The folks at Sony are screaming. "They're trying to kill our sales," charges R. J. Sato, a national sales manager at Sony's consumer video products division. "What they've done is taken a pot shot, a cheap shot -- they're not expanding the market; they're confusing it."

"They" are the same people who created the VHS videocassette recorder standard -- which has become the VCR standard despite the fact that Sony invented the VCR market when it introduced the Betamax a decade ago. So Sony can be forgiven if it fears that history might repeat itself in the next generation of home-video technology -- the handheld camcorder (for camera/recorder).

With much fanfare, Sony last year introduced its 8-mm color automatic-focus camcorder, which it said would redefine the state of the art of video recording. In fact, Sony -- joined by such powerhouses as Kodak, Sanyo, NEC Corp. and Canon -- proclaimed it would set the industry standard.

But JVC Corp., the company that created VHS, had other ideas. Drawing on its VHS allies -- including Hitachi, Sharp and Toshiba -- it created a new camcorder format called VHS-C.

What's different about VHS-C, which has been available since early this year, is that it offers compatibility with existing VHS videocassette recorders. The VHS-C camcorder cassette -- with an adapter -- can be played on any VHS machine. By contrast, the Sony unit is self-contained and incompatible with existing VCRs.

"We're selling compatibility," said Harry Elias a senior vice president with JVC of America Corp. "And why not? Most of the people in this country already have VHS machines."

So JVC, much to Sony's ire, has launched an aggressive, multimillion-dollar "why put yourself behind the eight ball?" advertising campaign designed to discredit Sony's camcorder while at the same time preaching the gospel of camcorder/vidocassette recorder compatibility.

"I think it's unfortunate that they Sony feel the way they do," said Steve Isaacson, national sales and marketing manager of video for JVC. "The campaign is designed to show the superiority of our product over the only other competitor on the market.

"What we're asking the consumer is, 'Why would you want a unit that is incompatible with your VCR?' "

Sony's Sato dismisses the compatibility argument, saying his company's camcorder delivers the features and quality that videophiles want and that you don't need a VCR for a camcorder playback because the unit can be hooked directly to a television. "It's unfortunate that this has become a format war," he says, vowing that "we're not going to sit back and do nothing" about the JVC ad campaign.

Indeed, both groups are playing for stakes potentially as big as the Beta/VHS battle. The Electronic Industries Association says that 1 million camcorders will be sold this year, and that number could double in 1987 if prices decline from the present cost of about $1,300. Camcorders could be the next big boom in consumer electronics.