They might have called it "Mr. Saddam's Neighborhood." Or maybe "The Uncle Saddy Show." At times, it seemed a candidate for "Iraq's Funniest Home Videos."

Whatever it was, it gave yet another strange and very televisional twist to the ongoing crisis in the Persian Gulf: a videotape of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein spending a seemingly pleasant half-hour visiting amiably with captive British citizens and their children.

In the videotape supplied to American media, Saddam, in a gray business suit, was seen sitting Santa-like and patting kiddies on the head. He smiled benignly as he fielded questions from the assembled Britons in a nondescript conference room and, as a finale, posed for a group souvenir photo with those the Western world calls hostages and he calls guests.

British officials denounced the tape as "a repulsive charade." The U.S. State Department called it "shameless theatrics." Yes, it was probably both those things, but it was also, in its crude and quixotic way, darn good TV.

CNN, which is apparently being monitored closely by Iraqis in the region, received a telex from Iraqi television early yesterday announcing that at 11 a.m. Eastern time, the previously unseen taped footage of Saddam & Friends would be provided. CNN elected to put the footage on live and unedited, albeit with spoken caveats from skeptical anchor Reid Collins.

When it ended, Collins called the tape "rather a strange sight, sort of a home camcord version of Saddam and his 'guests' " and said ominously, "It might be added that some of the worst pages of history are replete with the images of men who loved children."

Ed Turner, CNN news director, defended putting the propaganda footage on unedited while it was being uplinked by satellite from Amman, Jordan.

"This is the guy we've all been spending millions of dollars trying to get on camera, and they give him to us," Turner said. "Naturally one has reservations in cases like this, but I absolutely think it's newsworthy, because it's our first good look at the man."

All the networks had access to the videotape and used excerpts. Only CNN put it on live from the Mideast.

"I wouldn't have done that," said Steve Friedman, executive producer of "NBC Nightly News," after watching the tape on CNN. "I think part of what we do when we get television over which we have no control is an editing function. We have to be careful about putting that stuff on without a lot of qualifiers and a lot of explanations."

ABC News President Roone Arledge, who called the footage "insane" and "bizarre," said, "It's a close call. Usually, we don't do that" -- put the tape on raw and without advance review. ABC has even stopped airing videotapes of American hostages in Lebanon when the tapes are made available by terrorists there, Arledge said. "We finally concluded that we were being used."

Turner defended the decision to show the tape as it came in to CNN headquarters in Atlanta. "What we did was well and proper," he said. "If we were to continue to take all that they feed -- to swallow it whole, as it were -- that would be a bit much."

There may indeed be more to swallow. Turner said the director of Iraqi television informed CNN that the Iraqis are prepared to provide daily interviews with the hostages, all neatly packaged and ready for broadcast.

"We could have a hostage-of-the-day TV show -- and there are thousands of them," Turner said.

As Turner understands it, Iraqi TV would supply the interviewers as well as the hostages, and translations where necessary. "Can you imagine the eroding effect on our national will if we were to put this on day after day?" Turner said. "These Iraqis are not dumb. They know what they're doing. They're getting quite professional at this. They probably have a New York PR firm by now."

Arledge hadn't heard about the hostage-of-the-day show. "I guess we'd have to do it on a case-by-case basis," he said. "The tapes that come out of Lebanon are clearly propaganda. These, we'll have to wait and see."

Friedman said, "You couldn't ignore it, but I wouldn't put it on unless I saw it first. This is one time when being first does not make you best."

By American standards, the Iraqi tape was crudely made, but it did offer many views of the Iraqi president looking friendly and approachable. There was even what seemed to be a planted question from a British man in attendance: "We know Mr. Bush is a very stubborn man," the man said, telling Saddam that his most recent peace "initiative" was "quite reasonable, we all think," and asking when the next would be.

Saddam indicated to the hostages that the West hadn't cared enough to enter into any negotiations for their release.

Most of those in the room with Saddam appeared spectacularly uncomfortable, including two little boys in shorts, identified as Ian and Stuart, brought forward to pose with and be petted by the president. Ian was asked if he was getting enough exercise and told Saddam he was playing volleyball. Stuart was asked by Saddam if he was getting enough milk and cornflakes.

A frequently smiling interpreter, as outwardly accommodating as a hotel concierge, translated Saddam's remarks, including his assurance to the hostages that "your presence here and in other places is meant to prevent the scourge of war, to avoid war." Precisely where "here" was was never made clear.

Just before standing to pose for the souvenir photos -- and to shake hands and pat a few more heads -- Saddam told the group, "If I didn't have other commitments and if I didn't have to be other places right now, I would have liked to have lunch with you."

Earlier, reading from a prepared statement on his lap, the interpreter assured one and all, "I'm not speaking for propaganda purposes." Well, at least they cleared that one up.

After making the Saddam tape available, the Iraqis also fed edited tape of hostages, including children, saying they were being well treated. There was footage of children playing merrily in a schoolyard. Departing from his usual objective stance, correspondent Allen Pizzey on "CBS Evening News" called this "a crude and cynical abuse of the defenseless."

Arledge said the expanding use of the media by the Iraqis does remind him of the Iranian hostage crisis of a decade ago, the one that ABC News followed with nightly reports that Arledge eventually turned into "Nightline."

"I hope we've learned something since then," Arledge said.

Is there a danger that the networks are promoting war fever in this country with all the continuing coverage, and with the heavy emphasis on the taking of hostages?

"I think there is a difference between then and now," Arledge said. "The Iranian hostages were American diplomats at an American embassy. Invading an embassy is the same as invading a country, a very warlike act. This is different. We've tried to keep the rhetoric down as much as possible. Peter {Jennings} is very good at that -- at calming things down and not using incendiary words."

As for Saddam Hussein and his mutant daytime talk show, the question now is whether, despite all the blatant and obvious staging, it might have achieved some of the image enhancement it was designed for. Also, one might wonder, if it worked once -- will it become a series?

And if so, for how long?