"It is certainly one of the great dramatic days in American history," said Walter Cronkite on CBS, and it was one of the most television-intensive days as well, as networks scrambled to cover the inauguration of Ronald Reagan and the agonizingly overdue finale to the Iranian hostage crisis.

There were so many stunning pictures and dramatic developments that one risked media intake overload, a deadening and dizzying sensation, just watching it all unfold. Networks bounced from Washington to Frankfurt to Algiers to New York to Plains, Ga., in the effort to keep up. What resulted was the most global inaugural day ever. Perhaps not since the funeral of John F. Kennedy have Americans kept so diligent a vigil before their television sets.

Much of the imagery was indelible, often sublime:

Tears streaming down the faces of hostage families who were caught by TV cameras as they learned from their television sets of the hostages' freedom.

The hostages themselves, finally glimpsed on the rainy runway, as they changed planes in Algiers -- one man later toasting the camera with a glass of fruit juice, another flashing the "V for victory" sign, others looking dazed and blank.

Jimmy Carter choking up as he stepped off a helicopter and spoke to the raincoat-clad citizens of Plains about the end of the hostage crisis, with welcome-home signs flapping in the breeze nearby.

Reagan's voice going husky when he emotionally recalled the words in the diary of a World War I soldier killed in action, words about duty, sacrifice and higher causes.

ABC's split-screen showing Reagan signing his first presidential act -- a federal hiring freeze -- and, simultaneously, Carter's jet taxiing on the runway before taking the country boy home.

Jody Powell's exhausted profile, bleary-eyed but unbowed, in the Oval Office, in the early morning hours, as word came that the last major snag had been cleared.

Warren Christopher, negotiator for the United States, presiding over a brief ceremony at the Algiers airport, the approximate equivalent of a small-town smoker in the global village.

No one should need proof of the power of television at this point, but if they did, the Iranians may have offered it by delaying the release of the hostages, after delay upon delay, until after Carter was out of the White House and Reagan had finished his Inaugural Address.

It was enough to make Walter Cronkite's dander hit new heights.

"I try to remain the cool correspondent, impartial and unaffected by events," said Cronkite of the Iranian delay, "but it seems like the most uncivilized final touch to an uncivilized performance that I can imagine. . . . They seem to dangle this in front of us, deliberately making it as difficult as possible." He called the Iranians "diabolical."

CBS correspondent Bruce Morton said of Reagan that because of the hostage crisis, "he's not even the lead story on his own inauguration day."

But what a day and night it turned out to be.

In its final hours the hostage crisis turned into a live, real-life, international thriller. Television coverage became especially gripping when the networks let their technologies lead them by the nose. Last night, all three ran a sensational 90-minute broadcast relayed here by satellite from Algerian television.

On CBS, this installment of the hostage serial began with dimly viewed jets moving about on the runway in Algiers, with correspondent John Blackstone in the dark about which plane, if any, contained the released hostages. A camera stared for long minutes through flagpoles at a plane that turned out to be the wrong one.

"We do have a plane now," said Blackstone excitedly to anchorman Dan Rather in New York. "Yes, there is a plane at the end of the runway." dBut that plane took off and flew away. Then, still another appeared in the distance and moved toward the camera. This was it. "Here they come, Dan," Blackstone said.

There were many more nervous minutes of suspense, made all the more nerve-rattling by the noise of jet engines, which came through the space warp of the satellite relay sounding like some weird sci-fi whine. "One never knows whether to keep talking or just let that picture of the aircraft door speak for itself," Rather said. As usual, in television, the choice was made to keep talking.

Rather was seeing the live feed from Algeria at the same time as the rest of the country, and as had happened before during the hostage crisis, journalists and viewers became partners in a communal vigil.

