CBS News, torn by layoffs, firings and dissension within and buffeted by criticism from without, nevertheless has risen to the challenge of the war in the gulf in recent days.

When the ground war began Saturday and all three networks switched away from their regular programming, only CBS had a reporter anywhere near the front - albeit that contact was by telephone and did not include any video.On Monday, when an Iraqi scud missile killed at least 28 Americans in Saudi Arabia, the first reporter on the scene was CBS' Harry Smith, co-host of "CBS This Morning."

And, most stunningly, Tuesday morning - while ABC and NBC spent most of their time with game shows and the like - CBS had a linkup with reporter Bob McKeown in Kuwait City itself. His reports from the liberated city were far ahead of the other broadcast networks and CNN.

Not bad for a network news division supposedly teetering on the brink of collapse.RATHER NOT?: "The CBS Evening News with Dan Rather" has been in third place more often than not lately, giving rise again to rumors that Rather may be replaced - or joined by a female co-anchor.

It's certainly not the first time reports of this sort have circulated during Rather's tenure as anchorman. The man has been surrounded by more than his share of controversy, from letting the network go black for several minutes to a shouting match with then-Vice President George Bush.

But this time, perhaps there's more basis to the rumors than in the past. Just within the past few weeks, both the executive producer and news editor of the "CBS Evening News" have been removed from their posts.

The new e.p., Erik Sorenson, is sort of a brash young man in the news business. He moved to the network's flagship broadcast from "CBS This Morning," where he was also e.p.

Currently, the most popular rumors have Rather being joined behind the anchor desk sometime this spring by either Connie Chung or Leslie Stahl.

But keep an eye on Paula Zahn, co-host of "CBS This Morning." Not only is she one of the network's rising stars, but she's also a big favorite of Sorenson - who was her boss until just a couple of weeks ago.

And it may have just been coincidence, but Zahn anchored the "CBS Sunday Evening News" last week, substituting for Chung.JAY FOR JOHNNY?: You've probably also heard rumors that NBC is going to dump Johnny Carson for guest host Jay Leno - a rumor that even network entertainment president Warren Littlefield has denied.

But looking at it strictly in terms of business, it wouldn't be much of a surprise to see Carson's departure sometime in the next year or so.

Carson is extremely expensive to keep - his annual salary has been estimated anywhere from $6 million to $20 million for a three-day work week, 37 weeks a year.

And networks aren't making money the way they used to. NBC has to keep a close eye on the bottom line, particularly because it's owned by cost-conscious General Electric.

Not only that, but Carson doesn't attract the kind of viewers advertisers want - and pay for. His audience is increasingly old, not the 18-49-year-olds the business is based on.

Guest host Leno, on the other hand, draws more or less the same number of viewers as Carson, but those viewers are considerably younger.

Which is not to say Carson will be unceremoniously dumped anytime soon. (What NBC doesn't need is another Jane Pauley-Deborah Norville type fiasco.)

But don't be surprised if Johnny's 30th anniversary as host of the "Tonight Show" next year is also his last.CBS WINS RATINGS: With a lot of help from Miss USA, the Grammys and a pair of brutal killings, CBS won the ratings race for the week ending Feb. 24, according to figures from the A.C. Nielsen Co.

"The Miss USA Pageant" finished 18th for the week, but gave CBS a rare win on Friday night. "The Grammys Awards" - which was the only thing the network broadcast on Wednesday - was No. 5 for the week and won Wednesday night for CBS. Part 1 of "And the Sea Will Tell" on Sunday was No. 3 for the week and gave the Big Eye its third daily win, while "Rescue: 911" and the movie "Sins of the Mother" on Tuesday were also winners.

Throw in strong Monday performances from "Murphy Brown" and "The Mary Tyler Moore 20th Anniversary Show" and CBS finishes first.

It's the second win in a row for the Big Eye - the first time that's happened since 1987. For the week, CBS finished first with a 15.1 rating and 24 share. NBC was second with a 14.1/22, ABC well back in third with an 11.9/19 and Fox way back in fourth with a 7.5/12.

In the past nine weeks, CBS has been first three times and second five times. Not bad for the network that's usually had "struggling" or "last-place" in front of its name.

There's even better news for the Big Eye in the season-to-date figures. CBS moved into a tie with ABC for second overall (with a 12.5 rating and a 21 share) and within three-tenths of a rating point of NBC (12.8/21).

CBS also maintains a narrow lead in the February sweeps, which end today.THE TOP 15: 1. "Cheers," NBC; 2. "NBC Monday Night Movie: Love, Lies and Murder - Part 2"; 3. "CBS Sunday Night Movie: And the Sea Will Tell - Part 1"; 4. "60 Minutes," CBS; 5. "The Grammy Awards," CBS; 6. "Roseanne," ABC; 7. "Murphy Brown," CBS; 8. "Full House," ABC; 9. "America's Funniest Home Videos," ABC; 10. "America's Funniest People," ABC; 11. "The Mary Tyler Moore Show 20th Anniversary," CBS; 12. "A Different World," NBC; 13. "The Cosby Show," NBC; 14. "Major Dad," CBS; 15. "Family Matters," ABC.FALCON CREST FOR SALE: If you're looking for a little place in California's Napa Valley, the real-life estate that doubled as television's "Falcon Crest" is for sale.

For a mere $18.2 million, you can have the 257-acre Spring Mountain Vineyards, which includes not only the 12,000-square-foot mansion but a swimming pool, a guest house, the winery, the vineyards - and 30,000 cases of wine and 18,500 of more recent vintages in barrels.

If you just want the house and 23 acres, you can get those for the bargain price of $5.4 million.