North America's first high-definition television service for consumers could be on the way -- not to Americans but to the wealthier residents of Mexico City.

The Mexican TV network Televisa S.A. de C.V. is pursuing a plan to transmit a single channel of newly released movies in the crisp images and sound of the new video technology as early as next year. They would be beamed to subscribers equipped with special HDTV sets that now are extremely costly. In addition, viewers would have to pay for each film they watch.

While the United States struggles to craft its own version of HDTV for introduction in the mid-1990s, Televisa is looking at moving ahead much sooner, using what is now the world's only functioning HDTV system, Japan's.

That would create the first significant foothold in the Western hemisphere for Japan's version of HDTV, which it has proposed as a world standard. The United States and Europe have insisted on developing their own standards in an attempt to foster local electronics companies and develop a more advanced HDTV than Japan's version.

The Japanese television network NHK, which coordinated development of the Japanese HDTV standard, sent a team to Mexico City last year to conduct six weeks of test transmissions.

HDTV sets start at about $30,000 in Japan. But Televisa is gambling that prices will come down and that significant numbers of the city's 18 million people will be willing to shell out generously to receive first-run foreign movies, which often are unavailable in local movie theaters.

Televisa has talked with an American company, Scientific Atlanta Inc., which makes transmission equipment based on HDTV standards developed in Europe. The sets and other gear would still come from Japan, which is the only country that makes them.

Many questions remain unanswered about the project, including whether it will go forward at all. "How many people are going to spend that kind of dough to watch a few movies?" asked one skeptical U.S. TV executive. "... But sometimes you trade off image for cash." Still, it is attracting attention here because it might provide information about how -- or whether -- to market HDTV in this country.

"One of the fundamental questions of high-definition is, would real people really want it?" said Tom Stanley, chief engineer at the Federal Communications Commission. The project would take "a little of the voodoo out of what high definition is."

Japan this fall plans to begin eight hours of daily broadcasts in HDTV, which has been widely heralded as the greatest advance since color television. It features a wide screen and sharper images. However, the sets' lofty prices have spawned talk in Japan that HDTV might flop and that TV makers would be better off focusing, for now at least, on upgrading conventional television.

Nonetheless, Televisa has pursued the project. The company has vast financial resources. Its network includes about 200 television stations in Mexico, as well as major production facilities that turn out Spanish-language newscasts and entertainment shown all over Latin America.

The project has attracted official interest as well. The Mexican government granted Televisa permission to conduct its test. And Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari, during a recent visit to Japan, reportedly visited an NHK facility and received a demonstration of the Japanese HDTV system.

Televisa has talked with more than a dozen suppliers, in an apparent effort to negotiate large purchases of HDTV equipment at a discount. A Toshiba Corp. spokesman confirmed that his company is among them.

Drawing Televisa to the project is the fact that movie theaters in Mexico City often don't show Hollywood's hot new releases. Televisa proposes to "bring movies to people instead of people to movies," Jorge Kanahuati, Televisa vice president, recently told HDTV Report, a U.S. newsletter. The newsletter said the system could start in late 1992.

People familiar with the project say the idea is that members of theHDTV sets start at about $30,000 in Japan. city's elite would lease or buy the sets, then invite friends to watch films. Social clubs might do the same thing, perhaps informally charging members to watch. In addition, Mexico would get the prestige of pioneering a new technology.

Besides pent-up demand for first-run films, Mexico City has unusual topography well-suited to the plan.

Japan's HDTV systems was designed to allow satellites to broadcast directly from space to sets equipped with small dishes. Televisa would transmit HDTV pictures on the same frequency as ones for satellites, but using a transmitter located on a mountain peak at Pico Tres Padres, about 2,000 feet above the city. Dishes mounted on subscribers' homes would then pick up the signals.

A drawback is that homes located behind obstructions such as high-rise buildings or hills could not receive the pictures.

Last year, according to a technical paper prepared by Televisa and NHK personnel, Televisa tested reception at 148 locations around Mexico City and concluded that the picture would be acceptable at about half of all points located about 20 miles from the mountain-top transmitter. Due to their lack of such a high altitude transmission point, most cities could not use this type of transmission at all.

If a broadcast satellite is launched at a future date, subscribers might simply realign their dishes to receive its signal.

How the Televisa project would affect an international battle over HDTV standards remains unclear. The standards-setting process is often highly politicized, in the belief that adopting a foreign standard can undermine a country's own electronics industry.

Mexico has said that the Televisa project does not mean it is opting for the Japanese standard, according to U.S. officials, and it has expressed keen interest in U.S. efforts to develop a standard. However, if large numbers of people do subscribe and buy its equipment, Mexico might be pushed unofficially in the direction of that standard.