In the beginning, there was Warner Wolf. The Channel 9 sportscaster was not a hustling reporter or a thinking man's journalist. He was a tape-and-trivia freak. He stayed in his production studios hour after hour, found the best videotape, then showed the tape on the nightly news.

He now works for WCBS-TV in New York, the most highly watched sportscaster in the city, although also the most battered by the print media. He may have left Washington, but Wolf left a video legacy here.

George Michael seized Wolf's foundation, and quite simply by showing highlight after highlight, he has emerged as the most potent sportscasting force in town since Wolf.

In addition, Michael's video obsession has forced every other sportscaster in town to be more tape-conscious. Investigative reporting is a video dinosaur; tape is the temple of high ratings. Go for it, or be gone.

There are distinct styles at work among the local sportscasters who compete head-to-head at 6 and 11 o'clock nightly. For area viewers, that means a choice: Michael's tape machine, Glenn Brenner's one-liners or Frank Herzog's reserved reporting.

And at 10 o'clock, there's Bernie Smilovitz, battling uphill since November 1979 for respectability and finally deserving a bit of it.

Here is a look at the strengths and weaknesses of Washington's four weeknight sports anchors:

* Glenn Brenner (WDVM-TV-9): He's a terrible reporter. He wouldn't recognize a major breaking story from a hanging curve ball. He stumbles over his copy. He often rushes his delivery. He mumbles.

And he's the funniest person on Washington television.

Brenner, remarkably, is The Man Who Replaced Warner Wolf. When Wolf left a decade ago, Channel 9 tried Mike Wolfe, a loose, macho collection of assorted jewelry and open-necked shirts. He bombed. Brenner replaced Wolfe and made some folks forget Wolf.

Brenner's bread-and-butter is the one-liner. Some hit, some miss. He's the stand-up comic without the live audience. Undoubtedly, he's being heckled at home by thousands. His offbeat approach is as irritating to hard-core sports fans as it is refreshing to casual followers.

Ironically, Brenner's home is Channel 9, which, for years, has been the area's best, most sober broadcast news operation. Channel 9 prides itself on its national and local political coverage, even treating the weather in referential tones. And then the class comedian comes out and reads the scores, or at least some of them.

He's highly likable, but sometimes you get the feeling that Brenner sacrifices stories in order to accommodate his one-liners. His news judgment is suspect. For instance, on the Monday after the NFL's final regular-season weekend, Brenner had an interview with Joe Gibbs, a musical tribute to Art Monk, film of Tampa Bay Coach John McKay's controversial last game and Davis Cup tennis highlights. That's all. In seven minutes, no attempt to explain the NFL playoff situation, no mention of the Cowboys' do-or-die Monday night game, no Capitals, Bullets or college basketball.

If Brenner could better balance his humor with hard news, he'd be a greater attraction.

* Frank Herzog (WJLA-TV-7): Last week, after news anchor David Schumacher did a lead-in on the collapse of the Silverdome roof, Herzog added a bit more information and said, " . . . but that's another story for another time, and speaking of time, I don't have any, so do you mind if I go on?"

And therein lies one of his problems: compared to his direct competition on channels 4 and 9, Herzog gets slighted on time. Channel 7, which since the days of Steve Gilmartin has been a graveyard for local sportscasters -- Mal Campbell, Len Hathaway, Duane Dow, Dan Lovett, Mike Patrick, Steve Bassett, Tim Brant, et al -- doesn't show the enthusiastic commitment to sports the other stations demonstrate.

But Herzog's problems run deeper. Of the local sports anchors, he's the best reporter and writer, a proven play-by-play broadcaster who comes across as decent and civil with a minimum of hype and hysteria. Yet, without a distinct personality and a sellable schtick, he sort of fades into the background. He can be dull, particularly when compared to Michael and Brenner.

Credit Herzog and field reporter Rick Schwartz for bringing literate sports features onto the air. Herzog takes risks no one else in town would, such as a segment on the cast of the musical "Cats" as athletes. He's also the best source of nonvideotape news, telling us about legalities, arbitration hearings and the like.

Herzog, on highlights, is the worst in town. When he mentions a Bullets or Capitals game, viewers want to know two things immediately: who won and what was the score. But Herzog won't give it up. His style is to build a narrative, and often the last thing he tells us is the score. It's exasperating enough to make you call up George Michael's score line while you're waiting.

* George Michael (WRC-TV-4): Let's be honest here: do you tune in to your Team 4 news for cover stories, weather watchers and Arch, Arch? (No, no!) WRC is local TV's carnival of change, a constant flow of new graphics, new special series, new sets, new promos. The Team is like the department store that has its annual clearance sale four times a year.

Unless you're too lazy to switch the channel from "Hill Street Blues," the only reason to watch Channel 4 news is George Michael. You love him, you hate him. You watch him, and even if you don't, you make such a stink about him that curiosity-seekers tune him in.

He's the only guy in town who can show you five minutes of tape in a four-minute sportscast. Let's go to south Philly. Let's go to the Forum in Inglewood. He's got more satellite dishes than I've got silverware. If there were highlights of Columbus' discovery of America, George would have it. In fact, if he doesn't have it, you've got to wonder if it even happened.

Michael is largely one-dimensional, but that devotion to videotape lures viewers. Folks know their best shot of seeing a particular highlight is with Michael.

Michael has two ugly faults: 362-4444 and professional wrestling. His score line is an invaluable service, but he plugs it nightly ("If you had dialed the Sports Machine, you would already know . . . ").

The Thursday-night wrestling phenomenon has expanded to inhuman proportions. It now has a nightly life of its own. Pro wrestling might be entertaining theater to some, but it is not sport. Sport is competition, and when the winner is predetermined and the drama is rehearsed, it does not qualify. For Michael to justify wrestling in place of reporting other news is abhorrent, abominable, reproachable, exceptionable, objectionable, intolerable, insufferable, unsupportable, unacceptable, unbearable and unendurable. Hey, I just don't like it.

* Bernie Smilovitz (WTTG-TV-5): He doesn't have Brenner's wit, Herzog's reporting savvy or Michael's tape, but Smilovitz exhibits many of their skills without the excesses, producing an improving sportscast.

He isn't with a network affiliate and he gets only one sportscast a night, but Smilovitz slowly has overcome these disadvantages with hustle and hard work. Channel 5 wisely puts his sports segment deep into its 10 o'clock newscast, allowing Smilovitz to report more final scores and occasionally get live interviews from local games just completed.

Foremost, Smilovitz is Warner Wolf reincarnate. He isn't as good as Wolf -- hey, gimme a break -- but as a teen-ager growing up in this area, he obviously picked up Wolf's habits. Like Wolf, Smilovitz relies heavily on tape and trivia. And like Wolf, Smilovitz mostly comes across as a fellow fan.

You're not likely to see him doing "Monday Night Football" any time soon, but Smilovitz is the one local sportscaster you'd want to call up and go with to a game. ("Hey, Bernie, I'll pick you up at 6:30. What's that? Sure, sure, bring your brother.")