You've got to love 'em. Washington sportscasters get more like restaurants every day.

Portions (especially at WJLA-TV-7) keep getting smaller, the emphasis is on atmosphere as opposed to service, and such variety we've never seen. You want wise-cracking waiters or sincere, polite types? How about the main course--talking heads or videotape au jus?

Herewith, the first Washington Post Guide to Local Sportscasters. We'll rate each news station's top sportscaster in three categories: journalism, videotape and total appeal. Top score is four tubes; lowest score is zero tubes.

A word of caution: in TV, there's a big difference between being a great reporter and a great entertainer. It's like restaurants. You can have a terrific time at the dinner theater even though the waiter drops the menu in your soup.

George Michael (WRC-TV-4)

Michael is the king of local sportscasters--a tour de force for the last two years.

The reason should be obvious to anyone who "goes for it" several days straight. Creative use of tape has become the essence of local sportscasting. Who wants to watch an interview with the high jump coach at Central High when he can see a $25 million Yankee letting a ball run up his arm?

Michael is a video acrobat. "Take you to the Astrodome!" he says. "Pick it up, karate finals in Yokohama!" Nobody has more tape from more exotic places, and few people edit it better than the former fast-talking apprentice to Warner Wolf in New York.

The thing about George is his eye. He has 20-10 vision for the unusual detail. Mike Schmidt hits a homer. "Come on, Mike, show that chest!" Michael says, and Schmidt, making like Superman in the dugout, flashes his hairy breast for the camera.

In recent months, though, Michael's show has developed some cracks. He has fallen so deeply in love with goofball tapes--wrestling, motocross, more wrestling--that important stories are missing the air. You can entertain and have fun, but you first have to report.

Last week, on the day the Atlantic Coast Conference voted to adopt the 30-second clock and the three-point play, Michael ignored the story on his 11 o'clock report. He did squeeze in time for a 40-second tape featuring daredevils falling off cliffs on motorcycles. Justification? There can't be any.

While we're at it, what's the point of the "SportsFinal" line? We're supposed to call up to get the news while George tumbles off cliffs?

Michael's taste last week also went into the trench. He showed a gruesome tape of TV star Andy Kaufman suffering a sprained neck in a wrestling match. Michael's strange justification? "Wrestling is no joke, kids. You can get hurt doing this."

Finally, who isn't getting tired of tuning in the 6 o'clock show and seeing the same footage shown at 11 the night before? Why not a bit less tape at 6 o'clock and some more analysis and opinion? George would gain a half a tube in this corner by being more provocative.

Glenn Brenner (WDVM-TV-9)

Whether Brenner's show has improved over the last year or Michael's has weakened is anybody's guess, but the feeling here is the race is tighter than a year ago.

Brenner, the Henny Youngman of sportscasting, still can split your sides with one-liners. At one point in the 76ers-Celtics series, he put on a terribly serious face, looked straight into the camera and wondered how Philadelphia could blow a big game. "Overconfidence?" he mused. "Fatigue? Problem dandruff?"

On Hubie Brown, the new Knicks coach: "He's a nice enough guy off the floor, but once the game starts, they say he's a cross between John McEnroe and a Doberman pinscher, and the players don't like that."

Brenner's chief asset also can be his undoing. I know a number of viewers who raved over Brenner a few years ago and now say his act is wearing thin. Who hasn't felt that he sometimes runs highlights solely to set up lines? Does he care about the stories he's reporting, or is he using them as props?

As for tape, Brenner tends to cancel its impact. Sportscasters should talk at the tape, not over it. Here's the feeling: the highlight is finished, you just heard Glenn talking, but heaven knows what you saw. Some of Brenner's tape is choppy and ragged. Let's say Eddie Murray hits a stand-up double to right. Why show loose ends like the throw coming back to the infield?

Brenner does have a great luxury (eat your heart out, George) in Frank Herzog. Herzog is the one TV sports reporter in town worthy of the name. Who else could draw this flippant quote out of Abe Pollin: "Maybe they (Washington fans) don't want a team (the Bullets)--I don't know."

If Brenner can't be credited for Herzog, neither can he be blamed for weatherman Gordon Barnes. Barnes got lost in a low air mass on the 11 o'clock show last week and gave away the fact that the Celtics had won Game 6 of their NBA series, which viewers were waiting to see on tape.

Tim Brant (WJLA-TV-7)

Channel 7 has been strangling Brant for as long as he's been on. It's almost as though the station wants him to be No. 3. First they chiseled this commandment in stone: "Thou shalt have one-half the air time of Michael or Brenner." Then they saddled him with "Challenge Tim."

In this insipid serial, Brant-the-former-athlete accepts "challenges" from viewers in various sports, be it putt-putt golf, fire-ladder climbing or fishing for snail darters. We're supposed to "identify" with Brant, whatever that means. Since Tim has about five minutes on the 6 o'clock news to begin with, he barely has time to say hello to David and Rene.

The sad part of this is that Brant has shown marked improvement as a reporter. He's no Herzog, but for sheer sports news, his show may be the best in town.

He did by far the best job on the ACC story, and he's the only guy in town who doesn't think recruiting is something that happens at the naval station. While his rivals usually turn their 5:30 reports into promos for the 6 o'clock news, Brant used his time recently for a series on abuses in children's sports.

Still, Brant has a curious lack of authority as a sportscaster. He just doesn't register. Is it his sugary earnestness? His reluctance to criticize? His quasicorny lines such as, "Sometimes he's (Bob) McAdoo, sometimes he's McAdon't"?

One thing that isn't the station's fault is Brant's use of tape. Does he put it on just to show he has it? Recently the Orioles were rained out in Baltimore. We saw the groundskeepers unrolling the tarp at 11 o'clock that night and again at 6 the next evening. Zzzzzzzz.

Bernie Smilovitz (WTTG-TV-5)

Message to Bernie and the Metromedia powers that be: roll everything back to Square One and start over. Forget competing with the big-budget videotape people across town. Go with your strength: interviews, knowledge, opinion.

Why Smilovitz keeps loading his show with boring tape--he seems to have half as many game highlights as anybody else and twice as many talking heads--is the $64 question. Spare us! Even Fred Knight talking about the pollen count is more interesting than Johnny Rutherford saying that Indy is "500 miles and anything can happen."

Bernie does attempt to report the news, but as soon as the talking heads come on, it's dial-switching time. The fact is that Smilovitz knows the right questions to ask. He's compelling when he speaks his mind and explains his reasoning. No one on the air has more authority on college hoops.

But the guy rarely lets his light shine. We get such glop as the L.A. Rams in aerobic dance classes with some middle-aged Fifi in leotards. We also get too much awkward chit-chat between Smilovitz, Jackson Bain and Gloria Gibson. Happy talk is fine if it's spontaneous and brief. Channel 5's is neither.

Finally, Bernie tends to mistake sarcasm for humor. There's a disagreeable tone of cynicism in his show. If you're going to call a baseball highlight package boring when it's over, why show it? And (how's this for self-indulgence) why report a local girls' soccer score in a weary voice and then tell viewers the station ordered you to do it?