4 FRIDAY AGE SEVEN IN AMERICA (CBS, 9-10 p.m.) What a great idea: Take 19 7-year-olds of different races, regions, and classes, and interview them about the issues that will shape their lives: wealth and poverty, home and school, drugs and crime, friendship and loneliness. And what a terrific hour of TV-funny, smart, heartbreaking-director Phil Joanou (see box on page 56) and the makers of this special have wrought. Age Seven is an American version of the superb British documentary series that began with 7 Up, which has returned to its subjects every seven years, chronicling their lives through adulthood. (The latest installment, 35 Up, was released this year.) If anything, the greater diversity of the American children, whose homes range from an opulent suburban home to a family shelter, makes Age Seven richer. Some of the youngsters are shockingly street-smart, versed in the vocabulary of crack vials and weaponry. Others are more naive; asked about gangs in his neighborhood, sweet-faced Eric from Chicago says, ”Like Al Capone!” But beneath its gentle surface, Age Seven is a bristling condemnation of American inequities, as well as an outraged manifesto. Though no adult (except for narrator Meryl Streep) speaks to the camera, don’t be fooled: This is television for grown-ups, at its best. A -Mark Harris

COVINGTON CROSS (ABC, 9-10 p.m.) A 14th-century British nobleman single- handedly raises his four rambunctious children in this new fall show.

SCARED SILENT: EXPOSING AND ENDING CHILD ABUSE (CBS, NBC, PBS, 10-11 p.m.) Three networks have combined forces to air this documentary hour simultaneously, a gesture that lends Scared Silent instant significance. Host Oprah Winfrey refers to child abuse as a ”national epidemic,” speaks briefly of the molestations she endured as a girl, and introduces six segments- profiles, she says, of ”six perpe- trators of sexual, physical, and psycholog-ical abuse.” Scared Silent is valuable on a number of levels. By interviewing a variety of abusers and their victims-fathers and young daughters; middle-aged adults vividly recalling years of violence and sexual assault by parents who have since died-viewers will be moved, repulsed, and informed. Scared Silent is less than honest about its structure-some of the scenes look like re-creations of conversations between abusers and victims, but this isn’t clarified. The hour also does a good job of revealing something I’m not sure it intended: the extent to which psychotherapy and the recovery movement have deadened the language-and therefore the emotions-that people use to talk about this subject. When a father begins sobbing as he talks to his daughter about why he molested her, she says, ”I see you being very vulnerable now.” That can’t be an honest reaction, but rather a line parroted from extensive therapy sessions, don’t you think? This young woman says, ”Do I think my dad’s really in recovery? I reserve that.” I think she means, ”I don’t know,” but the systematic distortion of her feelings into psychobabble seems like yet another punishment this person has to endure. A- -KT