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On TV, cable and video won viewers from the networks

Nineteen-eighty-seven was a dramatic year for television - but a good deal of the drama took place off screen. Network television - especially network news - marked time, waiting for the three new corporate CEOs to decide exactly what they would do to cut costs but maintain quality, as they had promised.

Cable viewership grew rapidly - with more than half the households in America now subscribing to basic service. Videocassette recorder ownership also expanded tremendously; more than half of America's households now own VCRs.

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Meantime, broadcast television lost about 10 percent of its viewership during the first few months of the new season.

The new ratings system, based on ``people meters'' that record not only the programs viewed and but also information on who's watching them, has caused some revisions in ratings. For instance, ``The CBS Evening News With Dan Rather,'' which had been languishing in third and second spot, regained the lead in the dinner-time news sweepstakes, mainly because of the ratings logistics.

The challenge of a fourth network (Fox) and cable competition forced the commercial networks to try to be more innovative in series programming. So, instead of only predictable sitcoms and action melodramas, we got some fairly literate tries at new genres: sometimes sitcoms without one-liners, at other times way-out, cult-oriented concepts, and occasionally combinations of drama and comedy, labeled ``dramedies.'' Some examples of new series blends: ``Frank's Place'' (CBS), ``Beauty and the Beast'' (CBS), ``The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd'' (NBC), ``The Slap Maxwell Story'' (ABC), and ``Hooperman'' (ABC). Although all followed somewhat traditional lines, they broke the plastic pattern by using anti-heroes, incomplete story lines, etc.

``Cagney & Lacey'' (CBS), ``Kate & Allie'' (CBS), ``Newhart'' (CBS), ``The Cosby Show'' (NBC), and ``L.A. Law'' (NBC) remained the best-written and best-acted regular series, even as ``Cagney & Lacey'' seemed to be entering its final days on TV. ``The Cosby Show'' retained much of its popularity, although many viewers started to feel it was becoming repetitious and pedantic, despite the overwhelming charm of Cosby himself.

In the documentary area, this was the Year of Bill Moyers. His Public Affairs Television production company presented some of TV's most incisive nonfiction programming, all on PBS: ``In Search of the Constitution,'' ``Report From Philadelphia,'' ``God and Politics,'' and ``Secret Government: The Constitution in Crisis.''

But it was a dull year for ``Masterpiece Theatre,'' also on PBS.

It was the year the Cable News Network (CNN) came into its own, especially during the summit meeting, allowing CNN's ubiquitous anchor, Bernard Shaw, to move into the select company of top TV anchors.

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It was the year when cable's free Arts & Entertainment channel began to rival PBS in airing fine programming, by dint of contractual arrangements that often allowed A&E to snare the best of BBC before PBS got a chance at it.

What were the best programs of the year?

In entertainment, I choose ``Foxfire'' (CBS), the drama with Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronyn. In news, the Bill Moyers documentary ``Secret Government: The Constitution in Crisis'' (PBS), inspired by Irangate, gets my vote.

That's the way the TV year went - seemingly calm and unperturbed. But behind the scenes, there was a new element: resignation at the networks to the inevitability of changes being wrought by cable, VCRs, people meters, and the corporate takeovers.

Arthur Unger is the Monitor's television critic.

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