Perhaps it will one day be known as the war to end all war coverage.

"For the latest on the Falkland Islands crisis, we take you now to our film library . . ."

On TV, this isn't a war. It's a File Film Festival. "It's the first major news event in 20 years where we haven't been able to get to it," laments Jeff Gralnick, executive producer of ABC's "World News Tonight," the top-rated network newscast last week. "Even Afghanistan and Poland we were able to get around somehow, but this one's really bitchy."

NBC News executive vice president Tom Pettit calls it "the war you don't see," because there has been no real combat footage on the air since the Argentines invaded the Falklands on April 2. TV coverage of the conflict, even in this day of the global village and satellite technology and all that other whiz-bang, has consisted mainly of stand-up reports from London and Buenos Aires, artists' renderings of battle scenes and, while the British fleet was still wending its seemingly merry way toward the Falklands, British-supplied footage of sailors training, cleaning up or playing cards below decks.

"We show all we've got, and we show it over and over," moans Reuven Frank, president of NBC News. "I've seen the same goddamn picture of that load of Bully Beef coming off the troopship in the Falklands at least 20 times by now. Sometimes more than once in the same newscast." He is referring to coverage on all three networks, not just NBC. "It's as frustrating to us as it is to viewers," grumps CBS News president Van Gordon Sauter. "It's not just that we're not getting pictures. We're being denied access to information."

We're not getting pictures because no one can get close enough to take them and because both sides, Britain and Argentina, are trying to control the information flow. Two camera crews are traveling with the British fleet, but they are both British--one from the BBC, one from England's ITN news service--and subject to censorship by the British Ministry of Information. "The British," says Frank, "are being 'different.' "

There are no American TV correspondents on the Falklands, either, although NBC can lay claim to having had the only one who was there, though briefly, during the crisis. Correspondent Robin Lloyd got onto the Falklands at the onset of the spat, secured the only American-made tape of Argentine troops and Falkland-Islanders-on-the-street, then was asked to leave by the Argentines after 36 hours of poking around. Lloyd went to the Falklands with not precisely the approval but with "the awareness" of the Argentines, an NBC News spokesman says.

Now he is back in Buenos Aires, where NBC has 30 people covering the story, ABC 37 and CBS 35. It's not exactly a case of "Suppose they gave a war and nobody came." It's just "Suppose they gave a war but nobody could take a picture of it."

It's certainly inconsiderate to go out and have yourselves a war in the year of our media 1982 without considering the visual needs of TV. Lacking pictures of warfare itself, the networks have been illustrating the story with almost anything they can grab. "Clip reels" of various ships, planes and helicopters have been assembled from the files and are put on the screen so newscasters can say "a plane like this or a missile like this," says Gralnick, and show people pictures of "what was used to hit what."

Last week it looked as though ABC was so desperate for footage that it had swallowed all pride and borrowed shots of the Argentine junta in session from the CBS News broadcast "60 Minutes." One had to look very closely at the credit on the screen to see that it wasn't "60 Minutes" but rather "60 Minutos," an Argentine copy of the CBS show.

The lack of real pictures, meanwhile, is not for lack of trying.

"We've looked at chartering everything," says Sauter of CBS. "If it floats or flies, we've looked at it. But whatever we look at ends up being impractical, if not treacherous, beyond tolerance." A man in New Jersey offered to fly a CBS News crew to Argentina for $62,000 and fly them over battle zones there for $14,000 a day, Sauter says, but the network did not take the offer very seriously. "What that guy should do," says Sauter, "is walk into a viewing room and put on a cassette of an air-to-air missile in action. Suddenly he would have grave concerns that $14,000 was really far too little to ask."

ABC "toyed" with the idea of chartering a tramp steamer, Gralnick says, but gave it up because it was going to be "too damned expensive and too damned dangerous. It would have netted us nothing except a press release and a lot of endangered people." An ABC News spokesman says the network tried to get other news organizations to chip in for the boat, including The Washington Post. ABC News president Roone Arledge called Post executive editor Benjamin C. Bradlee, Bradlee confirms; Bradlee says the paper was willing to put up $5,000. But Gralnick says it would have taken "hundreds of thousands of dollars," so the ship remained firmly in port.

Gralnick says ABC News also took a flyer on a chartered plane early in the conflict, but when the plane entered Argentine airspace, it was told by ground control there to leave. And did.

What about the old idea of the brave and daring war correspondents who will let nothing keep them from the story? "We issue trenchcoats like everybody else," says Sauter. "But it's very difficult to smuggle yourself onboard an aircraft carrier and you tend to be a bit conspicuous in an armed camp." Howard Stringer, executive producer of the "CBS Evening News With Dan Rather," says, "I don't think it's a very good idea for producers to get drowned covering this story."

Frank points out that even if the networks had their own armada, it wouldn't be easy to cover naval encounters, especially "when ships engage each other at very great distances over the horizon. The fleets are scattered over an area the size of Pennsylvania, so if you had a ship or a blimp with a camera on it, where would you put it? You're a lot better off waiting for Hollywood to do it in a washtub with little models."

