Seventeen years ago, Pat Fili was a secretary at a major broadcast television network. Since then, her rise in the TV industry has been meteoric: Today she is a network executive who over the past two years has acquired a number of hot properties including "Spenser: For Hire," "The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd" and, most dramatic of all, "L.A. Law."

But Fili is not working for CBS or NBC, or for ABC, where she started nearly two decades ago. She's now with Lifetime, a cable network that began with a "for women only" sign out front and has burgeoned into an outlet for a full roster of general-interest programming -- while maintaining its feminist thrust.

And the series she's acquired are enjoying their second life, syndication, serving masses of viewers who hated to see them disappear from the broadcast networks.

Fili's rise from broadcast network handmaiden to cable television executive is only a partial illustration of the dramatic career leaps women have made in the cable industry.

"There's much more opportunity for women executives to advance in cable TV than at the networks because it's a relatively young industry. There isn't the same kind of entrenchment," observed Mary Anne Zimmer, vice-president of business and legal affairs at Arts and Entertainment. "To my knowledge, there is no woman general counsel at any of the networks, and never has been. And the chances of that changing in the near future seems highly unlikely. Also, there's just very little turnover at these high network positions." Before joining A&E, Zimmer served as director of business affairs at CBS.

Brooke Bailey Johnson, vice-president of programming production at A&E, supported Zimmer's contention. Previously a director at WABC, the ABC-owned television station in New York, she observed, "Since cable is fairly new on the scene, you don't have the same issues of seniority that you do at the networks or local stations. You don't have some 30-year guy who is next in line for a top promotion, which means a newer person -- a woman -- might have a shot at it."

Fili, Zimmer and Johnson are only three of hundreds of high-echelon corporate women who have discovered that cable TV is a hot ticket today. Over the past decade, women have been leaving the networks, the local stations and a range of top-notch posts across the job spectrum to join the executive suites of cable TV.

At their old jobs, they contend, they had gone the distance. The glass ceiling was firmly in place. The old-boy networks and company traditions died hard, even at the most enlightened industries.

Cable TV, however, is a new frontier of opportunity for women. And these women have made significant inroads at those rarefied corporate heights. At Discovery, 60 percent of the senior staff are women; at HBO, it's 50 percent, and at TBS, the oldest operation of the lot, it's 35 percent.

At the executive level, there are network presidents -- Kay Koplovitz at USA and Ruth Otte at Discovery. In cable system operations, there are June Travis, president and chief operating officer, Rifkin & Associates, Denver; and Carolyn S. Chambers, president, Chambers Communication Corporation, Eugene, Ore. Chambers is the country's only female multiple-system operator.

At the National Cable Television Association (NCTA), umbrella organization for the industry, eight out of the nine vice-presidents are also women.

The cable industry has been around for 40 years, beginning as a means of delivering television to rural communities that couldn't get reception. But over the past 10 years, it has grown into a highly competitive, high-tech business, providing wide-ranging programming as well as delivering signals to some 60 percent of the country's TV households.

Nationwide, there are some 10,000 cable systems and 40 program-providing networks, serving more than 50 million subscribers. More than half of all American homes have cable.

This late 20th-century telecasting phenomenon intersects with the changing political climate -- employers feel pressures to hire qualified women -- and the needs of talented business women to whom cable represents creative freedom as well as unprecedented career opportunity.

Bridget Potter came to HBO in 1982 with an extensive movie and TV background. Among other posts, she served as vice-president for Lorimar Pictures, and earlier she was ABC's East Coast vice-president in charge of prime-time program development, miniseries and movies for television. She chose cable, she emphasized, not simply because she could move into a senior vice-president slot, but because of cable programming options that would never fly on the networks.

"On cable TV, you don't have to worry about ratings to the extent that you do on the networks. You are freer to be more creative. And on pay-TV you can be the most creative," said Potter, HBO's senior vice-president for original programming.

