Perhaps the world simply wasn't ready for Jim Profit.

With his shellacked hair and crocodile smile, he all but slithered onto television screens when the Fox series "Profit" premiered April 8. Coolly charming and delightfully diabolical, he was introduced as the rising hotshot of the Gracen & Gracen conglomerate. A charter member of the by-any-means-necessary school of success, Profit was the kind of corporate cobra who could make Gordon Gekko seems as harmless as a garden snake.As brilliantly played by Adrian Pasdar, he wasn't an anti-hero, but an anti-Christ rustling the shadows and skeletons in everyone else's closet. Of course, he had his own dark secrets - he murdered his father and had an affair with his drug-addled, conniving stepmother. And then there was the matter of his tortured childhood, and the cardboard moving box where Profit still slept naked and curled in a fetal position.

"Profit" was hailed as one of the best shows of the season. Critics scrambled for superlatives to praise the program, predicting wonderfully wicked doings for one of the most daringly original TV characters in recent years.

But four episodes into its run, "Profit" proved a loss. With dismal ratings, the series was yanked off the air. In these highly competitive times, with so much at stake, even kudos from the critics was not a lifesaver for a program drowning in the depths of the Nielsens.

The final four episodes will air during the summer, but the show's cancellation was one of the biggest blows in a TV season full of dead spots. Especially disheartening was how quickly Fox dropped the ax on the promising series, which may have been too smart, too sinister and, ultimately, too tough to categorize for television's taste.

Even a clunker like "My Mother the Car" got an entire season before mercifully sputtering to a halt.

INCREDIBLE REVIEWS - " `Profit,' I think, is one of the most obvious abuses of quick cancellation I've seen in a long time," said Robert Thompson, associate pro-fes-sor of television at Syracuse University's S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications.

"It seemed like Fox really flew in the face of anybody who was writing or talking about that show," he said. "The very weeks when it was getting these incredible reviews, they decided to take it off the schedule."

"Profit," which also starred Lisa Blount, Lisa Zane and Keith Szarabajka, aired on Mondays. It staggered from the start, lost among CBS' "Murphy Brown" and "Cybill" and NBC's inexplicably popular women-in-peril TV movies. Then the show ran into the first part of the finale of ABC's "Murder One." And while that critically acclaimed show flailed in the ratings all year, it received big numbers for the conclusion of the show's season-long murder trial.

But the final, fatal blow for "Profit" came April 29, when the series got a measly 3.9 rating compared with the 19.5 scored by Part 2 of the blockbuster NBC mini-series `The Beast." In the final season numbers, "Profit" ranked 138th out of 159 shows.

Given the much-hyped competition, some say the final ratings of "Profit" were not a fair assessment of the series' potential. But Fox executives maintain the program was given a fair chance to find an audience.

"Obviously it was in a sweeps period, and the ratings just weren't there," a Fox executive said. Sources say Fox Entertainment president John Matoian called the cancellation the greatest disappointment of his career.

CHAGRIN - Even John McNamara, who created and executive-produced the series with Stephen Cannell and David Greenblatt, was reluctant to "play the blame game." He told an interviewer, "Fox promoted us and spent money like you wouldn't believe." Yet he could not hide his chagrin over the show's quick cancellation.

"You know we were ecstatic as those rave reviews were rolling in," he said. "Then after we got slaughtered by `Murder One,' Fox said they were going to pull Episode 6. Then after `The Beast' debacle, it was `We're going to pull Episode 5 and hold it to June.'

"OK, I understand the business of it all," McNamara said. "But we would have found an audience."

"Profit" had already found an audience among the members of Viewers for Quality Television, the Virginia-based organization headed by Dorothy Swanson. She has been inundated with calls and letters from viewers discouraged by the show's demise.

"It certainly was not a mainstream show. It wasn't for everyone. There were parts of it I'm sure mainstream viewers found very disturbing and unappealing," she said. "But for people who like interesting television, it was very well written. It was spellbinding. You had to know what made this guy tick.

"It was one of the more interesting and innovative, if not the most interesting and innovative, series of this new season, which had basically had nothing," Swanson said. "The show was too good."

