"It's like the beginning of World War III," proclaims CBS senior vice president Lou Dorfsman who is in charge of his network's promotional activities.

As the new television season is about to get under way, the three networks are indeed mobilized for war - the perennila prime-time ratings battle - and many broadcasting executives are predicting the coming season will be the most aggressively competitive ever.

At least it is starting out that way, with all three networks jumping the gun on the official season starts as they jockey for position and try to throw the competition off balance.

ABC, last year's ratings leader after year of dwelling in the cellar, is the early line favorite to repeat for this season because of it s solid line-up of returning series favourites such as "Happy Days" and "Charlie's Angels."

CBS and NBC, meanwhile, are expected to battle furiously to avoid the third place booby prize they used to reserve for ABC. Because the outcome could mean extinction for either network's high-priced programming executives."

For the last few weeks, the networks have been reworking their schedules, honing strategy, publicly sniping at each other psych out the opposition, and generally trying to get an early leg up in the to them, all-important run for the ratings.

As a result, the season which was supposed to begin officially on Sept. 19 now looks like it will get under way just after Laborr Day.

And the opening two weeks will be crammed with ballyhooed specials, known in the trade as "stunts," that are meant to grab attention for the remainder of the season's schedule.

ABC programming whiz Fred Silverman triggered the shift when he scheduled "Washington: Behind Closed Doors," a high-priced political miniseries based on John Ehrlichman's Watergate novel, The Company, for six straight nights beginning Sept. 6.

Hoping for a repeat of the blockbuster ratings success of last season's "Roots," ABC planned to use the "Washington" series in the same way it utilized last summer's Olympic Games - to heavily promote the new shows on its fall schedule to a fat audience while the rival networks were still showing their summer reruns.

But NBC and CBS weren't about to concede without a struggle and have thrown in blockbusters of their own and also move up many of their season premieres to blunt the ABC strategy.

Beginning Sept. 5, NBC loaded its schedule with assorted specials virtually every night for two weeks. These include the first of six one-hour "Laugh-In" shows, a three-hour motion picture. "The Hindenburg," about the infamous dirigible starring George C. Scott; a preseason football game between the Dallas Cowboys and the Pittsburgh Steelers; a quadruple-header of heavyweight boxing filling one entire evening's schedule; the first broadcast of the Miss Black America Pageant; the 1977 Emmy Awards; and the Third Annual Rock Music Awards Show.

With this opening barrage, NBC is displaying the strategy it will pursue for the rest of the season, relying heavily on special events programming and miniseries to get audiences while downplaying the weekly series shows where it is weakest.

CBS already had committed itself to an $1 million promotion of its new schedule tied to an 11-page supplement in TV Guide for the week of Sept. 19 that offers $250,000 in sweepstakes prizes for viewers who tune into CBS new shows and who can answer simple questions about them.

But it also was forced to move up its premieres and counter with stunts of its own.

So also beginning just after Labor Day, CBS has the first television showing of the movie "Logan's Run," a two-hour season premiere of "The Waltons," a "Night of the Champions" evening of boxing of its own, a two-hour "State Fair America" special preceding the "1977 Miss America Pageant" on Sept. 10, and a "Super Night at Forest Hills" variety special tied to the tennis tournament.

For the early two weeks, it also is introducing such newcomer series as "Rafferty" and "The Betty White Show," and advancing the start of some regulars.

CBS Dorfsman expresses some disappointment that his "sweepstakes" promotion has been undercut but says that on second thought, "I figured if people watch before the formal premiere time, that gives them a leg up on answering some of the questions." Dorfsman says the magazine promotion, which no network has ever tried before, could boost initial viewing of CBS shows by 25 per cent.

"Variety," the magazine which serves as the weekly scorecard for the entertainment business, recently estimated that all of the advance jousting could be costing the three networks $15 million or more in commercial revenues that they otherwise would have received because extremely expensive programming is being slotted in weeks where sponsors already have payed low rates for commercial time on what they thought would be summer reruns.

Not so, say the networks. ABC says it has been able to renegotiate prices with sponsors, and is getting $70,000 for a 30-second spot on the "Washington" series, or $140,000 a minute. And on a hastily produced special called "The Making of "Star Wars'" about this summer's No. 1 movie sensation, which will air on Sept. 16, it is charging and getting $175,000 per minute of commercial time.

Both CBS and NBC also have been making adjustments to recoup some advertising revenues.

But, fortunately for networks, there is also an extremely robust advertising economy to support this white heat of program competition and it is considered worth it to each network to squander a few million dollars if it means keeping close to the pace as the ratings race starts.

"There's a definite value to get the head start and be first," said Jake Keever, vice president and national sales manager for ABC Television. "If we have 'Washington' on, we at least force NBC and CBS to move other items earlier. And if "Washington' is a big hit, then we've got a big jump on everyone."

Total network television revenues last year exceeded $3 billion, and this year advertising rates are being boostered by between 15 and 25 per cent, with ABC getting the largest jump because it finally is cashing in on the ratings success it achieved last season.

Advance selling for the entire is very strong, with more than two-thirds of advertising time through next summer reportedly already sold by the networks and ABC claiming to be 90 per cent sold in the coming fourth quarter and 85 per cent for the next three quarters.

Ratings differentials do not affect revenues in a given season becuase most time is sold in advance, but each point difference in the Nielsen ratings is estimated to translate eventually into about $20 million in advertising sales.

According to most observers, ABC is expected to be the almost certain ratings leader after the first three months of the new season, particularly because it will be airing the World Series for the first time this year, and in prime time this has served as a tremendous ratings booster for NBC which had it regularly in the past.

Opinion is divided as to how NBC and CBS will fare. ABC Entertainment chief Silverman took a swipe at his former employer by predicting CBS will finish "a distant third" because its new shows, though well done, are old-fashioned and "should have been scheduled three years ago." He predicted NBC's special events programming will outpace CBS.

On Wall Street and Madison Avenue, observers believe NBC may well be in second position for the first three months of the new season as it front-loads special programs such as the nine-hour showing of a television version of "The Godfather" incorporating two Oscar winning films. This is scheduled for airing over four consecutive nights in November.

But they also predict that NBC - which was a solid second last year for the same period, mainly on the basis of a two-night showing of "Gone With the Wind" that broke all ratings records, only to drop to third - will fade again as NBC's weakness in regular series programming asserts itself.

NBC executives scoff at this suggestion, claim they have a much large arsenal of special programs and miniseries than they did last year, and say that their regular series are not as weak as outsider claim. They further bristle at charges that they are far outspending their rivals in their programming strategy and therefore buying ratings at the expense of profits.

"ABC got where they are by dealing with the sleeping giants by outspending them," said NBC programming chief Paul Klein. "But we actually spend less for our stunts than ABC pays for its regular programming. We paid less for anything than they paid for 'Rich Man, Poor Man: Book II'.

Klein even suggests that ABC may come a cropper if the "Washington" series is not the kind of ratings bonanza that Silverman anticipates and also is not as invincible in its overall schedule as most suggest.

So far as NBC'c supposed weakness in its regular series, the bread and butter of television profits, Klein says "we'll beat CBX week-to-week in series programming. We'll beat them in the places where there is very little stunting, such as the 3 to 9 period. I think we'll beat them 6 out of 7 nights. And we might also do a job on ABC. We'll certainly beat ABC adults."