Greenbelt officials are moving toward granting a cable TV franchise for the city, as a means of saving an empty theater for use as an arts center.

City officials will suggest to cable firms that studios be located in the town's vacant movie house. With rent paid on the theater by a television firm, the space could be used for plays, concerts, art shows and films, as well as for the studio area that most cable TV firms promise for community use.

"That is the practicality of saving the theater," said Mayor Gil Weidenfeld. "The county by its own admission is a year off from accepting a franchise . . . If the city is interested in saving the theater, it means we have to take action earlier."

Last fall, a group of Greenbelt citizens formed a nonprofit organization to raise funds to rent and convert the old movie house in Greenbelt's shopping center to a cultural center. The group has raised $4,000 and has held several events in the building, but does not have enough money yet to negotiate a long-term lease. The group has a month-to-month rent agreement with owner George Christacos.

"I haven't heard any outcry in Greenbelt for cable TV," Weiden feld said. "But our special interest (in the theater) is overriding the need to wait for the county to make a decision. We feel this would be such a valuable asset for the city of Greenbelt that we are willing to act earlier than we might normally consider it."

The City Council voted this week to ask three cable TV firms that have approached the city -- Storer Cable Communications, Cross Country and Cable-Com of Maryland -- whether conversion of the theater into studio space is feasible. The council plans to make the use of the theater a condition of granting a franchise.

Greenbelt is among 28 Prince George's municipalities debating whether to grant their own franchise for cable TV service, or to wait and join with the county when it grants a franchise for the county's unincorporated areas.

Early in January, Hyattsville became the first county municipality to grant a private franchise. It chose Storer, represented in Prince George's by former county executive Winfield M. Kelly Jr.

"I think it makes eminently good sense for the company and for the city," said Kelly later, when he was asked his opinion of the Greenbelt proposal. "It's something that has to be negotiated."

Robert J. Sikorski, director of the Prince George's Cable TV Commission, said the Greenbelt action did not rule out the town's joining the county system.

"It's just as easy for a countywide franchise to have that kind of setup," he said. "There would be no problem locating a studio within that participating municipality."