The tape, the tape, we all wanted to see the tape. We just couldn't wait to get a look at the tape. TV stations were going to race one another onto the air in order to show us the tape.

Now we have seen the tape. And it wasn't any fun at all. It was just sad. Technology has made possible a new kind of global and communal embarrassment.

The tape was made in January when the FBI arrested Mayor Marion Barry for illegal drug use during a sting operation at the Vista Hotel. For months, rumors circulated about what was on the tape and how incriminating it would be. Yesterday, Washington got its first look, just after 2 o'clock in the afternoon.

Instead of the scheduled network soap opera "Another World," WRC aired this sorrowful peek into Barry's World. WUSA followed a few minutes later, and WJLA after that. Even though hidden-camera footage has become fairly common on TV, from the Abscam affair on, the first glimpses of the mayor, coatless and paunchy in the hotel room, were startling.

And it would only get worse.

The crucial matter is, of course, that at one point in the tape he puts a crack pipe to his lips and, apparently, inhales. Soon after that, FBI agents can be seen bursting into the room, eventually directing Barry to put his hands on the wall as they search him, later putting him in handcuffs and leading him out the door, promising "to take you from here with a great deal of discretion."

A great deal of discretion, and it was all being recorded by TV cameras.

The video images are a murky blur of grays. The focus is so soft it looks like a dream sequence from a bad movie. Two cameras from two angles recorded the arrest in black-and-white; the U.S. Attorney's Office later edited tape from the two cameras together into a relatively smooth-flowing narrative. In Hollywood they call this "post-production."

Footage from a third camera, reportedly installed inside the shower head in the bathroom, was not released yesterday. Several times, especially during the sequence showing the actual arrest, the picture broke up and flipped around, suggesting the FBI may need to upgrade its video gear.

At times the sound was as muddy as the picture. WRC added captions to some of the dialogue, and the lines had eerie echoes of the so-called kitchen-sink dramas shown on live TV in the '50s. Instead of "I don't know, Marty, whaddayou wanna do tonight?" it was Barry saying to model Rasheeda Moore, who had lured him to the room for the sting, "If you don't do it, I'm not gonna do it," "Why don't you do it?" and "You gonna do it?"

Eventually, of course, he did it.

As television, the videotape was grimly compelling. The encounter between Barry and Moore seemed joyless and furtive and there was no evidence of any euphoria produced by the drug. As for the bust, it had little resemblance to the glamorous arrests in cop shows and action movies. This was not exciting. This was degrading and pathetic.

"It is not a pleasant thing to see," WRC's Jim Vance warned viewers as the station prepared to air more tape. On Wednesday, after recounting some of the ugly allegations in Moore's first day of testimony, Vance told co-anchor Susan Kidd, "This, Susan, is not pretty."

It wasn't pretty and it wasn't pleasant but it did, indeed, have to be shown. That WRC got the tape on the air first, the minute the jury began to watch it in court, had some of the station's competitors suspicious. It was long rumored that WRC had a bootleg copy in its possession, and Dave Pearce, news director at WUSA, said the rumor was proved true when WRC popped onto the air with its pictures even as the actual tape (a copy made by the FBI for the media) was being whisked from the courtroom to the ABC News bureau for a pool feed to stations and networks.

"Networks," in the satellite age, includes CNN, which means the pictures were soon being beamed to nearly every corner of the Earth.

In the morning, Pearce said he suspected WRC already had a unauthorized copy of the tape ready to air. "If they go on the air with a produced package, I would be very suspicious as to how they were able to do that," Pearce said. By "produced package," he meant that the station would have done its own editing or enhancement -- like the captions WRC added to clarify semi-audible dialogue.

"I think we can say we've had a tape. That's obvious," said WRC News Director Kris Ostrowski when asked about Pearce's charge. She said she could not reveal how the station had obtained its copy.

Another competitor said it looked like WRC had put its copy of the tape through a "scrimming" process that electronically blurred the borders, thus hiding an identifying mark put on the tape by the FBI in order to trace all copies.

Ostrowski, asked about this, said "there was never any mark" on the tape and that no electronic blurring of the image had been done.

