CBS PAID A reported $5 million for the TV rights to "Network," that scathing apocalyptic satire about the television business. Now CBS says it may not show the movie until next year.

Well, they'd better hurry up, or by the time they show it, the film's outrageous speculation is going to look like historic docu-drama.

Some people thought the film wouldn't make it to TV because of its strong language. They forget that TV can alter the essence of anything. I saw a bowdlerized version of "Network" on a flight to Los Angeles and it was as pure as the driven Ivory Snow - and certainly cleaner than "Soap."

But in the meantime, life at the networks has become so nutty, so speeded-up, so frantic and loop-de-loopy that the "Network" vision of a video world gone mad is going to appear pretty tame and dated by the time it gets on the air. Some critics thought Paddy Chayefsky went too far with his satire; it could be he didn't go far enough. Was his fictional on-air assassination of mad prophet Howard Beale really much more tasteless a television show than the CBS atrocity "Evel Knievel's Death Defiers" that followed it by a few months? No.

But it's in the network boardrooms, conference rooms and throne rooms that the drama of "Network" took place and there's been plenty of that for real this year.After ABC came from behind (like the fictitious network in "Network") to become number one in the ratings - and not by offering the public a Renaissance in quality programming, either - CBS and NBC set forth to do the logical thing, from a commercial point of view: imitate ABC.

And so recently announced corporate and personnel changes at CBS and NBC have given both networks an ABC-type set-up. Whatever happened to network pride? Pride falleth before a profit. CBS and NBC had already done a bit of defeatist groveling by picking up a couple of shows ABC cast off last season, with "Wonder Woman" going to CBS and "The Bionic Woman" to NBC. To meet the late-night competition of NBC's indomitable Johnny Carson, ABC now frequently programs reruns of old NBC "Police Story" shows (even as new episodes continue to appear occasionally in NBC prime time) and CBS occasionally airs old ABC movies-of-the-week in the same late time slot.

This is called fighting fire with the other guy's Zippo.

In the executive suites, the guiding ideal is panic. "The world is full of unfair things," said then-NBC News president Richard Wald after seeing "Network" at a screening; "I guess this is just one of them." Several months later, Wald was O-U-T, toppled from his pillar much as William Holden as a network news boss had been exiled in the movie.

There were many more executive changes to come at both NBC and CBS; ABC's dapper kingpin Freddie Silverman knew something was doing at CBS recently, he said, because he looked out the window and saw "a lot of running around" in the CBS offices across the street. The idea of these mighty-mights of industry peeping at each other through sealed windows in acrylic castles is a little bit funnier than almost any conjecture in Chayefsky's film.

Certainly the ineffable Paddy couldn't have come up with a character to match Robert Wussler, until recently the president of the CBS Television Network. Wussler did the highwire sour-grapes act of the year when he started complaining that ABC was winning the ratings wars with "junk" and "comic-book" programming, as if CBS could point with prestigious pride to such edifying classics of the air as "Busting Loose," "Spider-Man," "The Incredible Hulk," "Young Dan'l Boone" (now kaput) and "The Bugs Bunny Howl-oween Special," which actually turned out to be about the best thing the network put on last week.

Wussler soon had a chance to say something more: bye-bye. CBS announced he was going back to run the sports department and thus make room for a new top programmer.

NBC bragged all summer that it was going to set the world on its eye with "Event" programming. Apparently we are to take "Event" in its broadest definition; one of the Events this season was the high-rated but low-down and dirty "79 Park Avenue," a program so tawdry that it prompted an indignant TV Guide editorial. The other networks jeered that NBC could win ratings but could also go broke trying to out-event them, and sure enough, this week a carefully worded NBC statement half-conceded that the network will have to go a little easier on the momentous specials that we'll never forget and try to get at least one hit series on the air.

"The Man from Atlantis" is probably not it.

Have things settled down, then? Au contraire. Show-biz trade papers report that all three networks will be "stunting" (scheduling specials and movies to pre-empt regular programming) like mad as they enter the crucial November ratings "sweep" period and finish out the religiously revered "Fourth Quarter," traditionally their highest earning period of the year.

As if to emphasize with irony that the days of network pride, and network dignity, are over, all three networks have also scheduled self-congratulatory retrospectives this season. NBC aired "The First 50 Years - A Closer Look," last Sunday. The first "50 Years" special, a year earlier, had been marred by incredible disarray and a tendency of executive producer Greg Garrison to devote too much time to his own shows, especially those with Dean Martin and Marty Feldman. The second special was marred by exactly the same flaws. It was another Greg Garrison tribute to Greg Garrison.

CBS will have a 50th anniversary special and ABC a 25th anniversary special later this season. Perhaps they'll follow the NBC example of equating material from the golden early years of TV with articles of listless claptrap from the present, so as to support the fantasy that there is still a spirit of innovation in network television. Jackie Gleason had a phrase for such ruses, and it was "Hardy-har-har."

Paddy Chayefsky had a phrase for network television in "Network" and it was "virulent madness." Perhaps in this mad, ever more maddening race for viewers, advertisers and profits, the networks ought to look backstage for an audience lure. It does seem to be where all the excitement is, at least as compared to what shows up on the screen. Remember "Battle of the Network Stars"? Maybe it's time for "Battle of the Network Executives." They could all dress in clown suits, meet in the Astro-Dome, go on the air and determine the winning network by the throw of a few whipped cream pies. It would be as sensible as the counter-productive death race they're all running now, and probably less exhausting.

Meanwhile, Nielsen reports that TV viewing generally is off this season by about 3 1/2 per cent per month. The average American television set is being left on for seven fewer minutes a day than it was at this time last year. Industry potentates are quick to point out that this figure rises and falls and may not mean anything. We prefer to think it means that television network competition has become so breathless and breakneck, so much a high-stakes game unto itself, that the viewing public itself is being left behind and virtually forgotten.

We don't have to pick up the marbles and go home, because we are the marbles. Perhaps the networks should be reminded of that before they take their next shot.