Times Staff Writer

Take it as a sign of the times that some suspicious viewers were sure last week's preemption of "The West Wing" was tied to star Martin Sheen's outspoken opposition to the looming war in Iraq. Actually, NBC officials pulled two planned reruns because the show doesn't repeat well and they hoped "Law & Order" would provide a stronger disincentive to sample ABC's unscripted "All American Girl" before "West Wing" can return with an original episode next week.

Conspiracy theories notwithstanding, network entertainment divisions are closely monitoring the prospect of war, which will lead to extended news coverage and last-minute preemptions for its duration -- a reality that will likely result in more reruns over the next few weeks.

As it is, many popular series were scheduled to be in reruns as networks take the equivalent of a small breather between the February and May rating sweeps -- key periods that TV stations use to negotiate advertising rates.

Hit shows such as "Everybody Loves Raymond" and "The West Wing" generally produce 22 to 26 episodes per season, with a dozen eaten up by three in-season sweeps periods, the third being November. That requires reruns in December as well as March and early April to span the 35-week stretch from the TV season's official start in September through season-ending cliffhangers in May.

Several live events and programs pose thornier issues, with a Fox spokesman saying the network has multiple contingencies under consideration for the popular talent showcase "American Idol," which is broadcast live twice a week (delayed in the Pacific time zone).

In addition to ABC's telecast of the Academy Awards on Sunday, NBC is scheduled to air the Miss USA Pageant Monday and CBS is approaching the traditional window for the NCAA basketball tournament. Postponements of those events could cause a short-term domino effect through the lineup.

The major networks are generally anticipating two to three days of wall-to-wall news coverage once war begins, followed by some ongoing prime-time news presence for at least a transitional period.

Network officials say they must remain flexible and are counting on the fact that some of their unscripted programs can easily be joined in progress, allowing them to interrupt programming for breaking news or provide updates without disrupting their entire lineup. On Monday, for example, NBC joined "Fear Factor" in progress after President Bush's address, which was seen at 8 p.m. on the East Coast.

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