Women have a lot more to thank the late Lucille Ball for than they will ever know. She was the first woman to turn a real pregnancy into ratings.

It was a gutsy thing to do. Would a generation that still referred to imminent birth as "something in the oven" or "in a family way" recoil at the idea of seeing a woman who had no idea where her feet were moving? Would they find the humor offensive? Was it something they wanted their children to see?Up until that time, television played it pretty safe. A character on a soap would announce she was "with child." You could hang a handbag from her hipbones. Two weeks later, she coddled a newborn who didn't even spit up on her knitted dress. So much for water retention.

Today, babies are where the ratings are. The battle started on the morning shows. First, NBC's Jane Pauley, then ABC's Joan Lunden. Then Jane again, then Joan. (CBS just couldn't fight all that fertility.) Mary Alice Williams on cable delivered. Then back to Joan. When Jane left NBC, Deborah Norville picked up the banner. Katherine Couric will take her leave in a few months.

Meanwhile, CBS is a fool for putting its hopes on Bob McKeown. Anyone can march into Kuwait City. But let Connie Chung show up in a maternity top and the world will rejoice.

There was a time when motherhood had to run in tandem with a husband. Since Julia Duffy's character on Bob Newhart's show didn't have one, her real pregnancy was disguised with bulky sweaters and hidden behind vacuum sweepers. However, with "The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd," it is no longer considered a problem.

There are a lot of reasons for the success of showing real pregnancies on television. If the news is bad or the plot is weak, we have something that changes week after week. There's also empathy among women who know what it takes to get dressed in the mornings, let alone throw up on commercial breaks. But mostly we feel some pride that these successful women are making a place in their lives for children.

As my mother said when she sent a pair of homemade booties to Lawrence Welk's piano player, Jo Ann Castle, when her child was born, "She can't play the piano all her life."