When Universal Pictures announced its tentative plans to premiere "The Pirates of Penzance" next December on a pay-per-view basis on cable television the day before its theatrical release, the screams of protest from theater owners and exhibitors were a good deal louder than even the spiced-up Gilbert & Sullivan score that Linda Ronstadt and Rex Smith sing in the movie. But Universal immediately said that it was merely considering the plan, that nothing was firm and that the theaters shouldn't be so upset. Last week, though, the studio went public with plans that are indeed firm--not to show "Pirates" in December, and not the day before its theatrical release, but in February and on what will probably be the same day as its release to theaters. Technically, Universal is calling the cable screening a "one-day-only sneak preview"; the few distributors and exhibitors who are willing to talk about the plan are far less generous in referring to a project they say is in direct competition with their business.

The Plitt Theaters chain, for example, says it will not show "Pirates" if pay TV also gets the film; they say they'd react the same way if a rival theater chain were given the movie. Meanwhile, other theater owners have been muttering dark threats, while Universal itself has done its own muttering that it won't appreciate any "illegal boycotts." What the studio clearly does appreciate is the chance to make lots of money: at least $6 and probably $10 per home for a film that could conceivably be offered to 2 million households. If enough of them pick it up, this could easily pay for half of its $12 million production cost.