Dan Rather returns to "CBS Evening News With Dan Rather" tonight after a two-week vacation -- broadcasting from Saudi Arabia ...

With the United Nations' Jan. 15 deadline for Iraq's withdrawal from Kuwait approaching, Rather also will be spearheading a special series on the newscast -- called "Countdown to Confrontation" -- that also gets underway tonight and features the network's top correspondents ...

"CBS Evening News" executive producer Tom Bettag said earlier this week that with "14 days to go, the lion's share of the broadcast from now on will be devoted to as serious and thoughtful consideration of the basic questions as we can have -- Why are we there? How did this happen? Is conflict inevitable? What would be the consequences?" ...

Correspondent Mark Phillips will kick off the special reports with an overview on "why are we there?" Tomorrow night Richard Threlkeld will offer "the case for the war" and on Friday "the case against the war," according to CBS News spokesman Tom Goodman ...

The length of Rather's stay in the Persian Gulf area is "flexible," Goodman said ...

Rather made news himself (and nailed down some sure industry award nominations) in the summer, when he obtained the first interview with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein for American TV. Bettag said earlier this week, "We have an obligation to go back and look. We'll be devoting more time to the story, using our best people. We will cover the other news of the day, but we'll be sacrificing some of the features we would ordinarily do" ...

As for how he sees the role of network news in this unusual situation -- during a protracted U.S. and U.N. military buildup marked by very public debate and well-publicized deadlines, right in front of an "enemy" who often can be seen conducting his diplomatic and domestic initiatives on television -- Bettag says:

"We're not diplomats, not foreign policy experts. It's not our job to make decisions or try to influence those decisions. Our job is to lay out the options so that people know what the arguments are on both sides. Of course, this is easy to say but very hard to do. The media does have to slow down a little bit, give people time to think" ...

Bettag said CBS corporate has been "very supportive" of the news division's costly coverage of the Persian Gulf crisis since August, despite company-wide budget problems. He declined to spell out just how many are involved in the CBS News effort, however ...

The Cable News Network is trimming -- just around the edges, mind you -- Pam Hill's "Special Assignment" investigative unit, reassigning the two correspondents and the researcher-producer in the New York office to one of the other two "Special Assignment" units, located in Washington and Atlanta ...

Hill and her top deputy, John Lane, will continue to run the unit out of the New York office, however ...

"Special Assignment" is the highly touted, big-budget unit assembled by Hill, the former ABC News vice president, for CNN last year that lured some top talent to the cable network. It currently employs between 25 and 30, although Atlanta-based producer Marty Koughan recently left the team ...

A CNN spokesman, asked to comment on the mini-consolidation, emphasized, "There are no cutbacks; in fact, the 'Special Assignment' budget has been increased and we expect continued great reports from this unit" ...

Among SA's major efforts in recent months have been reports on the S&L crisis, the Noriega tape story (which originated with a tip to Ted Turner's Spanish-language network), the Pan Am Flight 103 story and "the invasion file" on Persian Gulf developments ...

Now This

The Corporation for Public Broadcasting's $22.5 million Television Program Fund has made a major change in its program-selection process ...

In the past, CPB's program fund has issued an "open solicitation" call three times a year to any producer -- either an independent or one working at a PBS station -- for a programming idea that could be worthy of the PBS national primetime schedule ...

Under the new plan announced recently by fund director Donald L. Marbury, the solicitations will henceforth be "content-specific" ...

The first solicitation under the new guideline, for instance, seeks scripting proposals by March 1 for the development of a dramatic miniseries that is "contemporary, distinctive in style, and reflective of the cultural diversity of the country" ...

Marbury says a future solicitation would include a search for a multimillion-dollar daily series for children, as well as for news and public affairs. Instead of three calls, Marbury says there will probably be four such "content-specific" solicitations annually under the new plan ...

The solicitations will be "broadly or narrowly defined and range from one-hour documentaries on a particular theme to miniseries concepts," Marbury says ...

In addition, Marbury says, CPB is seeking two minority-program solicitations from minority independent and TV station producers in three areas: children's education and outreach; drama, arts and cultural; and news and public affairs. CPB has earmarked $4 million through the two minority solicitations in fiscal 1991 "for national programs by and about ethnic minorities in America" ...

Speaking of public TV: They're continuing to think globally while acting locally out at Channel 26. WETA's recycling efforts in November were its most productive yet, as the collection of 1.6 tons of white paper saved 27.9 trees and brought the grand total of trees saved at WETA to 190.0 since the campaign started in March 1990 ...

Down Memory Lane, Anyone?

Okay. So it's a New Year. Does that mean we have to cast out all the Old Ways? The Traditions? Of course not. Even if it means taking you way back to the last Sunday in 1990 for -- some ratingzzzz!!! ...

To wit: back to the Washington Redskins and the Buffalo Bills on Channel 4, who averaged a 29.3 local Nielsen rating (*) and a 60 percent audience share between 1 and approximately 4 that afternoon ...

And even farther back, to Friday night, Dec. 28, when the two-hour Kennedy Center Honors on CBS averaged an 8.7/16 on Channel 9, compared with a 13.6/25 for a two-hour repeat of "In the Heat of the Night" on Four and a 9.9/18 for the ABC lineup twixt 9 and 11 on Channel 7 ...

Later that same Friday night, the James Brown special on Nine averaged a 6.6/18 (the Godfather of Soul also managed a 6.1/19 when Nine repeated the show on Sunday night) ...

And -- hang on to your Magic Carpets! -- even farther back, to Snowtime USA on Thursday, Dec. 27, for a ratingzzz-less examination of just whom the viewers turned to in their search for storm information ...

In short, following viewer patterns for the month it was Nine in the early evening, Four late. Now for the rest of the story ...

At 4 p.m., audiences for WUSA's news hour -- the only one in the market at that time -- zoomed up 46 percent from its average audience during the first three weeks of December ...

From 5 to 6 that snowy evening, viewership on all three network affiliates was up 22 percent from the December average, with December leader WUSA showing the way with a 34 percent increase, followed by WRC at 17 and WJLA up 10 percent ...

From 6 to 7, viewership on all three stations was up 20 percent, with WUSA again at the top with a 28 percent boost, followed by WRC at 18 and WJLA at 8 percent ...

Channel 5's 10 o'clock news increased its December average by 36 percent that night ...

At 11, audiences for the three network affiliates were up 18 percent. At that hour, the December rankings held once again, with first-ranked WRC jumping 31 percent for the night, compared with a 15 percent increase for WUSA and a mere 3 percent for WJLA ...

And while we're on that Magic Carpet, let's peer over the side at the Friday TV Column, in which C. Airwaves managed to name NBC -- instead of ABC -- as the winner of the primetime ratingzzz race for the week ending Dec. 23. This despite the fact he even got the networks' averages for the week right, clearly showing ABC ahead with a 12.6/22, compared with an 11.9/20 for NBC, an 11.7/20 for CBS and a 6.4/11 for FOX (**). It was ABC's third weekly win of the year. We've asked the Carpet to pick up Airwaves and then find an alternate landing site, preferably somewhere in the Far North ...

(*) Each local ratingzzz point represents 17,491 TV homes; (**) each national ratingzzz point, 931,000 TV homes ...