Network TV viewers had one of their rare chances to avoid an official presidential appearance Wednesday night, but they did not take advantage of it in nearly the numbers expected.

As a result, the president's men were crowing yesterday that Jimmy Carter's statement on behalf of his Panama Canal treaty, staged as a "fireside chat," scored a bull's-eye for the administration. "I just think Jimmy Carter was terrific, sitting there in front of fire," said media adviser Barry Jagoda.

White House Press Secretary Jody Powell also thought the president's performance superb, but felf the CBS Television network's was not, CBS alone among the three networks refused to carry the talk live, instead delaying it until 11:30. "They seemed to have something more important to do," Powell complained.

CBS News insisted again yesterday that the low news quotient of the 25-minute telecast proved their decision correct, but Powell said, "If the Panama Canal isn't a legitimate thing to talk about, I'm not sure what is."

It was widely predicted that because CBS offered viewers a new TV-movie, "See How She Runs," starring Joanne Woodward, at the same time the other two networks were stuck with the President of the United States, CBS would reap a huge ratings harvest at 9 o'clock. Since the crucial February Nielsen ratings "sweep" period has begun, competition for audiences is fiercer than usual.

But early "overnight" ratings from Chicago - considered a highly representative TV market - showed Carter out-running Woodward and winning the time period. Some 34 percent of those watching television tuned to Carter on the Chicago ABC affiliate, while only 29 percent of those viewing watched Woodward on CBS. An additional 15 percent of the viewing audience in Chicago watched Carter on the city's NBC station.

The president's rating were not quite as high as New York - where the first half hour of the CBS movie scored slightly better - but he still drew more total viewers to ABC and NBC than Joanne Woodward did to CBS. In Washington, CBS affiliate WTOP-TV elected to carry Carter live on its own, delaying the CBS movie until 10:30.

WTOP program director Tim McDonald said the station received 198 phone calls about the coverage, half asking if the president would be on and half-asking if a college basketball game would be interrupted for Carter's talk. It was, but since the president spoke at about halftime, only three minutes of the game didn't get on the air, McDonald said.

There is no question that Carter would have reached a larger number of viewers if he had been on all three networks at the same time. But White House media adviser Jagoda, chief architect of the president's television strategy, declared the chat a "success" nevertheless.

"At least 50 million people heard the president last night," Jagoda claimed yesterday. "That's helluva lot of people. There is no feeling of particular frustration around here, because it was a success."

Network researchers couldn't verify or challenge Jagoda's audience estimate because national overnight ratings will not be available until today.

CBS News sources maintained that the minimal news value of the fireside chat proved them correct in delaying the telecast until 11:30 and also complained about the way the White House arranged the coverage. "The whole thing was mishandled from the beginning," one spokesman said. A major complaint at CBS was that the White House repeatedly changed the planned to 9 p.m. to 8 p.m., finally settling on 9 p.m.

But White House Press Secretary p.m. to 9 p.m. was infact made "primarily to accommodate CBS," which had scheduled its two-hour movie for 9 o'clock and would have had to interrupt it for the president if he came on at 10.

"We attempt to avoid disrupting the network schedules any more than we are never happy when you ask them to give up some money to let the president be on. We chose 9 o'clock so that everybody could just slip their network schedules back 20 minutes, or whatever it was they often do with special movies and football games.

"I don's want to criticize their right to make a decision, but to hear them tell it, every request for presidential time on the air means impending financial disaster for the network. Now we know this is no the case. We try to be reasonable. When they say that whatever you ask means disaster at 8 o'clock against a disaster at 9 o'clock," Powell said.

Powell had told CBS NEws President Richard Salant, who was unavailable for comment yesterday, that the denial of network time to a president in such cases was unprecendented."They said they'd turned down Ford one time," Powell said yesterday. "I asked Salant when it was and he couldn't remember. It turns out it was some 4-H speech or something that Ford's people wanted them to cover."

A CBS News spokesman said there were at least two procedents: a November 1974 speech by Gerald Ford to Sigma Delta Chi members in Washington, and an October 1975 Ford speech to the nation on taxes which 'we refused to carry, period," because Ford was by that time considered a candidate for re-election and thereby fell under the FCC's equaltime provision.

There also was talk within CBS News that Carter has been "abusing" his access to the American people through television and becoming over-exposed as a result.

Powell and Jagoda don't feel that way.

"Lyndon Johnson was on television more often than Jimmy Carter has been," said Jagoda. "Over-exposure is not a function of quantity but of quality. Walter Cronkiteet is on the air every night but he is not over-exposed. Over-exposure means you're on the air too much ineffectively, and we are in absolutely no danger of that."

"We try to be sort of restrained in asking for television time," Powell said. "Some people criticize us for not doing more these things. The most television exposure the president gets is what we don't ask for, but in fact try to discourage, and that's at the twice-monthly press conferences. We don't have any desire for those things to be carried live, but the networks usually do it anyway. Now that ain't exactly our fault."

David Burke, an ABC News vice president, said his network made the right decision in carrying the Carter talk live and that CBS made the wrong one. "And I don't see how a case can be made," Burke said, "that everyone fled the President of the United States to watch a movie on another network."

"If that was a business decision on CBS' part," said another ABC source, "they must be gnashing their teeth this morning," CBS News spokesmen contended, however, that the decision was purely a news decision "based on the best news judgment we had, that Carter would not say anything new but merely make a restatement of his policy."

The apparent high ratings scored by Carter - the failure of viewers in large numbers to turn to the CBS alternative when he came on the screen - indicate the viewing public is not feeling over-exposed to the president.

And yet there are those other little ell tales signs like Jonny Carson cracking Wednesday on his "Tonight" show, "Jimmy Carter's been on television more than the Pillsbury Doughboy."

If CBS didn't lure the expected hordes of viewers by offering an alternative to Carter, however, it may still have the last laugh in this particular go-round between the television power elite and the White House power elite. When opponents of Carter's Panama Canal treaty demand time to respond, the other two networks will have to grant prime time as was granted the president, but the best CBS has to come up with is another sleep-time berth at 11:30.

It's doubful the opposition will demand a fireside from which to chat, particularly since some of the president's remarks were upstaged by the loud cracking of pine logs in the fire-place to his right. Many viewers telephoned local TV stations to ask what the crackling and popping was.

"Well, at least it wasn't a fire made in Hollywood," growled Jagoda when asked about the noise. "It was a damn good fire. We just had the guy who lights fires at the White House light that fire. We didn't do anything special. People could tell it was for real. Fires do tend to crackle, you know.

"Under any other circumstances, it would be declared one of the more successful fires of the night.

In a considerably better humor, Powell said that "the fire wasn't crackling any louder than a fire normally crackles" but that the microphone on the president's tie amplified the sound and distorted it. Carter himself wasn't aware of any unsually loud fire noise while he spoke, powell said.

"Somebody told me they'd asked Ford's people how they handled this problem," said Powell. "It turns out they used artificial logs so they wouldn't pop. I should've guessed."

He's been telling media friends, Powell joked, that the next fire will be made out of newspapers and news magazines "'cause there's no pop or crackle in those."