Nearly everyone agrees that if there is war in the Middle East, it will be unlike any other war in which America has fought. Indeed. In the age of the communications satellite and instant global access, the term "air war" may take on a whole new meaning.

Even if armed conflict erupts between the United States and Iraq, a war of words, and images, is likely to continue via satellite between the two countries. Iraq could aim the equivalent of propaganda broadcasts at this country, and U.S. media would face grim decisions about whether to air them.

Reuven Frank, the former NBC News president and fellow at the Gannett Media Center in New York, says he doubts there will be live reports from the battlefield, whether technology allows it or not, but says there will be "live reports from Baghdad" and from Saddam Hussein himself. "He'll punch himself up, as we used to say in radio, any time he wants to get on the air."

Satellite dishes as well as guns will be aimed our way.

Because of this capability, Frank thinks attempts by the U.S. military to impose censorship will be of limited, if any, effectiveness. "The top brass thinks that coverage is what cost them the Vietnam War," Frank says. "This is what they're trying to prevent. But they've forgotten they can only prevent things on one side. There are still a lot of American reporters in Baghdad. They haven't even thrown them out yet."

Even after a U.S. air strike, Frank thinks, media-wise Iraqis might still allow American TV correspondents to report out of Baghdad or other points behind enemy lines. The U.S. military would have a hard time censoring that.

Pundits worry about the effect of seeing American war dead on living-room TV screens. What about the effect on national resolve of seeing Iraqi civilian casualties of a bombing mission? It probably won't matter to horrified viewers if the casualties are "the enemy." This could be a media war to rewrite the rules of warfare.

Television's role in world affairs is so strong now, and the networks have been so full of pre-war coverage in recent days, that it isn't unfair to ask who is really marching us off to war -- George Bush, or the broadcast media? Or a potentially unsavory coalition of the two?

As today's deadline for Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait grew nearer, and the possibility of armed conflict grew larger, the network news departments seemed more and more unified in bravado, as if falling in line and marching in step. They seem to have found more and more time for talk of war and less and less for talk of peace.

When protesters in the Senate gallery interrupted debate there last week with cries of "No blood for oil!" they got barely a mention on that evening's edition of ABC's "World News Tonight." There was the tiniest glimpse of a protester being hauled away outside the Capitol.

On Saturday, funereal Jim Wooten, reporting solemnly for ABC, devoted a scant 10 seconds to the subject of protesters who had gathered at the Capitol to demonstrate against war. While ABC did find time much later in the broadcast for a report on a teach-in at the University of Michigan, the teach-in included both pro- and anti-war activists.

ABC's network news department has been the friendliest to, and the least critical of, the Bush administration and its policies.

C-SPAN, the invaluable cable channel that presents news unedited, bravely turned one of its unblinking cameras on the Hill demonstrators Saturday. They were chanting, "Listen to the people! We don't want a war!" The people who don't want a war have been underrepresented in recent days on network newscasts as the probability of war has escalated.

Earlier in the crisis, the coverage was tilted the other way, at least according to research by the Center for Media and Public Affairs. It found that 61 percent of all news sources commenting on the crisis on network evening newscasts from August to December "opposed or questioned American military intervention in the gulf."

Perhaps the more inevitable war looks, the more the networks rush to the bandwagon. There is a nearly circusy aroma in the air, almost a festivity behind the grave faces of the anchors, correspondents and endless stream of spokesmen and experts.

It's the packaging more than the reporting that seems war feverish. Although CBS has radically cut back on its use of the slogan "Countdown to Confrontation" in its newscasts, the phrase still pops up, like an advertising jingle, in news promos. It's so very catchy, so glitzy, so exciting. The networks can't seem to help themselves.

Although last night's edition of "The CBS Evening News" was emphatically low-key and non-alarmist, Dan Rather had left his usual cramped corner of the studio and was now anchoring from a vast, hardware-filled space that might well be dubbed the War Room. For some strange reason, he did the news leaning back in his chair. Maybe he was trying to look calm.

