Claus Detjen likes to joke that Ludwigshaffen -- a drab little industrial town 40 miles southwest of Frankfurt -- is "the Columbus, Ohio, of Germany."

But Detjen takes his jest seriously, too. Columbus is the home of QUBE -- Warner/Amex's much-publicized two-way cable TV system, the first of its kind in the United States, that permits the viewers to register opinions on political or program issues, for example, by pushing buttons connected to the set.

Within a year, Ludwigshaffen will enter the cable age, too, with a state-of-the-art 35 channel system that will be the first in Germany to carry commercial and pay-TV services.

The Ludwigshaffen project, directed by Detjen, is a tangible -- and expensive -- symbol of the new German government's commitment to cable TV development. Yet, it isn't the lure of all those new channels that's captured the government's imagination. The prospect of all the new jobs that equipping the country for cable TV might provide has. "That's the point of the telecommunications ministry," said Detjen. "Cable will create jobs. The economic aspect is the incentive."

Faced with politically serious unemployment and sluggish economies, European governments--particularly those of Germany, France and England--are looking for the right investments to fuel industrial growth. One of their top priorities is a hard push for cable TV.

"Europe can no longer look to heavy industry for its economic development," asserts Michael Tyler of CSP International, an international consulting firm. "It has to look to the new technologies."

"It's interesting that the conservative [British Prime Minister Margaret] Thatcher and the socialist [French President Francois] Mitterrand have both come to the conclusion that cable should be an investment for industrial development," wryly notes Antoine D'Tarle, formerly director of a French government "think tank" on new media and now a senior executive at France's largest TV network.

This surge of money and interest in cable represents a profound shift in European thinking. Traditionally, the broadcast media have been rigorously controlled by government interests. The new media technologies, such as cable and satellites, usually are quickly gobbled up in the regulatory maw of the national Postal Telephone and Telegraph (PTT) authorities and that tight control presumably could return if there are significant shifts in governments.

Moreover, as new television channel capacity has to be filled with new programming, many European countries fear an invasion of foreign -- particularly American -- TV shows and advertising that could taint the national culture with unwanted images and impressions.

A commitment to cable TV revolutionizes the television industries of Europe. It appears that Europe's governments are taking a path that encourages the development, decentralization and decontrol of the new media -- particularly cable.

"This is a new phenomenon in Europe," said Peter Sindell, manager of "Television Distribution in Europe," a soon-to-be-released multiclient study conducted by CSP. "The environment is totally different than it was 10 years ago. Change is no longer controlled only by the PTTs."

This new emphasis, asserts Sindell, means that "Europe will be the growth marketplace of the decade of cable. It is rich with possibilities for private enterprise. In this decade, we should see the doubling of cable subscribers and more than a doubling of cable revenues."

In short, according to Sindell, just as America is fast becoming "the wired nation," Europe will soon be dubbed "the wired continent."

* In Germany, Europe's second richest TV market with over 18 million TV homes, Helmut Kohl's government is clearly looking to cable as part of the solution to the country's economic difficulties. "The priority of employment is a first priority," said Christian Schwarz-Schilling, the new head of the Bundespost, Germany's PTT. "Providing employment is a real goal of this area."

Schwarz-Schilling points out that the 1983 Bundespost budget exceeds the previous year's budget by well over 1 billion deutsche marks (DM) -- with the money targeted specifically for cable rising from 380 million DM to over 1 billion DM.

Germany is currently served by both true cable, that is, wires running directly into people's homes, and Master Antenna TV, in which a neighborhood antenna transmits multiple signals to household TVs.

Schwarz-Schilling expects Bundespost funds to go both for the actual laying of new cable and for re-engineering existing systems -- although it is ultimately up to the German states to determine how quickly and in what direction cable spreads.

Logic indicates that they will jump at the opportunity to build up a new industry.

But these technical decisions have sharp political implications. Many Germans are uncomfortable with the idea that multichannel TV will mean an increase in commercial television, diminishing the government's traditional power over broadcasting.

"The new technologies would decentralize the media and that would depoliticize the media machinery. That's why the previous government didn't want the change," Schwarz-Schilling said. "But it is in line with the politics and the goals of the Christian Democrats and it's a policy I helped formulate," he added.

Thus, the Kohl government hopes to be getting two benefits -- economic growth and political influence -- with its technological investment. "We have to make these decisions now," Schwarz-Schilling said, "to know where the roads are going."

* The situation is similar in France. Mitterrand is expected to reveal the details soon of a 6 billion franc program to cable the country. A source close to the technical planning of the French venture contends that fiber-optic technology will be used to distribute programming and that major systems will be built with two-way interactive capabilities.

France has a very aggressive international stance in marketing such high-tech systems as digital switches, computers and videotext and teletext communications services. A cable commitment expands the domestic market for France's nationalized high-tech companies, such as Thomson-CSF and CIT-Alcatel.

Most important, though, a huge investment in cable is expected to bolster the sagging employment picture.

* Great Britain, the largest of the television markets, has a similar blend of high-tech and employment goals. The recently released Hunt Report -- which recommended how cable television development should proceed -- aroused strong controversy for its free-market tone, but fell directly in line with the Conservative government's economic philosophy.

"The prime minister's independent advisers on information technology found that there are powerful economic and industrial arguments for encouraging cable systems in the U.K.," said Kenneth Baker, Britain's minister of information technology. He said the government hopes to announce the broad lines of a cable policy "before the end of the year."

Baker said he expects the opportunities in cable to generate heavy investment from the private sector. He estimates at least 3 billion pounds would be required to wire just half the country. And, he said, "Large markets could be created not only for equipment suppliers and the consumer electronics industry, but also for makers of films and TV programming."

The success of this domestic market, contends Baker, could be the basis of a successful export enterprise.

However, Baker goes a step beyond his European counterparts in talking about the coming of an "information age" to Britain. "The government commitment to new technologies," said Baker, "shows a shift from the support of the problems of the past and to the sunrise industries."

In essence, Britain is casting its hopes for rapid economic recovery with the new while deemphasizing the needs of the old, says Tyler.

But will the new technologies provide the jobs that European governments claim?

"One has to have a sense of scale," Tyler insists. "Tens of thousands of jobs will be created by cable," he said, but that gain is a small fraction of Britain's unemployment problem.

In fact, no figures on the impact of a cable investment on employment have been released by France, Germany or England. Indeed, there are several fears that the new technology will create more problems than it solves.

Some observers believe that Europe's television and film producers would be swept away by the expected flood of American programs rushing to fill the new channel capacity. Several American companies are already planning for Europe's cable expansion. "We see cable in Europe as very important for our growth," said Herb Granath, president of ABC Video Enterprises, the international arm of ABC.

On the horizon, almost literally, is a new technology that might even render cable obsolete -- direct broadcast satellite. That is, a satellite beaming programming directly into people's homes. France, Germany, England and other countries are currently exploring their satellite television options.

"It's a bit like the hare and the tortoise," said CSP International's Tyler. "You have satellites, the hare, that will be there in a single sprint, while the cable tortoise plods along and gradually gets things wired."

Ultimately, cable and direct satellite broadcasting could cooperate as well as compete if cable systems are willing to carry satellite systems. If not, consumers will choose whether they want to receive programming over wire or from space.