TIME TO CATCH ON - If "Profit" had received a reprieve, if the show had been granted the opportunity to find an audience, it could have joined an illustrious list of television shows that floundered before soaring into the rarefied air of classics. Comedies such as "All in the Family" and "Seinfeld" and dramas such as "Hill Street Blues" and "St. Elsewhere" all came dangerously close to cancellation during their first season.

"The best series television will almost invariably require a time to catch on. `The Beverly Hillbillies' didn't take long to catch on because the premise was so obvious," Thompson said. "But with really complex programming like `Hill Street Blues,' `M.A.S.H.' (and) `Profit,' it isn't immediately apparent what's going on, and it takes a while for the whole thing to gel.

"I know very few people that would bear with a Dickens story for more than the first three chapters if they were looking to be hyper-stimulated right off the bat," he said. "It takes those long novels a good 100 pages to begin to come together, and that's how I view some of the better television programs."

NOBLE FAILURE - Instead, "Profit" joins the ranks of TV's noble failures, programs that caught the eyes of the critics but never the wide interest of viewers. "Nichols," an arch, unconventional Western starring James Garner, garnered little support, lasting one season, 1971-72. "Max Headroom" portrayed a twisted future dominated by TV; ratings were constantly monitored, and any program showing the slightest dip was instantly canceled. The show was not only innovative but prescient; it lasted less than a season in 1987.

And last year, "My So-Called Life," the acclaimed adolescent angst-fest, folded after one season despite critical raves and a concerted effort by loyal viewers to save the show.

Television viewers have endured quick cancellation periods in the past - the late 1970s, when ABC and Fred Silverman ruled the tube, come to mind - although some doubt the medium has hit such a slide again. They point to recent renewals of such programs as ABC's "Murder One" and NBC's "Homicide: Life on the Street" as evidence that quality, not ratings, is sometimes enough to sustain a program from season to season.

Except, it would seem, in the case of "Profit." Some Internet buffs have even suggested Fox president Rupert Murdoch canned the show because its scathing portrait of the corporate world may have too closely resembled his own empire.

"Normally networks bleed for reviews like those `Profit' got, but here it made no difference" said Michele Leponde, who is writing a book about television in the 1990s. "It's almost as if the network had something special in their hands, and they just didn't know it. Maybe it's like a sign that Fox is starting to behave like the older networks."

Once the upstart, Fox could always be counted on for irreverent programming such as "Married . . . With Children," "The Simpsons," "In Living Color" and "New York Undercover."

QUINTESSENTIAL - "Profit," which was too dark to be called comedy but too gleefully wicked to be a straight drama, seemed the quintessential program for the maturing network.

As the new kid on the block, Fox was more likely to give new programs an opportunity to find an audience. Such patience helped make hits of "Melrose Place" and "The X-Files." Even a show like "Party of Five," which has had more success with the critics than the viewers, has remained on the schedule.

Last-place networks, Thompson said, "have always had a tendency to be much more patient with shows because they have nothing to lose." He contends "Hill Street Blues," which premiered in January 1981 with lousy ratings, would have been canceled by a first-place network. Indeed, at the time, NBC was in last place - and more willing and able to take chances with programming.

By the time "Hill Street" finished its run in 1987, it was one of the most honored dramatic series in television history, paving the way for such programs as "NYPD Blue" and "Homicide."

Yet as the network's fortunes changed in the mid-1980s with such mega-hits as "The Cosby Show," NBC showed much less tolerance with failing programs. The same could now be said of Fox, which has become more of a player in the network standings.

COMPETITION - "Fox, by being the last-place network, used to have that luxury to hold on to things. Now, of course, it isn't always necessarily last place; some of its time slots are doing very well," Thompson said. "It's now competing in a field where there are networks behind them - WB and UPN. I think Fox, being in the middle of the pack, is perhaps now beginning to reassess what their programming strategies are."

Most still adhere to the notion that TV networks will always have a place for programs that challenge viewers and defy categorization. Yet, the crash and burn of "Profit," which could not live up to its name from Fox's standpoint, underlines the kind of bottom line even Jim Profit himself would have understood - good reviews are fine, but ratings and revenue are better.

"From an artistic standpoint, we're certainly not doing the medium any favors by canceling things so quickly," Thompson said. "Unfortunately, unlike law school and medical school, there's no such thing as programming school for TV executives. The process is one step above witchcraft."