The new made-for-television movie Danielle Steel's ''Changes'' is more shrewd than lewd, more of a programming strategy than a piece of entertainment. NBC has taken this gauzy romance starring Cheryl Ladd (When She Was Bad...) and Michael Nouri (Rage of Angels II) and scheduled it opposite the NCAA basketball championship final on CBS. The reasoning here is that men watch sports and women want an alternative to that, so what better than a TV version of one of Steel's best-selling romance novels? This is sexist twaddle, of course, but it's twaddle that works, as far as NBC is concerned: When the network put two other Steel-based TV movies, Kaleidoscope and Fine Things, up against the World Series last October, the movies did surprisingly well in the ratings, currently ranking among the top five TV movies of the 1990-91 season.
Ruth Slawson, NBC's senior vice president of movies and miniseries, said recently that ''when competing against sports on television, you give audiences a choice by offering something in the same 'escapism' mold.'' Ruth, you said a mouthful: Changes is more escapist and for that matter, more moldy than any TV show since Dynasty. The movie is a two-hour fantasy about what it's like to have gobs and gobs of love, money, and power.
Ladd plays New York TV newswoman Melanie Adams, the sort of video journalist who specializes in reports that tug at viewers' heartstrings. Early on, when Mel as everyone calls her broadcasts a story about a young girl who needs a heart transplant, Mel's housekeeper, Raquel (Betty Carvalho), runs out of the room midway through Mel's show. Sobbing, she mutters, ''I can't watch no more of this!''
Some of us don't have that choice, Raquel. While researching the heart-transplant story, Mel meets Los Angeles heart surgeon Peter Hallam (Nouri), and the first time we see him, director Charles Jarrott (Poor Little Rich Girl) stops the camera dead in its tracking shot. There is a long pause in which Ladd stares soulfully and no one speaks that's because we're supposed to be registering what a big, gleaming, gorgeous hunk of man Michael Nouri is. Men are rarely showcased on TV as glamorously as Nouri is here he's the one the camera lingers over, panning across his piquant pectorals, nuzzling against his perpetual five-o'clock shadow. In Changes, the man is the primary sex object.
Mel and Peter fall in love, and they discover they have a lot in common: They're both successful, they're both rich, and they're both single parents, with five children between them and four out of the five are truculent, teenage brats whom we're supposed to find high-spirited and rebellious. Mel and Peter, if only to combine forces against their offspring, get married immediately.
There's actually very little plot in Changes: Mel leaves New York to join Peter in Los Angeles, taking a job on a local news show; Peter loses a patient he liked a lot; the stepbrothers and stepsisters get to know each other. It is as if Steel and her screenplay adapter, Susan Nanus, felt it was enough just to describe an idealized romance and an opulent life-style. Furthermore, as racy best-seller fiction goes, the TV adaptation of Changes is pretty chaste. There's only one major love scene between Mel and Peter (they pant very loudly), and the movie's worst scandal occurs when Peter's oldest son (Christopher Gartin) gets one of Mel's daughters pregnant and she (Christie Clark) has an abortion.
But that's just a rather cynical setup for a later scene, in which Mel announces to the assembled children that she is pregnant. Rather than congratulate her, the brats moan and groan, while the daughter in question glares bitterly at Mel and says, ''I've just had an abortion and now you're having a baby how do you think I feel, Mother?'' Mel blinks and gulps, at a loss for words.
What with the demands of her career, the always-bickering children, the impending baby, and her husband's workaholic habits, Mel finally gets fed up. ''I'm only one single human being, doing the best I can!'' she yells, then announces she's moving out. Holing up in a hotel room okay, holing up in a huge, beautifully decorated room in the sort of hotel where they give you those nice, thick, soft cotton robes to wear with the hotel's name embroidered on the breast pocket Mel sulks until Peter comes to get her. The romance-novel fantasy is almost complete: He begs her to come back (''I've been selfish; I've been unfair ''), and she agrees to return. Soon after, perfection is achieved as Mel... well, I suppose I should leave at least a couple of plot points unrevealed.
Ladd and Nouri are by now old hands at this sort of guff, and their careful underacting prevents Changes from becoming a campy embarrassment. Yes, I know, I've given away a lot of the story. But, well, gee: I'm only one single TV critic, doing the best I can!