America's most famous soap gets British TV networks in a lather

Would the Ewings win the court battle with the Barneses? Millions of British fans of ``Dallas'' wanted to know as the current television season wound up last night.

There's something else they still want to know. When the series resumes next winter, what channel will it be on?

It's all part of something known here as ``The `Dallas' affair.'' The program, which is very popular in Britain, has been the property of ``Auntie,'' as the BBC is affectionately called. But recently an executive of a major commercial network tried to snatch the series away from the BBC, adding an extra touch of suspense.

Television watchers in the United States may be surprised to learn that there is such competition for American TV programs among television networks here.

British television is also something of an enigma to many Americans.

``Where else would you get a program `Raising better Brussels sprouts' back-to-back with `Welsh sheepdog trials' in prime time?'' groaned an American visitor recently.

Yet this American would find numerous programs on British television to make him feel quite at home: ``Taxi,'' ``Matt Houston,'' ``Cheers,'' ``Happy Days,'' and, until recently, ``Hill Street Blues.''

None of them has made the same kind of splash, though, as ``Dynasty'' -- pronounced din-asty over here -- and ``Dallas,'' which urbane broadcaster Alistair Cooke terms ``glitzy trash.''

``Dallas'' has been known to attract as many as 13 million viewers to a single episode. That is a substantial number under any conditions but more remarkable, considering that Britain's population is only 60 million.

It was not surprising then that Bryan Cowgill, managing director of Thames Television, tried to lure ``Dallas'' away from BBC 1. There was such a rumpus over his tactics that Mr. Cowgill has been forced to leave his position with Thames.

The ``Dallas'' affair has been stewing ever since January. That was when Cowgill broke a gentlemen's agreement between ITV (Britain's independent, commercial television network) and BBC. The unwritten agreement was that no network should attempt to obtain a program already being shown on another. But Cowgill went ahead and worked to secure the program, outbidding the BBC.

When he bought the next 26 episodes of ``Dallas'' for $60,000, the BBC -- which had paid $42,000 -- charged that Cowgill had hijacked the series.

But it was no coup: ITV stations other than the London affiliate refused to show ``Dallas.''

Pressure was applied at Thames to sell the program back to the BBC, and it has agreed to do so.

Meanwhile the future of the next 26 episodes of ``Dallas'' -- winter viewing fare -- remains in doubt. The distributors want the BBC to pay as much as Thames had contracted to pay. The BBC is not playing ball.

The ``Dallas'' affair, it's becoming abundantly clear, has a plot that's worthy of a soap opera.

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