Imagine: hot hits of the day performed (lip-synced) by popular artists, sometimes in storybook fashion, but usually in straight-ahead nightclub or concert settings! Well, back in the '40s, long before there was MTV, before there was even TV, there were Soundies, three-minute black-and-white films that played in visual jukeboxes at restaurants, nightclubs and hotel lobbies - at a dime apiece!

"Entertainment Tonight" movie authority Leonard Maltin has collected dozens of these Soundies on four volumes that are a cornucopia of memories - of the big-band era, movie musicals and a time when you actually could hum a melody. Just like MTV, Soundies ranged from novelty items to dramatic settings; usually shot on low budgets and tight schedules, they too resorted to choreography, pretty girls and silly plots.Each volume has its own delights:

VOL. 1, "THE 1940S MUSIC MACHINE" includes a very young Alan Ladd crooning "I Look at You" to Rita Rio and her All-Girl Orchestra, Frances Faye's weepy "I Ain't Got Nobody," the Mills Brothers' "Paper Doll" (with Dorothy Dandridge as the real live doll) and big-band classics like Cab Calloway's "Minnie the Moocher" and Duke Ellington's "Hot Chocolate" (with some hot Lindy Hoppers), plus film debuts (some brief) by Doris Day, Ken Curtis, Cyd Charisse and Ricardo Montalban and hilarious novelties like the Three Murtah Sisters' "Arthur Murray Taught Me Dancing in a Hurry."

VOL. 2, "SINGING STARS OF THE SWING ERA," has plenty of great singers - Anita O'Day (a lively "Thanks for the Boogie Ride" with Roy Eldridge and Gene Krupa's band), the Delta Rhythm Boys (a luxurious "A Train" ride), June Christy (beautiful and happy), Marilyn Maxwell (when she was still Marvel Maxwell) and a pre-Mickey Mouse Club Jimmy Dodd, along with more novelties like Nick Lucas's hilariously literal "Tiptoe Through the Tulips." VOL. 3, "BIG BAND SWING," has its period parodies - Will Bradley's rural rubes in "Barnyard Bounce," Charlie Spivack's kilted band "Comin' Through the Rye," Tony Pastor's hayseed "Paradiddle Joe" and a south of some border "Pan Americonga" from Rio - along with Ozzie Nelson explaining what a bandleader does on the giddy "Wave a Stick Blues," Cab Calloway swinging through "Foo, a Little Ballyhoo" and Count Basie inspiring some serious jitterbugging on "Air Mail Special."

VOL. 4, "HARLEM HIGHLIGHTS," may be the best set, only because its cast is so stellar: Fats Waller, Louis Jordan, Louis Armstrong, Calloway, Nat King Cole, Maxine Sullivan (in an awful video), the Mills Brothers and Delta Rhythm Boys, among others. Bill Robinson does a tap number, "Let's Scuffle," while Katherine Dunham is seen in the Cuban-inspired choreography of "Cuban Episode." A teenage Dandridge is electrifying in "Cow Cow Boogie," and the vocal comedy team Day Dawn and Dusk offers a hilarious send-up of "Rigoletto" that concludes in Cab Calloway Land.VIDEO QUESTION

Q: My cable company is changing over to a scrambling system that covers all the channels, not just HBO and other pay movie channels. This means I can't record one basic channel while watching another. Why are they allowed to do this?

A: The cable companies justify it by saying they're losing too much money in signal theft. In some cities they estimate that one in five hookups is unauthorized. More scrambling is one way to combat theft - it's a trend you can complain about but probably can't stop. You may find, however, that the local network affiliates and PBS channels remain "in the clear." - Andy Wickstrom (Knight-Ridder)NEW VIDEO

TIMELESS TALES FROM HALLMARK - Who would knock a video series that retells classic tales we all grew up with? Not this reviewer. In this case, the untouchable tales come in the form of six tapes, each animated and 30 minutes long. They include "The Emperor's New Clothes," "Thumbelina," "Rapunzel," "The Ugly Duckling," "Rumpelstiltzkin" or "The Elves and the Shoemaker." I previewed "The Ugly Duckling" and "The Emperor's New Clothes" and as expected, each was engaging, offered credible animation and served up the morals we all love to drive home to our children. At the end of each tape, Olivia Newton-John appears to offer an environmental message to children. The video also comes with an insert offering ecological tips. The only green of value here is the money it will make for the company; the environmental message is gratuitous and insulting. Hanna-Barbera. 30 minutes. $14.95 each. - Mike Pearson (Scripps Howard)