NBC occasionally interrupted shots of the hostages for shots of hostage families watching the hostages. On ABC, Frank Reynolds apologized for the fact that he had no such pictures on his network. He complained that the closed-circuit telecasting of last night's inaugural balls to sites in 41 states tied up telephone lines and made remote pickups impossible for ABC. But that only made ABC's coverage less gimmicky and cluttered than that of the other networks. This was nothing to gripe about.

Undoubtedly scenes from the telecast would be excerpted on later newscasts and soon pass into the popular iconography of the '80s. But nothing ever will be able precisely to equal the exhilarating tension of watching the spectacle as it happened. And that included waiting out 30 minutes of air time in which there was nothing on the screen but a motionless, mysterious airplane.

There was still another story vying for air time -- and helping produce what may have been the greatest news bottleneck in the history of electronic journalism -- and that was both the retreat from power and the vindication brought by the end of the crisis for former president Jimmy Carter.

Rumors persisted through the morning that Carter would go on the air and make a speech announcing the end of the crisis. But the time for that came and went. Finally all three networks cut away from the Reagan inaugural parade in midafternoon to catch Jimmy Carter's speech to citizens of Plains, the first time he publicly acknowledged that the hostages were out of Iran.

Much earlier, ABC News President Roone Arledge hatched an eleventh-hour brainstorm to record the waning moments of the Carter administration on tape, and got approval first from former press secretary Jody Powell and then from Carter himself, on the condition that nothing be aired without Carter's permission. At 3:25 yesterday afternoon, ABC viewers saw a tape of Carter on a White House phone learning from G. William Miller, former treasury secretary, that the agreement with Iran had at last been finalized.

Viewers also saw former secretary of state Edmund Muskie rush over to congratulate Carter.

The day was filled with high-powered drama and instant history made to order for television, and it can't be said that Reagan was really upstaged by all of this raw TV journalism. His inaugural speech was tailor-made for TV and even included TV directions -- which only CBS followed fully -- implicitly calling at one point for shots of such nationalist symbols as the Washington Monument, the Jefferson Memorial and Arlington Cemetery. People watching at home saw the speech as Reagan conceived it for TV; people standing there in person at the Capitol saw a mere replica.

After a weekend of overcovering prospects for an end to the hostage crisis, the networks tended to undercover it as Inauguration Day began. In part there may have been a fear of getting burned by overreaction to hints of hope. Throughout the morning correspondents judiciously hedged on each new tiny millimeter of apparent progress.

The hostages "should be leaving Tehran before too long," said Tom Brokaw on NBC's early-morning "Today" show. Reporter John Palmer said "Things look very optimistic at this point that the hostages will be free by the time Jimmy Carter leaves ofice at noon today."

Just after 9 a.m. on ABC, Steve Bell reported, "Well it could happen any minute -- freedom for the American hostages in Iran." Reporter David Ensor offered as proof the fact that Carter was then being made up for a television address.

Moments later, as Reagan left Blair House for a church service, CBS reporter Bill Plante shouted out a question about the hostages. Reagan said he understood that "the plane's at the end of the runway." A few minutes later Dan Rather reported on CBS -- "this just in" -- that the plane was at the end of the runway. He didn't know that Reagan had already broken that scoop on Rather's own network.

Then as Reagan returned to Blair House after the prayer service, Plante shouted at him again: "We're told the plane is on the runway." Reagan is the one who'd told him.

When Reagan left Blair House for the White House, there was Plante again screaming out "Governor!" from behind a police line. To put another perspective on the way information was flowing, Vice President George Bush told reporters that, in effect, all he'd known about the hostage crisis was what he saw on TV. "That's where we got all our information up to now," he said, about a half hour after the ceremonies had ended at the Capitol.

During the day, television news was shown off at its best and worst. At its worst, there were the inevitable raids on those poor hostage families, who've spent months in a perpetually -- and literally -- wired state, with tiny mikes pinned to their clothes and zillions of watts flooding their faces. Dan Rather holds the dubious distinction of getting first to former hostage Richard Queen after the breakthrough became a fact.

