Despite the headline-grabbing prices being fetched by some stations in major markets, independent television broadcasters are bracing themselves for an industry shakeout after five years of unparalleled growth.

"There are too many thinly capitalized properties out there," warned Milton Maltz, chairman of Malrite Communications Group Inc., a Cleveland-based broadcasting company. "Today, there are a number of distressed properties dressed up for disposal."

Since 1980, the number of independent television stations has more than doubled from 120 to 283, and these stations have captured more than $2.5 billion in advertising revenue -- nearly one-quarter of total television ad sales. Independents practicing "counterprogramming" -- for example, showing entertainment shows such as "M*A*S*H" while network affiliates broadcast news -- have managed to carve out sizable viewing shares in their markets.

But faced with spiraling costs and an overall softening of ad sales in the future, many independents in the smaller markets are undergoing a cash squeeze that many at the annual INTV convention here predict will ignite a new wave of independent television mergers and acquisitions.

"I don't think you're going to see television stations with boarded-up windows and a 'for sale' sign out front," said U. Bertram Ellis Jr., chairman of the Atlanta-based Broadcast Development Corp., which is negotiating to buy five independents in the nation's 25th- to 75th-largest markets. "What you're going to see is a lot of forced sales."

Another factor that will drive independent television mergers and acquisitions is the new Federal Communications Commission regulations that expand the number of television stations a company can own from seven to 12.

"A lot of the broadcasting chains aren't up to the 12 limit yet," said Larry Gerbrand, an industry analyst with Paul Kagan Associates, who added that these groups often can bring much-needed capital and management expertise to struggling stations.

Broadcast Development Corp., partly owned by Richmond-based Media General Inc., currently is buying distressed stations, with the philosophy that they can be managed into profitability.

"You've got a lot of mom-and-pop independents out there," Ellis said. "What I see is the opportunity to franchise television management -- just like a McDonald's."

Ellis said that this franchising approach -- in essence, a mini-network -- will create economies enabling marginal stations to become more profitable.

In contrast to this bare-bones approach, other independent operators literally try to buy market share by purchasing blockbuster television programs and high-profile promotional campaigns.

This approach may be more expensive, but if it succeeds, the station operator can charge advertisers a premium and dramatically improve the station's cash flow and value.

Running an independent station is more difficult than running a network affiliate, because the independent can't rely on a network to supply its programming.

Independents purchase their programming at costs that typically account for roughly half of their budget. According to INTV figures, the cost of programming has doubled over the past five years -- an increase due in part to the rise in demand from all the new independent stations.

While many here see opportunity in the independents' difficulties, not all do.

"If independent television is a real business, it belongs to those who have skills in it -- I prefer the networks," said Robert Price of Price Communications Co., a New York company that shies away from independents. "I'm respectful of independent television; I just don't want to own it."

Although several independent-station managers were skeptical that it will succeed, Rupert Murdoch's recently announced plans to launch a fourth network obviously held considerable appeal here. Such a network would offer a potential new source of programs that could help stations cut program costs. However, Murdoch, who was a keynote speaker here, declined to give any details of his plans since his acquisition of 20th Century Fox and the Metromedia station group.

Many stations are pooling their resources to produce their own programming and create ad hoc networks of independent television stations. Malrite's Maltz points out that the ability to own 12 stations improves the economies of scale for in-house program production.

One encouraging trend is the rise of local advertising, with more than half of the average independent's ad revenue now coming from local businesses. "Local is where the action is," said James Dowdel, president of Tribune Broadcasting Co. "That's where the real growth can come from."

A new independent in Lubbock, Tex., now has local companies sponsoring all of its programs. For example, the sales manager of a local auto dealer is the host for one of the station's movie nights.