Specials: Mirth and music -- ''MTV's 10th Anniversary,'' ''Michael Landon: Memories With Laughter and Love,'' and more will hit the small screen this season

Not so long ago, CBS, NBC, and ABC were happy to give variety specials to every Tom (Smothers), Dick (Van Dyke), and Harry (Belafonte) who could toss together a couple of sketches and guest stars. But it’s harder than ever for shows to live up to the label ”special,” so for this season’s lineup, the networks will reach out to the worlds of film, theater, sports, and music, and into the vaults of TV history.

The competition begins early, when NBC wins a somewhat unseemly race with CBS to get a Michael Landon tribute on the air. NBC’s Michael Landon: Memories With Laughter and Love (Sept. 17) will draw on the recollections of family and friends, as well as footage from Bonanza, Little House on the Prairie, and Highway to Heaven. Three nights later, CBS will broadcast Landon’s US, the two-hour pilot for what was intended to be the actor’s next series.

Mindful of the huge success of February’s commemorations of All in the Family, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and The Ed Sullivan Show, CBS plans a second ”Classic Weekend” this November; look for The Very Best of The Ed Sullivan Show II, as well as salutes to M*A*S*H and both The Bob Newhart Show and Newhart. NBC will offer a 29th-anniversary celebration to begin the final season of The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson (Oct. 3), 90 minutes of TV’s greatest comediennes in Television’s Funniest Women: A Museum of Television & Radio Tribute (Oct. 24), and a Real People Reunion (Oct. 1). And ABC will indulge in TV nostalgia of a more recent vintage with a November special for MTV’s 10th Anniversary (actually, MTV blew out the candles on Aug. 1, but who’s counting?). Among the stars scheduled to perform live are Michael Jackson and Prince.

ABC has corralled some big names in comedy: Roseanne and Tom Arnold and Emmy-winner Lily Tomlin are preparing half-hour animated specials, and Jaleel White (better known as Family Matters‘ Steve Urkel) will get an hour-long showcase. But the rest of this season’s specials avoid TV personalities. Movie director Francis Coppola is planning to oversee a series of live dramas for CBS; Meryl Streep will narrate Age Seven in America, a CBS documentary about second-graders across the country that’s based on Michael Apted’s 1963 British film 7 Up; Whitney Houston will star in a music special for ABC; and on Sept. 20, NBC will offer A Comedy Salute to Michael Jordan. And two unusual programs will bear Steven Spielberg’s imprint: He will consult on NBC’s adaptation of Stephen W. Hawking’s 1988 best-seller, A Brief History of Time, and produce CBS’ Opus & Bill (December), the first special to star characters from Berke Breathed’s comic strip Bloom County.