Programming freedom was also the key for Geraldine Laybourne, president of Nickelodeon. "Here we can address the needs of children -- do consistent quality programming -- in the way the networks can't. It's not unusual for women to head children's programming departments at the networks. There is the belief that women are more in tune with children than men. But what is unusual is all-day children's programming. That would not happen at the networks."

Perhaps nowhere is cable TV's appeal to women more keenly embodied than in the 1984 creation of Lifetime. "Our programs can be watched either by women alone or with their families," said Fili, Lifetime's senior-vice president of programming and production. "Our mandate is to give women the kind of programming they want, but can't get anywhere else."

And then there are the occasionally untraditional business methods employed in cable, another plus for many women who have come to find the old-boy approach both alien and stale.

Selling advertising time is a perfect example, according to Kay Delaney, senior vice president of CNN's international sales. "At the networks, you go directly to the ad agency. And you don't have to spend time convincing it that appearing on NBC, for example, is a financially good thing," she said. "In cable, you have to convince the agency and the company. Flexibility is required.

"Generally, women do better in that area than men. Men tend to sell time by citing HUTs, PUTs {households and people using television}, shares and ratings because that's the way they've always done it. Women are more creative," Delaney laughed, "mostly because they haven't had the opportunity to get jobs where the old-boy methods rule."

Delaney, who started her career by running a videotape production company and has an impressive track record as a magazine advertising salesperson, said selling advertising is particularly attractive to women "because the money you earn is based on your work. You sell space, you make money. You don't have to deal with issues of personality conflict or sexism."

However, there are still very few women selling ad time on the networks, she said, adding that it is one of the last strongholds of male dominance.

So who are these women who fill the top slots in the cable industry? Where did they come from? How did they get to where they are? And where are they going?

The women in cable have a potpourri of resume's. Some come with entrepreneurial backgrounds; others boast advanced degrees; still others started as secretaries. That approach, however, is increasingly less common. The field has become too competitive and complex, commented Rifkin's Travis. Travis began her career typing and serving coffee.

"I started at American Television Corporation (ATC) in 1969," she recalled. "It was a small company, 13 people in the corporate offices. As the company expanded to include marketing and franchising, I was on the scene and I moved into new jobs as they opened up. Between 1969 and 1981, when I was named an executive vice-president, I had managed every single department. I eventually got an MBA. Today, the kids come in with MBAs. And they don't work as secretaries or take 12 years to get to the top."

Cable's executive body of women generally falls into three groups. There are the elder stateswomen, those over 45 who got their jobs usually by happenstance and made it by learning how to play like the boys -- in some instances, chugging bourbon and chasers and using lots of football metaphors.

"There was nothing more complimentary than being told you think like a man," said Gail Sermersheim, 47, vice-president of affiliate operations at HBO in Atlanta. "That was another way of saying you're career-oriented, not relationship-oriented."

There's the 35-40 crowd -- the heavy-duty go-getters who were assigned Kate Chopin's "The Awakening" in college, but who were ultimately weaned on Betty Harrigan's "Games Mother Never Taught You."

"Nobody talked about child-rearing, family conflicts or balancing lifestyles," said Ruth Otte, 41, president of The Discovery Channel. "Women who did were viewed as not serious about their careers. It would have been political suicide." She laughed. "Today, in some offices it may be political suicide to say you don't want a child."

Cable's third group is made up of the younger female executives who are dead serious about their careers and assume they will have families as well. That's not to say they expect smooth sailing -- they talk a lot about "juggling." And they expect their male counterparts will do the same. Indeed, both men and women gain points by voicing concern about child rearing and care.

"No, I wouldn't hold it against a potential employee if these subjects didn't come up in a job interview," said Winifred B. Wechsler, 34, vice-president of new business development for the Disney Channel in Burbank, Calif. "But I like it when they do, because it suggests a well-rounded person. And that's what we need in this business."

