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WITH THE clock ticking on a Jan. 15 deadline for Saddam Hussein's retreat, U.S. television networks are bracing for America's second living-room war.

Many observers still believe the Vietnam War was lost on the television screen, when America witnessed a nightly procession of flag-draped coffins. If there is war with Iraq, the footage may be even more intense -- and scenes of death and destruction broadcast almost as they happen.

Since the end of the war in Vietnam, the technology of covering war has advanced at least as much as the technology of fighting war.

From the opening salvos of a Persian Gulf war, the three major broadcast networks, ABC, CBS and NBC, plan to copy the Cable News Network and be on the air around the clock; estimates are that they will carry non-stop war coverage for at least the first 24 to 48 hours of fighting.

The quality as well as the quantity of television coverage will be different from previous wars, where there was a lag of two or three days before film could be shipped home and processed.

While fighting from gulf battle sites may not be instantaneously transmitted to American living rooms, images of the conflict probably will be flashing across U.S. screens before the blood they depict has dried in the desert. The war's immediacy also will be magnified by the sharper images carried on videotape, as compared to the grainy film footage that was the standard in Vietnam.

"Within hours we will be dealing with a real war," says former CBS and NBC News correspondent Marvin Kalb, director of the Shorenstein Barone Center at Harvard. "What we in the business always knew was that one day soon we could have a live war. This could be as close as we're going to get to one. It will be a major factor in the creation of a public perception of war and public reaction to casualties."

The difference between coverage of this war and Vietnam, Kalb says, "will be in the immediacy of it, the sense of a real conflict, experiencing something in the same time frame as a soldier who has died, or was wounded or survived. Because it has never happened before, no one can predict what the American response is going to be. Because it will be as live as possible, the horror of it will be in your living room as it's happening, in effect."

NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw is not so sure. "I don't think they will let us have instant access to satellites that quickly. Don't forget that we're going to have to depend on military and Saudi cooperation in terms of getting satellite time. The king has to sign off on some of these satellites. So you're not going to see Brokaw, Jennings and Rather doing play-by-play from the back of a tank." (The networks have no plans to send anchors if war breaks out.)

At CBS, news anchor Dan Rather thinks that there is something to Kalb's thesis about the greater immediacy of footage shot a few hours earlier rather than a few days earlier, but wonders if it will make a substantial difference in the eyes of viewers.

"There are a lot of things that are different in the Persian Gulf and Vietnam, but as far as the effect on people at home, during the Vietnam War it was real blood, real pain and real death and that's what war is. . . .

"Before television, politicians and other decision makers could hide a lot more from the public. For a long time, one of the best-kept secrets was how really brutal, confusing and horrible war really was. You could make the case that Vietnam was the first time in history that extended warfare could be seen for what it really is. That part of television coverage will not change."

Adds Ed Turner, executive vice president of CNN: "There will be a difference in the degree, but not the category of the images. Images of war are always horrific. You'll see more of them here and they'll be brought home faster. What will the erosion factor be? Will there be an undermining of the will to stay? I don't know."

There may be substantial differences in how the networks cover the fighting. Robert McFarland, deputy director of NBC News, says the network will pull its staff out of Iraq, whereas CNN's Turner will not.

"They're all there voluntarily," Turner says. "Nobody is forced to stay. If hostilities should break out, we would want people to cover it if they're permitted to function. Whether they're incarcerated, as some were who were caught in World War II Germany, one never knows. Nothing is certain."

Which means that there could be plenty of footage of Iraqi civilian casualties of war, if not from network cameras then from those of enterprising free-lancers.

Kalb thinks that live coverage, or unedited footage, can be justified, but warns that the faster pace with which tape can get on the air "eliminates the time for editorial reflection, which is a big danger in this kind of coverage. You end up responding tactically to one situation after another."

He adds, "With each war in the television age we've come closer to live coverage. As we have made this journey, the picture has begun to take precedence over the copy that accompanies it and the reporting has come to be more emotive than necessarily informative. . . . This means, in my view, an even greater responsibility on the part of networks to try as best they can to balance the picture with substance and context."

ABC's Gralnick returns to more logistical concerns about simply getting the pictures out.

"What's going to work if war starts is going to be one of life's great mysteries. . . . For the first number of hours, the greatest weapon will be a telephone."

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