In some ways, cable television has become an oasis for family viewing. Without the multiple channels offered to cable subscribers, viewers are stuck with the over-the-airwaves wasteland.

No kidding.What are your family-friendly options if you do not have cable?

- Sitcoms laced with vulgar sexual humor. (From "Friends" to "Frasier" . . . and yes, reruns count, whether or not they are "new to you.")

- Dramas replete with violence and profanity and sexuality. (From "ER" to "NYPD Blue" to "Ally McBeal". . .)

- Talk-show monologues that have too many sexual jokes - mostly about Viagra and Monica Lewinsky these days. (From Leno to Letterman to Conan . . .)

- Those other kinds of talk shows, defined by Jerry Springer. (They are more rare these days, but with Springer's continued success, you can be sure more are on the way.)

- Even cartoons, featuring any or all of the above offenses. (From "The Simpsons" to "Invasion America" to "King of the Hill". . .)

To be fair, there are a few programs that don't make you feel you must chase the children out of the room whenever they come on, including "Touched by an Angel," "Promised Land," "The Wonderful World of Disney" and "Kids Say the Darndest Things."

But they are few and far between.

If you have "basic" or "extended" cable in your home, however, you probably have already come to realize how much wider a selection of "clean" programming choices you have.

Not just a few shows, mind you - but entire channels devoted to programs that aren't offensive. The Disney Channel, the Family Channel, Nickelodeon, TV Land, the Cartoon Network, etc.

There are also channels devoted entirely to one subject: news, sports, the outdoors, science, history, food - even game shows!

Some basic-cable channels do air material that is just as potentially offensive as what airs on the major networks.

MTV comes to mind.

But for the most part, if you don't have cable, you don't have many family-oriented alternatives.

And isn't that ironic. There was a time . . . as recently as 15 or 20 years ago . . . when cable television was considered the enemy of "wholesome entertainment."

My, how things change.

And in the midst of all these choices are my favorites - two channels devoted strictly to uninterrupted, older "classic" movies: American Movie Classics and Turner Classic Movies. (Known to fans as AMC and TCM.)

If you're looking for Cary Grant or Myrna Loy or Humphrey Bogart or Kath-arine Hepburn, this is where you go. Big stars, small stars, who-is-that? stars. The films are primarily from the '30s, '40s and '50s, though movies from the '60s and later do sneak in every now and again.

Sadly, however, a couple of basic-cable channels have chosen to buck the system with R-rated material . . . the kind of thing that has only been on pay-cable channels until now.

Specifically, AMC ran a pair of R-rated Vietnam War movies a couple of weeks ago, during its donations-push for film preservation. Both "Apocalypse Now" and "The Boys in Company C" were shown in unexpurgated, R-rated form.

And on Monday, Comedy Central repeated "Comic Relief," a benefit that aired live on HBO the previous evening.

For anyone who watches AMC regularly, the two R-rated movies were probably not a surprise, as they were heavily advertised on the station during the preceding weeks. They also aired late at night . . . although it was over a weekend.

But the question is, "Why?" The theme was war movies, but there are plenty that predate the anything-goes Vietnam era. (And many of those films were also shown on AMC that weekend.) Anyone who wants to see "Apocalypse Now" and "The Boys in Company C" can easily rent them at their friendly neighborhood video store.

And if AMC does want to show more recent pictures, why not show edited versions? It might be a nice alternative. (TCM, for example, showed the very R-rated "An Officer and a Gentleman" last weekend - but it was an edited, toned-down version that could have been rated PG.)

The "Comic Relief" program really caught me off-guard, however. I just assumed it would be edited, since it was to be shown on a basic-cable channel. But every R-rated expletive from an array of standup comedians was loud and clear.

This is a terrible precedent, and I hope it doesn't signal a trend.

On the other hand, isn't it just like Hollywood to lull the audience into a sense of serenity, then muddy it up with unnecessary shock value?