The Great Replay Caper of '82 began innocently enough.

Last Friday night, an obscure NBC News employe in Los Angeles reportedly watched the Larry Holmes-Gerry Cooney fight in the quiet of his living room on pay-TV. "Golly gee," he is supposed to have said, "I think I'll tape all this on my video recorder, hand-carry it to NBC News in Burbank, and make the boss happy about my heads-up idea."

Little did he realize that within 24 hours, the sky would fall in on NBC.

News executives in Burbank, apparently agreeing that it was a jim-dandy idea, sent the homemade tape around the country via the NBC News feed Saturday. That evening Jessica Savitch and the "NBC Nightly News" ran 22 seconds of the climactic 13th round. In TV time, 22 seconds is an eternity. We saw all we wanted to see of Cooney finally getting his close shave.

Showing footage of a big fight when no one else does (not CBS, not ABC, not even NBC's own sports division) normally ranks as a pretty cute move. But this was not a normal case.

For one thing, Don King and Tiffany Productions, the promoters of the fight and copyright owners of the closed-circuit telecast, sent formal Telex notices to all the networks, specifically prohibiting them from showing highlights of any portion of the fight.

To make matters worse, ABC Sports has paid a reported $3 million to show the entire fight in prime time a week from tonight. HBO has forked over an estimated $1.5 million to air the replay tonight (10 to 11:30) and Sunday (7:30 to 9 p.m.).

Obviously, if you look very closely here, you can find a few parties with their TV antennas bent out of shape. There's no way the ABC and HBO telecasts are worth what was paid for them now that NBC has shown the major highlights. And why should anyone watch Don King's next extravaganza on pay-TV if Tom Brokaw, say, is going to air it the following night?

So why did NBC News run the fight?

Earlier this week, Alan Baker, the network spokesman, released this terse official statement: "The few seconds of fight excerpts were well within the customary parameters of the Doctrine of Fair Use." Holmes-Cooney, he implied, was a news event, and no one has exclusive rights to limited coverage of news events.

By yesterday, this explanation had become--in Ronald Ziegler's famous word--"inoperable." One network source went so far as to say that "fair use" had nothing to do with showing the fight. It was just a goof, he suggested.

"We had to back away from that ('fair use') statement," said a source close to NBC. "It (the decision to use the replay) was not brought to a high-level official's attention until it played, or clearly it never would have played. Everybody else used still pictures from the fight. I think even ABC, which had the rerun rights, had still pictures."

King and his lawyer refused to comment yesterday on possible legal action against NBC. Baker also went mum, citing the "threat of litigation" from King, ABC and HBO. Sources within the TV industry and the Federal Communications Commission said there is no such thing as a "Fair Use Doctrine" in writing. The networks do have a verbal agreement to share each other's excerpts.

As for precedent, the law is on the side of Mr. Electric Hair.

ABC last year won a case against a Hartford, Conn., station that showed "news" excerpts of its U.S. Figure Skating Championships. Earlier this month, an independent TV station in Boston that carries the Red Sox and Bruins obtained a court ruling that blocks ESPN from picking up highlights without paying.

However the NBC replay issue is settled, one question remains: if NBC News aired the fight Saturday night, why didn't NBC Sports go with it Saturday afternoon?

Amazingly, a full six hours before Jessica Savitch and Co. ran their excerpts, NBC Sports--which at last report was still part of the same network--used still pictures of Holmes and Cooney during a national telecast. Sources at NBC Sports said everyone there was fully aware the fight was embargoed.

What to make of this mess? We're left with two possible deductions:

Either the "fair use" argument was the best response NBC could make after its news people pulled one of the biggest boners in years. Or the Peacock is so confused, its right wing doesn't know what the left is doing.

"To be very blunt and direct with you, this is a matter I'm sure NBC News will respond to," said Arthur Watson, president of NBC Sports. "These are two separate divisions. We handle the fight coverage one way, they handle it another way."

Said another NBC executive, who asked not to be identified:

"It's just a classic blunder. Clearly, one is left with the impression that they (NBC News) thought they could get away with it. I think Don King's got a terrific case. They (NBC News) thought they were being exclusive and clever . . . They'll have to pay the piper somewhere down the line, even if only for court costs.

"From a PR standpoint, it's embarrassing. We're still the No. 3 network, trying to pull ourselves up. It's not good."

Added one of NBC's well-known sports personalities: "It's the dumbest thing I ever heard."

Peacock-gate, anyone?