Bob Reichblum, news director of WJLA, said he didn't mind that WRC had been first on the air, however it had managed to get the tape. Asked if the station had acted unethically, Reichblum said, "I wouldn't comment on the ethics of the matter since I don't know the manner in which they got the tape."

But he added, "I would never ever command anyone here under any circumstances to break the law. I don't know what WRC went through to get the tape, but I do know that the restrictions on copies included a court order." Pearce said of WRC, "I would believe they have a legal problem with possessing the tape."

All three stations edited the tape to take out some of the mayor's profane and obscene expressions, most of which were made upon his getting busted. There were at least a dozen separate uses of the phrase "goddamn bitch," referring to Moore. Most of these were left in, but the stronger, more virulent words were cut out.

His honor the mayor.

Pearce, at WUSA, made a big production out of deleting the expletives, so much so that the station aired the tape with no sound at all when it first came in through the pool feed. Poor Bob Strickland, the one reporter at the station who had seen the tape earlier (he wouldn't say how), had to narrate for several long minutes as viewers saw the slightly ghostly figures of Barry and Moore moving around the room.

"In the interests of propriety, we are not having the sound up for you full," Strickland told viewers, but at that same time, WRC was airing excerpts with sound. Just before 3, Strickland told viewers that additional footage was forthcoming but that "we are eliminating more profanity" in the editing booth.

WUSA overstressed this point so much that it began to sound as though it thought profanity was the big news of the tape. Allan Horlick, general manager of WRC, said there had been phone calls from viewers complaining about the profanity, but that many more viewers had called to complain about their soap operas being interrupted for coverage.

All three network affiliates, and Fox affiliate WTTG, made plans to air extended portions of the tapes later last night. WTTG's show ran at 8 p.m., apparently invalidating the notion of Barry as a not-ready-for-prime-time player.

WJLA promised the tape "in its entirety" on last night's telecast of "Marion Barry: His Day in Court," a midnight report the station has aired every weekday since June 4, when the trial began.

"His Day in Court" isn't so much a news program as a postgame show. Reporters and lawyers come on each night and argue about whether the defense or the prosecution won that day's skirmish in court and, if possible, by how many points. One night, reporter Del Walters said, "I think the best way to determine who won is to take a look at how they appeared when they came out of court." It is?

The program is slickly produced and well put together, but it trivializes an ordeal into sports talk.

WUSA planned to show the whole Barry videotape at 11:30 last night, with the expletives left in. Pearce said he thought the public deserved to see the tape exactly as the jury saw it. He went on the air himself earlier in the day to warn viewers and to assure them that as many dirty words as possible were being eliminated from all broadcasts of the tape prior to the late-night showing.

WRC planned to preempt "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson" for The Vista Show Starring Marion Barry, but not with all the expletives left in. WRC's Horlick said he was personally involved in editing the tape for broadcast. "I made the decisions on what language would stay and what language would go," he said.

News Director Ostrowski summarized the decisions as "the 'bitches' are in, the {'f' words} are out."

With three TV sets tuned to the three major networks for their evening newscasts, one could see images of the mayor's travails at different stages. Here was the shame of it all leaping right through the national looking glass and into the American home.

Surely the genie was now officially and irretrievably out of the bottle.

By this time, the images were familiar to local viewers who'd tuned in for the first airing in the afternoon. Washington stations prowled the streets for reactions as well. Some stations had TV pictures of people watching the pictures on TV. There were also shots of the tape being transported from the courthouse to ABC. Reactions from persons on the street seemed to vary widely as to whether the tape would help or hurt the mayor's case in court, but not even the most insistent of the anti-Barry people seemed at all gleeful about his abject humiliation.

Probably the saddest part of the spectacle occurs when Barry has been arrested and is seated on the bed and, as an FBI agent reads him his rights and informs him of how they'll proceed, Barry keeps muttering and cursing to himself, mostly using epithets directed at Moore for her involvement in the "set-up" that snared him.

"I'll be goddamned, I shouldn't have come up here," Barry says bitterly. It's the kind of self-recrimination with which almost anyone can identify. The trial will go on, and the coverage will go on, but the airing of the Vista tape seemed truly like the sorry grand finale to an epic of regret.