Yesterday marked another turning point in coverage. CNN changed its cute umbrella title for continuing coverage of the story from "Crisis in the Gulf" to "Deadline in the Desert" and plastered a spiffy new graphic on the screen. Will anybody be using "Showdown in the Sand" or "Bombs Over Baghdad"?

Frank agrees that the presentation rather than the reporting is to blame for spreading war fever.

"It's not the coverage. It's the way it's being handled," Frank says. "It's using words like 'confrontation' and 'countdown,' which you hear from everybody, not just CBS. Rather picked it up from {Walter} Cronkite. Cronkite used to end the news saying, 'And that's the way it is, the 194th day of American captivity in Iran.'

"All the media are contributing to an atmosphere of hysteria, but television contributes the most, probably because it is the most effective."

War talk now seems to permeate all television programming. Prime-time shows such as "A Different World" and "Under Cover" have already aired episodes keyed to the conflict. On canned shows and reruns from days or years gone by, it is conspicuous by its absence.

Yesterday's editions of "The Oprah Winfrey Show" and "Geraldo," with Geraldo Rivera, were devoted not to fad diets or sexual confessions but to relatively serious discussions of war and its effects. Winfrey's show rocked like a prayer meeting, with audience members heatedly debating U.S. military intervention.

"Donahue," usually at the head of the pack among daytime talk shows, devoted one of last week's programs to arguments against war voiced by Texas billionaire Ross Perot, normally a high-profile hawk. Perot told Phil Donahue that the United States is in the gulf "because we have no energy policy. We're there because we made a series of huge mistakes."

There was a stronger than usual outpouring of viewer interest in Donahue's show with Perot, spokesmen for the program say. Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.) are distributing transcripts of the program to their colleagues in Congress.

Tonight's edition of "Frontline," the PBS documentary series (at 9 on Channel 26), examines the history of American involvement and tries to answer the question of how it came to this. Evan Thomas of Newsweek, one of several reporters contributing, says that within Bush's circle of advisers, "the driving force, the most hawkish voice, is Bush's ... Bush is the hawk here."

And Bush's hawkishness on the gulf is traced to, among other influences, a speech Bush heard Henry Stimson, later FDR's secretary of war, give at Andover in 1940. Last year at Aspen, Margaret Thatcher bent Bush's ear with her tough "Churchillian" philosophy, the report says.

On many other TV programs, the shadow of war looms. Rowdy political discussion shows such as "The Capital Gang" and "The McLaughlin Group" were less rowdy over the weekend. Even completely nonpolitical shows felt the tension. "It's going to be very difficult to sit here and have a good time," pouted Kathie Lee Gifford, co-host of the frothy syndicated hit "Live with Regis and Kathie Lee" yesterday. Regis Philbin replied, "So get ready. It's not going to be fun."

NBC's "Today" show usually makes something of a party out of its anniversary broadcasts, but yesterday, the program celebrated its 39th birthday quietly. Bryant Gumbel, who co-anchored a special NBC News report on the gulf crisis Sunday night, said near the end of yesterday's "Today" broadcast, "Let's pray for better times. There's still time ahead."

Seemingly commendable efforts by the morning network shows to air messages to and from American military personnel in Saudi Arabia may also have had the effect of promoting a war mentality. The videotaped messages -- sometimes moving, sometimes horribly embarrassing -- have been airing for weeks on shows such as ABC's "Good Morning America."

They have become commonplace, and made the idea of the U.S. military presence in the region seem commonplace. There is behind this almost a dim distant sense that war and its trappings could somehow be a positive, unifying experience for the country, something to make people feel good and walk proudly, like characters in the old jingoistic movies Hollywood made during World War II.

These movies are still playing on television, night and day, on cable channels such as American Movie Classics, TNT and the Nostalgia Channel. Maybe in the backs of our minds we think war will be Bogart and Bergman and Dooley Wilson at the piano playing "As Time Goes By."

Maybe we think it won't be a real war; it will just be another television program. It will indeed be a television program, but not just another one. The blood won't be fake, and the bodies won't get up and walk home at the end of the day.