of Frankenstein, featuring vampires, werewolves and the Frankenstein monster in '90s Los Angeles at 9 p.m. tonight and Monday. Dick Clark brings another bloopers special in the All-New All-Star TV Censored When Bloopers Attack!, at 8 p.m. Nov. 12, while assorted illusionists appear in The World's Greatest Magic IV at 8 p.m. Nov. 26.

Stunt casting _ when celebrities appear on "special" episodes of continuing series _ is also at a low ebb on the peacock network, with Mel Brooks returning as Uncle Phil on Mad About You at 8 p.m. Tuesday, while ex-Cheers star Rhea Perlman visits Union Square at 8:30 p.m. Thursday and ex-porn star Traci Lords joins Profiler at 10 p.m. Saturday.

FOX (WTVT-CH. 13): Aside from the return of its The X-Files series, Fox concentrates on a slew of its heavily criticized, reality-based crime and animal attack specials. Accordingly, World's Scariest Police Chases airs at 8 p.m. Tuesday, World's Deadliest Swarms airs at 9 p.m. Tuesday and Cheating Death: Catastrophes Caught on Tape airs at 9 p.m. Thursday.

Agent Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) faces scrutiny for saying her partner Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) is dead during the second of a three-part trilogy that marks The X-Files' return at 9 p.m. tonight. Celebrity flake Sandra Bernhard turns up on Ally McBeal at 9 p.m. Nov. 10 and 17, while R&B diva Chaka Khan guest starred on Living Single at 8 p.m. Oct. 30

UPN (WTOG-CH. 44): It's mostly stunt casting for attention at this netlet, with Star Trek's George Takei on In The House at 8 p.m. Monday, Chaka Khan singing with the church choir on Good News at 9 p.m. Monday, The Time's Morris Day in Moesha at 8 p.m. Tuesday. Star Trek: Voyager moves to a new time period with a two-part cliffhanger at 8 p.m. Wednesday.

WB NETWORK (WWWB-CH. 32): Besides a two-parter in which Buffy faces another slayer on Buffy the Vampire Slayer (9 p.m. Nov. 17 and 24), music stars visit WB sitcoms, including: disco diva Gloria Gaynor and funky divas En Vogue on The Wayans Bros. (9 p.m. Wednesday and Nov. 12), and rap star Da 'Brat on The Parent 'Hood at 7:30 p.m. Nov. 16.