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BREAKING NEWS: WHAT TV DOES BEST

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The one sure way to know if Something Really Important is happening in the world is to look around a newspaper city room.

If there are people in there, something's going on.If those people are working feverishly, it's probably something important.

But if those people are in there, and they're working feverishly, and the television sets are on, it's definitely Something Really Important.

This year, the television sets in the Deseret News offices have been on more often than usual, monitoring events in China, San Francisco, eastern Europe, the Philippines and, Wednesday morning, Panama. It seems appropriate somehow that a year so packed with events of critical international importance would end with another big story - the kind that makes newspaper journalists reach to turn on their television sets while prompting soap opera fans to reach for their telephones to complain about those "stupid" interruptions.

Network coverage of America's military intervention in Panama actually started late Tuesday night - or very early Wednesday morning if you were Dan Rather or Peter Jennings on the East Coast. Both were on the air by about 1 a.m. EST reporting on bits of information as they filtered in while trying to put them all together in some sort of broad context. NBC's Tom Brokaw didn't make the first call, but he was on hand a little later to help guide his network through "Today" show reports and expanded "Today" coverage until 10:30 a.m. MST.

With all of the practice the networks have been getting at covering these stories lately, all three exhibited remarkable restraint in sticking to the facts as they were released and avoiding speculative reports. There were no "unsubstantiated rumors" of horrendous bloodbaths on the air even though such reports were - reportedly - making the rounds in the wee hours. And all three networks (and CNN, of course) stayed with White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater's early morning press conference despite some moments of galling redundancy.

Still, there was no questioning the communicative power of reports from network correspondents who were literally in hiding in Panama hotels, uncertainty and anxiety clearly edging their voices, or the image of U.S. soldiers in armed confrontation when the footage finally started arriving.

It was, once again, television doing what it does best - providing live, up-to-the-minute information during a time of crisis. And that's something every journalist can appreciate - even those ink-stained wretches toiling at newspapers.

-THERE WAS PLENTY of holiday cheer to spread around when the A.C. Nielsen Co.'s weekly television ratings came out on Tuesday.

The Fox-y smiles probably beamed the brightest, when the fourth network scored its highest ratings ever as the special Christmas episode of Married . . . With Children finished in 13th place with a 27 percent share of the total Sunday night viewing audience. Right behind it - well, OK, only 17 places behind it - was The Simpsons' Roasting On An Open Fire Christmas special.

Is it any wonder the Fox folks are anxiously anticipating the arrival of "The Simpsons" as a regular series in January?

But Fox wasn't alone in its pre-Christmas joy. CBS was relieved to finally escape the three-network ratings cellar - thanks to strong performances by Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer on Friday night. And NBC was smugly pleased with its ninth consecutive ratings win - and 80th out of the last 81 weeks.

ABC couldn't be too excited about its third-place prime time performance. But even they could manage a grin or two when noting Roseanne's return to No. 1 and the continuing dominance of "ABC World News Tonight" in the network news ratings.

The top 10 programs for the week were: 1. Roseanne (ABC); 2. Cheers (NBC); 3. The Cosby Show (NBC); 4. Golden Girls (NBC); 5. A Different World (NBC); 6. Empty Nest (NBC), 60 Minutes (CBS) and Wonder Years (ABC); 9. Dear John (NBC); and 10. L.A. Law (NBC).

The second 10 consisted of: 11. Murder, She Wrote (CBS); 12. Monday Night Football (ABC); 13. Married . . . With Children (FOX); 14. Who's the Boss? (ABC); 15. Bob Hope Christmas (NBC); 16. In the Heat of the Night (NBC) and Matlock (NBC); 18. Coach (ABC); and 19. Unsolved Mysteries (NBC) and Designing Women (CBS).

The week's big losers (this time counting Fox, since we're counting them among the winners) were: 77. Saturday Night With Connie Chung (CBS); 78. Trans-Antarctica Expedition (ABC); 79. COPS (FOX); 80. Open House (FOX); 81. Free Spirit (ABC); 82. Alien Nation (FOX); 83. 21 Jump Street (FOX); 84. Homeroom (ABC); 85. Reporters (FOX); and 86. Beyond Tomorrow (FOX).

-ON TV TONIGHT: ABC looks into the weird world of Psychic Detectives (7 p.m., Ch. 4); CBS has animated holiday specials featuring Garfield (7 p.m., Ch. 5) and The California Raisins (7:30 p.m., Ch. 5); PBS presents A St. Olaf Christmas (8 p.m., Ch. 7); Sean Penn and Madonna star in Shanghai Surprise (8 p.m., Ch. 13); Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire introduce "White Christmas" in Holiday Inn (8 p.m., Ch. 14); and Greer Garson is a worth Oscar-winner for Mrs. Miniver (10:35 p.m., Ch. 7).

-LOOKING TOWARD FRIDAY: The Jazz play the Hornets in NBA Basketball (5:30 p.m., Ch. 13); CBS relies on holiday stand-bys, A Charlie Brown Christmas (7 p.m., Ch. 5), Frosty the Snowman (7:30 p.m., Ch. 5) and A Very Brady Christmas (8 p.m., Ch. 5); Fred Astaire stars in The Man in the Santa Claus Suit (7 p.m., Ch. 30); KXIV takes its turn with It's a Wonderful Life (8 p.m., Ch. 14); Live From Lincoln Center (8:30 p.m., Ch. 7) presents "A Classical Jazz Christmas with Wynton Marsalis"; and A Tale of Two Cities (9 p.m., Ch. 11) concludes on "Masterpiece Theatre."