One airlift to South America in connection with TV news coverage of the war was successful, however. When correspondent Sander Vanocur ran out of his favorite brand of cigars, Gralnick had two boxes rushed down to Buenos Aires from Vanocur's "private stock at home." A happy correspondent is a good--or even great--correspondent; Vanocur's savvy reports from Argentina have handily outshone those of Richard Valeriani on NBC and Bob Schieffer on CBS.

The networks are still hotly competitive even when covering a story that puts them all at basically the same disadvantage. Sauter says CBS is "the only network which has not hired artists to illustrate scenes from the battle zone. We don't allow reporters to go on the air and tell us what it looks like if they haven't been there and we think the same principle should apply to artists as well."

ABC's Gralnick says his newscast has benefited from the overseas anchor desk it maintains in London. "This funny little broadcast has one advantage at a time like this," Gralnick says. "A full-up London operation that never goes to bed is damn, damn valuable. We have an operation in London that is really second to none, and this has given us a big leg up."

And NBC proudly points to the fact that it was, says a spokesman, "the first news organization worldwide to report that British forces had landed on South Georgia" on Sunday, April 25. In effect, NBC scooped the BBC on its own scoop. NBC Radio correspondent Fred Kennedy heard of the landing over a BBC "squawk-box"--an internal intercom system which the BBC, because of good relations with NBC, lets the network monitor--and rushed the information to New York, where correspondent Lloyd Dobyns was already on the air with a special report. Dobyns was handed the bulletin and broadcast it before anyone else.

Spokesmen at all three networks say there has been no problem gaining access to the satellite to send back reports from correspondents in Buenos Aires, although the ground station there, like most throughout the world, is state-controlled. However, there was something of a contretemps between the Argentines and ABC News last Friday. Argentine Foreign Minister Nicanor Costa Mendez had consented to an interview with Ted Koppel, anchor of the network's popular "Nightline" show, to be conducted from JFK Airport in New York.

Koppel did not show up at the ABC bureau in Washington in time to tape the interview for that night's show, however, so correspondent Jack Smith questioned Costa Mendez at the airport. Then Koppel arrived and Costa Mendez was asked to do the interview all over again, this time with Koppel. He became furious and refused; then, reportedly, became furious again when ABC used only a 30-second "sound bite" from the interview on that night's "Nightline."

"Nobody got angry," Koppel insists when asked about the incident; in fact, he says, "there was absolutely no incident" and the decision to use only a tiny snippet of the interview was an editorial one, not an expression of rancor against Costa Mendez. An eyewitness says, however, that Costa Mendez displayed "a tremendous amount of anger" at the time of the taping and foreign relations experts on Capitol Hill were "outraged" at what they saw as a slap to the face of a foreign official, according to a source there.

In ABC's defense, producer Stringer says Costa Mendez is angry at CBS News too, because of the interview Dan Rather conducted with him on April 26. "He thinks he was unfairly treated, that we had not taken his best answers," says Stringer. The press adviser at the Argentine Embassy in Washington could not be reached for comment yesterday.

ABC's Gralnick says that a major part of reporting on this war for television is the time-consuming process of trying to verify claims made every day by each side. "In terms of where the truth is, the British are much closer to the mark than the Argentines are," he says. "The Argentines have yet to admit they lost the South Georgia Islands."

While the networks scrounge and scramble for information, American TV viewers are showing a rousing indifference. Stringer says viewing levels for all three network evening newscasts are down. "It doesn't look as though it's a story that has captured the imagination of the audience," he says, "the way the Polish story did, or weather stories do." Why not? "I think because it's two nations fighting a long way away and there is little American connection. There is little enthusiasm for a foreign story unless there's direct American involvement."

Stringer concedes people are not taking this distant tiff very seriously partly because the networks didn't take it seriously when the crisis began. "At first we treated it as a Gilbert-and-Sullivan 'Pirates of Penzance' fiasco with comic overtones," he says.

Perhaps a sign that the situation had become serious occurred not on nightly newscasts but within that uncannily accurate barometer of public opinion, that telltale bellwether, Johnny Carson's Monologue. Last week, Carson was including jokes about the Falklands in every night's monologue. When British troops landed in South Georgia, Carson said, "They took 147 G.O.W.'s-- that's 'Goats of War.' "

He poked fun at the Argentine navy ("they're not too sophisticated; yesterday one of their submarines submerged and all the deckhands drowned" and, "You have to worry about a navy whose submarines have screen doors"). And he poked fun at the Argentine army ("They have the only tanks with back-up lights").

But as of Tuesday night--after an Argentine air attack destroyed the HMS Sheffield and men were reported dead or missing--all jokes about the Falklands stopped. Perhaps viewer interest in the conflict will increase now that this turning point has been reached.

At home, it looks almost like a video game, with so many graphs and maps and little blip-ships on the screen, and so little real evidence of combat, but network coverage continues in all seriousness, at a cost so far to each network estimated by one knowledgeable insider as roughly $1 million. "Nobody ever didn't say 'War is hell,' " muses Gralnick. "We're getting nowhere and it's very frustrating," says Frank. "I like to see the pictures that go with the words."

The File-Footage War goes on.