Those executives interviewed dispelled the idea that their work in cable is mere preparation for jobs with the major broadcast networks. A number of them pointed to cable as the "sexy" place to be today. Char Beals, a former spokesperson for the NCTA in Washington, said, "In 10 years, cable TV is already making a profit. It took the networks close to 20 years," she said. "The stock value in cable TV is rising. That's no longer the case at the networks, an industry that has reached its maturity."

Fili, Johnson and Koplovitz pointed out that there's no need to go to the major networks for higher salaries. In the beginning, they said, their salaries may have been lower, but as cable has matured and prospered, they feel their pay is competitive.

A&E's Johnson admitted she had qualms about quitting her network job. "Yes, of course, I wondered if I was leaving the mainstream by coming to A&E. I now realize how untrue that is. Three years ago, {program} suppliers came to cable as a last resort. Today, in many instances, cable is a first choice. Shelley Duvall's company, Think Entertainment, programs only for cable."

The growth of women in cable parallels the growth of Women in Cable, a Chicago-based organization with 2,000 members and 20 chapters. Its development mirrors the evolution of the women's movement. "In the late '70s," said founder Lucille Larkin, 51, who runs a cable consulting firm based here, "we started as a kind of breakfast club to compare notes and assure ourselves that we were competent. There were still so few of us and we were having negative experiences on the job. We got together as a kind of reality check."

Within short order, the organization became the primary place for women to gain visibility, get to know each other, and attend seminars, many of them given by leading corporate figures, women and men. "It was good business and good politics for the men," she said. "In fact, one-third of our membership today is men. I don't think they're there to wife-hunt. I love saying that."

In varying degrees, all the female executives interviewed feel responsible for helping other women, although for the most part the rhetoric is not couched in politically feminist terms. Instead, the executives emphasized what a "good resource" women are in an industry that requires a bit of innovation to deal with the new office politics, customer-client relations and, most central, programming decisions for audiences that have previously been marginal at best.

Two classic examples of the new breed are Laybourne of Nickelodeon and Fili of Lifetime. Both embody hard-nosed business acumen, traditional women's interests, and a strong dose of self-assertive feminism.

Fili, for example, insisted she is in tune with what programming women want in a way that a man can not be.

"I remember when I proposed acquiring 'Spenser: For Hire,'" (55 percent of Lifetime's programming is acquired, 45 percent original). "The men at the meeting were startled. They said, 'That's an action-adventure series. Women aren't interested in that.' I had to convince them that 'Spenser: For Hire' had the same demographics as 'Cagney and Lacey': Both programs are heavily skewed in favor of women ... Spenser is sensitive to women, he's a poet and," she laughed, "he's very good-looking."

Fili, 36, started her career as a secretary at ABC Sports. She moved up to become the department's comptroller (while earning her MBA at Fordham University at night). Five years later, in 1979, she joined HBO as director of production and programming. She has been at Lifetime since February 1988.

Her first major coup, Fili said, was acquiring NBC's acclaimed "The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd." "That program solidified the fact that we were a woman's channel." Lifetime has also produced 39 original "Dodd" episodes. The network is also going into the growing cable business of producing its own TV movies.

During her tenure, Lifetime has increased household delivery by 96 percent during prime time Monday through Friday. The network boasts 49 million subscribers and 4,900 cable systems carry the programming.

Fili said a network like Lifetime exists for several reasons.

"The demographics of our audience are what advertisers are looking for -- women, 18 to 54," Fili pointed out. "It is not difficult to sell ads. Also, cable system operators love us. For starters, a large percentage of the advertisements come with our product. And even more important, cable system operators are very happy with niche programming {programs targeted at deliberately circumscribed audiences}."

Continued Fili: "They can sell our programming to their subscribers without too much difficulty. And a channel like Lifetime, with its proportion of health-oriented, socially-conscious shows, looks good on the system operator's resume'. It helps assure franchise license renewal."

