The television networks moved swiftly and decisively yesterday to cover the story of the United States' ill-fated attempt to rescue American hostages from Tehran.

The raid that failed provided another classic example of network TV'S ability to provide globe-shrinking pictures and stories literally overnight -- and, perhaps, to inundate viewers with more information than can possibly be managed and consumed.

NBC was first on the air with reports of the abortive mission at 12:57 a.m. Friday. CBS had a report on the air at 1:18 a.m. and ABC at 1:21 a.m. All three network news departments furiously mobilized manpower and equipment for special and expanded broadcasts.

Walter Cronkite canceled a trip to South Carolina, where he was supposed to pick up a Phi Beta Kappa award yesterday. He told viewers of Thursday's "CBS Evening News" that he's be off the next day, but when he saw those late-night bulletins, he knew he was needed elsewhere.

He phoned into CBS News headquarters in New York at 1:45 a.m. to announce he was coming in early to take charge of the crisis. He was on the air at 11:44 Friday morning.

NBC got its scoop through the ingenuity of reporter John Palmer, the network's White House correspondent for only the past six months. Around midnight Palmer, virtually by himself at the White House press room, noticed an unusually large congregation of cars and limos in the White House driveway and presumed a meeting was taking place.

When he telephoned high-level official such as Zbigniew Brzezinski, White House security adviser, at home and got no answer, Palmer presumed they were at the meeting. And he was right. He went on the air from the White House live less than an hour later after excitedly telling the producer back at the network. "I'm the only guy here!"

An NBC News source said yesterday that ABC News staff had called up to ask about the Palmer story they had seen on NBC. But an ABC News spokesman said later, "We did not call NBC. At 1 a.m. the White House called the assignment desk here." The ABC News night editor woke up bureau chief Carl Bernstein and deputy bureau chief Bob Murphy at their homes and wheels were set in motion to expand the next morning's "Good Morning America" show to 3 1/2 hours.

At 2:30 a.m., the White House called ABC News again to ask that pool coverage be arranged for President Carter's statement on the crisis to be aired live at 7 a.m. If Carter hoped to break the news to America about the crisis, he was beaten by all three networks, which began their morning news shows half an hour early.

All three networks scheduled one-hour news specials on the crisis for prime-time last night -- an alert to viewers that this was big news, not just 11:30 p.m. news. CBS scheduled "Iran: The Rescue That Failed" for 8 p.m., and ABC's "Iran, Day 174: Failure and Tragedy" and NBC's "The Mission That Failed" were to air at 10 p.m.

Similarly, all three networks got hasty access to the satellite that brings news live and direct from Iran. No difficulty was reported except by NBC News, which, like all three networks, had its moments of interview with the accessible Sadegh Ghotbzadeh. But afterward, when Tom Brokaw of the "Today Show" was questioning correspondent Rich Davis in Terhan, the satellite picture went dead and was replaced by a test pattern.

Ghotbzadeh had said he hoped the militants holding American hostages would exercise "restraint." Brokaw asked Davis what authority Ghotbzadeh had to ensure restraint and -- suddenly no more satellite. Transmission was restored later.

While NBC brought in hired hand Henry Kissinger (under contract to the network) for a predictably cautious but authoritative analysis on the third hour of its expanded "Today Show," ABC was more interested in getting the dramatic opinions of relatives of the American hostages.

Through a San Diego network affiliate, ABC got Dorothea Morefield, a hostage's wife, onto "Good Morning, America," in addition to hostage relatives living in suburban Virginia and Milwaukee, Wis. ABC even got the father of one hostage whose mother had since remarried.

A source at another network said that trotting out all the hostage relatives was a "bush" technique that had little potential for shedding light on the situation. But as often happens with television, there was a mad scramble to put on the air anything even peripherally relevant to the crisis.

ABC News correspondent Greg Dobbs managed to pluck Louisa Kennedy, wife of one hostage, off the street in London and whisk her into a studio. She was soon on the air by satellite to "Good Morning, America."

By 6:30 Friday morning, ABC had seven two-man film crews on the streets of Washington to grab the reactions of congressmen and people in the street. CBS invited Sens. Frank Church (D-idaho) and Charles Percy (R-Ill.) to its studios, where they were joined later by Sen. Henry Jackson (D-Wash.).

Most political figures questioned on television about the failed maneuver were either conciliatory or mildly critical. (Bitter denunciations, no matter how sincere, don't play well on television when the network newscasters assume their crisis posture.)

And whenever Walter Cronkite appears on the screen before noon, viewers know that the crisis is a whopper.

In Washington, where news of the crisis may have had its greatest impact, CBS affiliate WDVM-TV, alone among the city's stations, elected to stay on the air all night Thursday in case there were additional bulletins on the situation in Iran.

Much of the coverage amounted to repeating information over and over during breaks in a hastily scheduled movie, "Young Winston," which would have taken just over two hours of air time in a normal airing but which was stretched over four and a half hours through news interruptions.

At 3:50 a.m., WDVM heard from the network that if the station stayed on the air, additional news would be forthcoming, and at 4 a.m., "Morning" correspondent Bob Pierpoint did a live report from the White House. More than 100 people phoned the station to express gratitude for its remaining on the air, a spokesman said.

Feeling that viewers would be maintaining vigils over a crisis in which eight American lives were lost, networks pre-empted scheduled programs like "Captain Kangaroo" even if their coverage for long stretches amounted to nothing more than repeats of earlier statements and reports.

In the zeal to get fresh material on the air, ABC News came up with a surprise from science editor Jules Bergman. It had mission plans were kept secret even from allies and U.S. congressmen, but correspondent Ted Koppel introduced Bergman by saying that "for some weeks now ABC science editor Junes Bergman has known about the planned U.S. rescue attempt."

Then Bergman, from New York, appeared and said, "It all began as a carefully cooked-up rescue mission shortly after the hostages were taken." Not even ABC News sources could reach Bergman late yesterday for additional comment on his inside knowledge of the raid.

It is too early to assess the quality or impact of television's coverage of the Iranian rout. Some viewers may feel network correspondents were too quick to find domestic political implications in the president's actions, and others may feel they were naive in not finding more domestic political implications.

As for the prospect of a TV movie -- "Raid on Entebbe" was a popular one a few years ago on ABC -- there was no sign in Hollywood yesterday that anyone was hard at work on a "Raid on Tehran" script, particularly since the raiders never got near Tehran. But agent Mike Marcus of the Paul Kohner-Michael Levy agency said yesterday, "You better believe there's going to be a movie, if not a couple, when the whole hostage crisis is over. No one wants to start one now, though, because the most exciting part might happen while you're shooting your film and you'd have to start all over."

As for the raid that failed, Marcus said, "I would think nobody would want to see that movie."