"Richard Queen, what are your feelings at this moment?" he asked. Oh no -- not again!

Some members of hostage families pleaded for shelter from the media for a period of time after the hostages return. They'll need all the luck in the world to bring that one about.

Seldom have the wonders of satellite technology been so dazzlingly deployed as during the day, when a network would skip about from Washington to New York to Wiesbaden to Frankfurt to Algiers, sometimes within a matter of moments. And yet Walter Cronkite was unable, twice, to make contact with reporter Phil Jones even though Jones and Cronkite were both at the Capitol -- Cronkite in his booth -- separated by only about 60 yards, Cronkite estimated.

After the second attempt failed, Cronkite said, "Well, Phil, the only thing I can suggest is to get on that plane with Cyrus Vance and go to Wiesbaden" in order to get on the air. Because of Cronkite's supportive, rallying-point presence, the CBS coverage had the most character. ABC had the most inventiveness and responsiveness and the most alert hostage coverage.

NBC had John Chancellor and Roger Mudd sitting as far apart in an anchor booth as it may be anchorly possible to sit. Immediately after the swearing-in, Chancellor dawdled away precious minutes interviewing, at a deferential distance, Jimmy Stewart, who was not terribly illuminating. This was one of the wackiest news-judgment calls of the day.

But nobody can be right all the time. Because it was involved in the all-important business of commercials, CBS missed much of, and had to join in progress, Carter's emotional departure at Andrews Air Force Base. CBS missed with another commercial Amy's tears and Jimmy's and Rosalynn's final wave goodbye. CBS missed the entrance of Nancy Reagan and Rosalynn Carter onto the Capitol podium before the swearing-in. It was time for a commercial.

Of course there is no such thing as decorum on television. Coverage of the inauguration was repeatedly interrupted to sell toilet paper, toilet bowl cleaner, dog food, a legal clinic offering cheap divorces, People magazine and other such trash -- none of it trashier than promotional ads for NBC and ABC prime-time shows.

And though Cronkite cut his usual stalwart figure, he had some indecorous moments himself when, true to his own tradition, he didn't realize it was time to shut his big avuncular mouth. He was the only network correspondent who chose to keep yammering right through the playing of the hymn "God of Our Fathers" by the Marine Band. He almost spoke over the singing of the National Anthem and drowned out Chief Justice Warren Burger asking Reagan if he was ready for the oath of office and Reagan's response that he was.

Ironically, commentator Bill Moyers raved at one point on CBS about how TV pictures can carry their own commentary and dramatic impact (this was a day overloaded with those). But even though correspondent Bob Schieffer murmured an amen to that, no one put on the brakes when it came to blabbing.

ABC's Frank Reynolds ruined director Chet Forte's beautifully composed montage of Washington sights (during the hymn) by following with encomiums about how wonderful it was. Reynolds proved one of the least valuable of inaugural guides, limited to such insights as "There's Happy Rockefeller!" and, on the transfer of power, "What a tremendous thing it is." With the crisis apparently over, he said, "What a great burden is lifted."

He even seemed eager to throw platitudinous water over the lively commentaries of George F. Will and Sandor Vanocur. Will said the unspeakable delay in releasing the hostage plane was "just the final episode of Iran manipulating the United States through television."

This is an aspect of the crisis that television has been reluctant to investigate all along. Reynolds dropped Will's point with a thud.

A climax of sorts came at 11:38 a.m. when ABC's Ted Koppel said that UPI had issued a two-word dispatch: "Hostages Free." Cronkite soon followed him, attributing it to a UPI "flash." It remained for Ted Turner's fledgling Cable News Network -- which had been ahead of the commercial networks several times during the weekend -- to wring the ultimate drama out of the event by flashing on the screen "Upi reports hostages FREED" just as a Marine was singing, from "America the Beautiful," the line "who more than self their country loved."

It was an enthralling, heart-stopping, amazing day of American television.