Nickelodeon, whose programming is aimed at children, enjoys similar status among system operators. Fifty-one million homes subscribe through the 7,615 cable systems that carry it, said Laybourne, Nickelodeon's 43-year-old president. Nickelodeon's companion service, Nick at Nite, features wholesome sitcom reruns from the '50s and '60s that appeal to yuppie nostalgia.

Laybourne has an unusual background for her high-visibility, high-paying, glamour job. Trained as an elementary school teacher, she has spent most of her career coordinating and screening children's films and visual aids for non-profit educational firms (The EPIE Institute and The Media Center for Children) and/or production companies, such as the Early Bird Specials Company.

The element that best defines her aesthetic, she said, is the philosophy of the open classroom: "My primary concern is what children are thinking and feeling." But she is also enamored of television's high-tech capabilities and sees their educational application. Under her tenure, Nickelodeon launched "Total Panic," a three-hour show that combines animation, contests, audience-participation and interactive video games. Home viewers can participate via telephone.

But the real feather in her cap, she believes, was a deal with the recently opened Universal Studios in Orlando, Fla. Universal will house Nickelodeon Productions for the next 13 years. The studios, representing the latest in state-of-the-art equipment, are about 16,000 square feet each and seat 250 per show.

Laybourne explained that Universal offered the facilities in exchange for the business it anticipates Nickelodeon's presence will draw to Universal: visitors with children who want to see the taping of the shows, tour the premises and buy souvenirs.

Laybourne, openly feminist in her viewpoint, said that Nickelodeon is one of the few cable companies that provides flexible hours and job-sharing opportunities for employees who are parents. She also noted that she does not sit behind a desk, thereby cutting an authoritarian figure: "I'm always at a round table, six feet in diameter surrounded by eight chairs, seating both men and women. We work as a team."

As head of USA, the nation's largest and oldest basic cable network, Kay Koplovitz couldn't be further removed from Laybourne or Fili. Koplovitz is almost the archetypal role model of feminism's first wave: She has scored in every aspect of what has traditionally been a man's domain.

USA's thrust is to be an aggressively competitive, broad-based entertainment network. And it has succeeded, taking the largest chunk of the cable audience (up to 36 percent) during prime-time hours. Next year, USA will add World Football League coverage to its schedule. USA also has snagged some of the hit 60-minute dramas offered for syndication, most notably "Murder, She Wrote" and "Miami Vice."

"We got them because we offered the most money on the open market," Koplovitz said matter-of-factly. "And if we could afford 'Cosby,' we'd bid for that too." Altogether, 10,100 cable systems carry USA; there are 53 million subscribers.

Koplovitz, 46, who helped form the company in 1980 -- previously, it had been the Madison Square Garden sports station -- has a reputation as a tough and wily negotiator. Among her achievements: helping to acquire the first national cable TV rights to Major League Baseball, the NBA and the NHL. In fact, the Wall Street Journal included her in its list of five women "who stand a better-than-even chance of being a Fortune 500 chief executive."

"I was a career woman way back. When I was 3," she laughed, "I made the lemonade, but got the other kids to sell it for me."

In addition to operating in a tough business, Koplovitz's interests are essentially socio-technological, always have been. Her masters thesis, written at the University of Michigan in 1968, was "The Political Ramifications of Cross-Cultural Communications." It focused on the applications and implications of satellite communications, an esoteric concept at the time.

When she worked at UA/Columbia, a cable operation, she was instrumental in leasing the company's transponder to other networks, such as C-Span and Black Entertainment Television. This far-sighted idea, which has since become routine, had rarely been done.

"My goal now is to open up new windows on the marketplace," said Koplovitz, "buy packages of theatrical films before they're released and ideally air them within a year."

As for flexible hours and job-sharing, Koplovitz has no objections to the concept, although they're not being practiced at USA. But, she said, "if the right people could be matched up for job-sharing, why not?"