Perhaps war can still be averted if networks and viewers are convinced that it will mean too much disruption of football and basketball games.

CBS cut away from President Bush's impromptu news conference Saturday after only four minutes so as not to miss one second of a football game between the Redskins and the San Francisco 49ers.

NBC left President Bush standing behind the White House yesterday during another impromptu news conference so as not to miss the kickoff of a game between the Cincinnati Bengals and the Los Angeles Raiders.

Screwy priorities? The sanctity of pro football in American life is now an old established fact. But in part the decisions are also the result of the new network tightfistedness. Some industry insiders have predicted that all three networks will lose money this year, as audiences and advertising revenues continue to decline -- but sports remains a key profit center, more cherished now than ever.

News divisions do have the authority to interrupt sports programming, but they are growing ever more reluctant to do so, even if the nation does sit teetering on the brink of war.

NBC News President Michael Gartner said yesterday's decision to duck out of the brief Bush news conference, made by him, was an editorial matter that had nothing to do with business.

"We were in the control room, and it was clear that he {Bush} didn't have anything new to say after the initial question on Perez de Cuellar," Gartner said. U.N. Secretary General Perez de Cuellar had been in Baghdad on a last-minute peace mission, considered as of yesterday afternoon to have been a failure.

Bush told reporters he had yet to speak to Perez de Cuellar. Most of his remarks concerned the brutal Soviet suppression of an uprising in Lithuania.

NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue was contacted by NBC Sports and agreed to delay the game for five minutes so as to air the Bush appearance, which included his arrival with Mrs. Bush by helicopter from Camp David on the White House lawn.

As the five-minute deadline loomed, NBC cut away from Bush with only a minute left in his little chat in order to air the kickoff. As it turned out, by the time the ball was actually in play, Bush had stopped talking and gone into the White House, so NBC could have stayed with the president and aired both his entire appearance and the sacred kickoff.

NBC also missed the first seven seconds of Bush's remarks because it had gone to a station break, expecting the logistics of the Bushes' arrival to consume more time than they did.

CBS missed the landing of the helicopter and the trip Mrs. Bush took by wheelchair into the White House; she had injured her leg in a sledding mishap at Camp David. For a while, it looked as if CBS might ignore yesterday's Bush remarks altogether, and for a mere college basketball romp.

At the last moment, though, the game was interrupted, Connie Chung materialized and the Bush remarks were carried in their entirety.

This was a smashing success compared with the fumbling and bumbling CBS committed on Saturday when it hurriedly cut away from Bush's 22-minute press conference for the Redskins-49ers game.

Joe Peyronnin, CBS News vice president, insisted yesterday that despite grumblings to the contrary from network news insiders, there had been no conflict between the news and sports divisions over the decision to drop the president and run with the game.

"I was the only contact between sports and news," Peyronnin said. "There was no dispute. I was in the control room, and I made an editorial judgment on my own that at a certain point in the news conference, we had enough on the air. We put the president on in a responsible manner, and we always had the option of jumping back on the air if there was major news."

Colleagues said Bob Schieffer, CBS News chief Washington correspondent, was among those within the network extremely unhappy with the decision to leave the press conference. Contacted yesterday, Schieffer would only say, "I expressed my views to the management," and did not want to comment further.

Howard Stringer, president of CBS/Broadcast Group and a former CBS News president, defended the decision. "We got out as soon as the news was over," he said of the press conference. "Enough questions had been asked to get a sense of the story."

Peyronnin did concede that the existence of the heavily promoted playoff game affected his decision.

"There's no question that was a consideration in my mind," he said. "If we hadn't had that major sporting event there, we would have stayed with the news conference."

If the NFL can be persuaded to delay a game for five minutes, as NBC managed to get the league to do yesterday, why couldn't Saturday's game have been postponed for 25 minutes? Then CBS could have aired the press conference and the game too. "We can't postpone a football game!" Peyronnin exclaimed when asked about this possibility. "I never made a suggestion that the game be postponed!"

But Gartner said that in addition to the five-minute delay negotiated with Tagliabue by NBC Sports, he personally spoke with Tagliabue on Saturday in order to get an additional three minutes during the halftime of the game for an NBC News report with Tom Brokaw.

Gartner said all this hullabaloo does not indicate that the networks think football is more important than serious news.

"No, not at all," Gartner said. "It was absolutely clear that we would go on and that we would stay with the president until he quit making news, and we did."

But other network sources, who asked not to be identified, said the decision to tippy-toe around the football games reflects the increased clout that the sports divisions hold within the networks in these tele-recessionary times. Traditionally, sports divisions make money and news divisions lose it.

Grim as it may sound to say so, if there is a war, network news ratings, which have been in a state of erosion for years, are certain to go up. All the networks are now promoting their Persian Gulf coverage as if war is a foregone conclusion.

David Brinkley even stooped to the level of network publicist yesterday when he ended his "This Week" program on ABC with a pitch for ABC News: "If there's anything new, we will bring it to you immediately. You can count on us," Brinkley said. This shameless promo took the place of the brief commentary Brinkley usually does at the end of the show.

There has been some positive fallout from the rapidly increasing tensions. C-SPAN, the cable service that airs proceedings of the House, Senate and government agencies, said Friday that dozens of cable systems throughout the country have signed up to add C-SPAN II to their systems.

C-SPAN II airs proceedings of the Senate. The original C-SPAN, which carries the House, is available in 52.5 million homes and until last week, C-SPAN II was available in 22 million homes. Then when debate started on the war resolutions, that number jumped to 32.2 million homes on more than 240 cable systems nationwide.

Of course, the addition of the second channel to the cable systems could be temporary, lasting only as long as the crisis. "Some systems, we believe, will keep us," says C-SPAN spokesman Rayne Pollack. "They called us when their viewers called them asking to be able to see the debate."

All the networks have now gone to a round-the-clock readiness posture, the way CNN, the all-news cable network, has always been. Networks have said that regular prime-time programming may be interrupted for war coverage. But that may depend on what the prime-time programming is.

Will "The Cosby Show" or "Roseanne" be interrupted as readily as would a low-rated program like "Guns of Paradise" or "Life Goes On"? No. These editorial decisions can have heavy financial overtones.

Football, obviously, takes precedence over everything. It's a diabolical, unthinkable thought, but if Saddam Hussein wanted to stage a truly sneak attack, he would wait for the Super Bowl on Jan. 27. Surely no network would dream of interrupting that for anything -- come rain, come shine, come hell or high water.