Should anyone decide to launch a worst-timing awards competition, NBC ought to be the odds-on favorite to win for 2000. In early March, just as Lent was getting under way, the network premiered a prime-time animated sitcom called “God, the Devil and Bob.” Its pre-release promotional “teasers” hinted at flippant tweaks of basic Christian beliefs. No fewer than 18 of the network's affiliates either refused to air the show outright or said they wouldn't broadcast it before midnight.

Yet even in markets where the show did make it to air, it received lukewarm ratings and drew complaints. Which is why it was cancelled at press time in the U.S. — though NBC says other countries will show all 13 inaugural episodes. In the show, which is more bluster than blasphemy (more on that later), God considers destroying the world, but instead decides to give humanity a chance if only one person can prove worthy of saving.

Enter Bob, a guy swigging a beer from a barstool. “Folks, meet your last chance for salvation,” says the voice of God. “I wouldn't make any long-term plans.” God, who sips beer himself and looks and sounds like a sartorial 1960s hippie, matches wits with the devil, who dresses and speaks like an erudite Englishman.

For a medium that assiduously avoids issues of faith, and works even harder to avoid references to organized religion, what is NBC thinking with this one — on the eve of Easter, no less?

The bottom line is that “God, the Devil and Bob” reflects a calculated business risk. It's part of a trend which has gathered momentum as viewers' attention has been diverted from a few traditional networks to myriad cable stations. Each of the networks has attempted to detonate some wildly innovative program idea that would appeal to viewers' insatiable appetites for “something different.”

Real-Life TV

For CBS and Fox, this has meant, among other things, the advent of “real-life TV.” CBS will premiere two programs in late spring in which a group of regular folks — that is to say, non-actors — are placed in close proximity to one another (in a house and on a desert island, respectively).

The group must then “nominate” one person for expulsion until only one is left. That individual, of course, wins a fabulous prize. Even though these ideas are borrowed from European TV, they're completely new and novel to American audiences.

Which brings us back to NBC and its quest for can't-miss audience bait. “God, the Devil and Bob” sailed into March with high hopes. It came with an impressive pedigree (Carsey-Werner, which has produced bankable hits like “The Cosby Show,” is behind it).

It has some star power (James Garner supplies the voice of God). It also wears on its sleeve an air of controversy, which never hurts a show's immediate prospects. Plus animated shows help networks attract a coveted audience: teens and young adults.

Instead, the show has fizzled. Why? As it turns out, “God” is not particularly groundbreaking. The show basically trumpets safe, middle-class values: Take care of your family, help your children, be a faithful husband. “Been there, seen that,” many viewers have said. But NBC continues to try to scare up the Next Big Thing. Maybe now we really should be worried.

As for what's worth clicking to this month: Holy Week always brings out the best in EWTN; watch for the Catholic cable network to present some especially memorable, Jubilee-inspired programming this year. Here are some other worthwhile shows to look for in April (all times EDT):

APRIL 9-13

The American Pr esident

PBS, 9-11 p.m.

An intelligent and visually intriguing look at the history of the presidency, this gargantuan undertaking draws on the talents of Peter Kunhardt, a former network news producer considered one of TV's pre-eminent history specialists. The shows are organized into hour-long blocks exploring various themes. For example, one studies presidents who succeeded those who died in office; another examines presidents from famous political families.

Ten hours will provide more detail and information than many viewers will care to absorb. But American history buffs will be licking their chops over the fascinating flow of trivia. (Did you know that President John Tyler forged a close tie with his second wife after her father and his secretary of state were killed aboard a ship during a weapon demonstration?) Those who stay with the series to the end will see, in the final hour, Bill Clinton discussing his impeachment trial.


Walking with Dinosaurs

Discovery Channel, 7-10 p.m.

This will rank as one of the must-see programs of the year for science lovers. It is truly a remarkable program; I can honestly say that I have never seen anything quite like it. The show's producers have used computer animation and animatronics (robot animals) to re-create Triassic and Jurassic ecosystems — along with many of the creatures believed to have inhabited them (Coelophysis, Placerias, Stegasaurus, Diplodocus and friends). Discovery is boasting in its promotional press kits that this is “one of the most ambitious television ventures” ever undertaken. Well, it turns out they're not exaggerating. The creatures' lifelike movements and incredibly detailed features will have you rubbing your eyes and thinking you're looking at the real thing.


The Miracle Maker

ABC, 7-9 p.m.

If you watch television on Easter, this is one of the best choices you can make. A combination of animation and claymation, its visuals may strike some as off-putting at first. But in the hands of producers Christopher Grace and Elizabeth Babakhina, it is often compelling and moving — and the eyes quickly adjust to the imagery. The film does not attempt to tell the entire Gospel story from beginning to end, but instead draws heavily upon Jesus' parables.

This approach may point young viewers toward the meaning of Christianity. At the very least, it will provide an “in” for family discussion on the true meaning of Easter. Best of all, even though “The Miracle Maker” is fit for the kids, grown-ups should enjoy it as well. In other words, the whole family can enjoy this one together. How often can you say that about a contemporary television show?

Verne Gay also covers television for Newsday.