If variety is the spice of life, then this fall’s new television season will serve up the spiciest prime time in years.

ABC with Dolly Parton and the Lifetime cable network with a cast of unknowns will try to liven up living rooms across the country with the first full-scale variety programs since “Barbara Mandrell and the Mandrell Sisters” went off the air in 1982.

And Fox Television, buoyed by its critically acclaimed “skitcom,” “The Tracey Ullman Show,” also is planning to introduce a traditional variety series, starring Nell Carter, early next year.


“People miss ‘The Ed Sullivan Show,’ ” says Joy Behar, a New York club comedian and the host of Lifetime’s new variety program, “Way Off Broadway,” which debuted Monday. “How many sitcoms can you watch with that canned laughter? I’m sick of it.”

The word around the television industry had been that what audiences were sick of was variety shows.

In their heyday, variety programs starring Arthur Godfrey, Milton Berle, Jackie Gleason, Dinah Shore, Danny Kaye, Carol Burnett, the Smothers Brothers and Flip Wilson had been among the highest-rated shows on television. But no variety show has cracked the Top 20 on a season-ending ratings list since “The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour” in 1973-74.

Theory had it that in the modern era of slick production values, the old-time potpourri of celebrity guests, music, song, dance and slapstick shenanigans had become a television relic.

“The networks get fearful if the word is that something is dead,” says Ted Harbert, an ABC Entertainment vice president. “We de-emphasized comedy several years ago because of that. But all it takes to correct any of those ideas is to put on a good show. Look what NBC has done with comedies.”

Nonetheless, he concedes that his network’s two-year, $40-million commitment to “Dolly” is not the result of renewed faith in the variety genre. It’s just that ABC, still languishing in last place in the network ratings game, is convinced that what people want to see on TV is Dolly.

“We don’t think of it as putting on a variety show,” Harbert says. “We think we’re putting on Dolly Parton. If she wanted to do a sitcom or a drama, we would have done that. We’re just excited to have her on the air.”

“Dolly” (premiering at 9 p.m. Sunday) will emphasize Parton’s down-home personality and rapport with her guests and the average person watching at home.

“I just don’t believe it’s true that variety television is dead,” Parton told reporters this summer. “I think people would like to see music and comedy and fun things again on TV.”

Parton will sing, star in comic sketches and entertain famous guests, especially during one planned segment called “Dolly’s date,” in which Parton will chat, flirt and dance with the likes of Johnny Carson and Tom Selleck.

The show will have its share of country singing, but Parton and her producers intend to present all types of popular music. Little Richard, Patti LaBelle and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers have already been booked and she hopes to lure Frank Sinatra and Bob Dylan to Sunday night television. (Her guests on the premiere, however, are familiar TV personalities: Oprah Winfrey, Pee-wee Herman and Hulk Hogan.)

One reason for the decline of variety shows is that the rigid segmentation of the music business discouraged potential musical guests from appearing on a show hosted by someone who was identified with a different musical genre.

Pop stars, for example, did not want to sing on a primarily country music show. And eventually audiences simply grew bored with the same small circle of guests who hopped from show to show doing the same old thing.

Today, Harbert says, there are few national venues for music acts. “American Bandstand” and MTV expose singers and bands to large audiences, but the ratings on those programs are minuscule compared to what “Dolly” will get in prime time even if it is a horrendous flop.

With Parton’s manager, Sandy Gallin, a man who for years has managed some of the biggest names in the entertainment industry, serving as the show’s executive producer, and with Parton’s stable of friends, the program’s celebrity-studded status should be ensured for at least two seasons. Among future guests will be Whoopi Goldberg, Burt Reynolds, Neil Diamond and Linda Ronstadt.

But even if the times seem ripe for one successful Dolly Parton-hosted variety show, no one can find any documented evidence to suggest that television viewers actually miss the old-time variety format. There is, some fear even at ABC, that variety may have fallen off the television schedule for a good reason--and that reviving the genre may simply be another example of the cyclical, jump-on-any-new-bandwagon folly that often passes for television programming.

“I really don’t think we know if the audience will accept it,” says Garth Ancier, senior vice president of programming at Fox Broadcasting. “A few years ago, people gambled that going back to Westerns would draw an audience and that didn’t work out so well.”

But Ancier and Fox believe they have found the only personality this side of Bette Midler versatile enough to hold the traditional variety show together. Ancier says that Nell Carter’s musical and comic acting skills as well as her ability to create a sense of family--a common denominator of many successful variety shows gone by (the Smothers Brothers, Sonny and Cher, Donny and Marie)--will appeal to enough of an audience to make a variety program successful on Fox.

“When a form is not widely on the air, we see it as an opportunity for us,” Ancier says. “There may not be a large enough viewing audience for the three networks, but we can live with a smaller, specialty audience.”

Though Lifetime is taking a different approach in the format of its new variety show than ABC or Fox, trying its own variety program--even one that will cost more than any program that the cable network has ever produced before--is not a great ratings risk.

“We hope to eventually get a 2 rating,” says Charles Gingold, Lifetime’s programming vice president. “We will be happy with a 2.” (“The Cosby Show,” by comparison, regularly exceeds a 30 rating, and the lowest-rated network show last season, ABC’s “Our World,” usually got about a 7 before it was canceled.)

Gingold believes that the channel-hopping television audience will stumble upon “Way Off Broadway” (now airing weeknights at 9, and due to expand to Saturdays on Oct. 10) some night by accident and stay tuned because it truly wants to see a variety show with an outlandish, contemporary edge.

Although there will be some well-known guests such as Steve Allen and Gloria Steinem, the program--”a cross between David Letterman and the old ‘Ed Sullivan Show’ “--will revolve around host Behar’s comedy routines and a slew of undiscovered comics and musicians displaying their talents on national television.

“We don’t have the wherewithal to compete with the networks for marquee-value names,” Gingold says. “So we will go with people on their way up. People have been saying that this type of television is dead. I don’t believe it. This is exactly the right time for it. And this is a wonderful opportunity for us to produce a program that is needed.”