The Montgomery County Council kept cable-hungry citizens at bay for years before approving a cable franchise 18 months ago, telling them it took time to choose the very best.

But council member Esther Gelman now contends that she and her fellow council members selected a system that has turned out to be "inferior" to neighboring Prince George's County's.

"It's a matter of great embarrassment and shame," she said.

Gelman, citing a Tribune United report, told reporters last week that 69 percent of the county's cable subscribers had filed complaints about the five-month-old system in January alone. The system had about 3,300 subscribers at the time; it now has more than 4,000.

Tribune United officials, contending that they have a "very good system," said that while most calls related to service, complaints represented a small proportion. While Tribune United received 2,326 service-related calls, they said, 735 were trouble-related and required service.

Company spokeswoman Fern Krauss said the number of complaints is quickly falling as problems with the new system are ironed out. Proof of customer satisfaction, she said, lay in the low number of cancellations: There have been 120 during the five months the cable system has operated, she said.

In Prince George's County, cable has been operating since 1983, while several municipalities obtained their own cable systems earlier.

Storer Communications, which holds the franchise for the northern half of Prince George's county, had 14,319 subscribers at the end of 1984, according to the county's cable commission. It received 121 complaints of all descriptions throughout the year, according to the commission. Metro Vision, with 22,721 subscribers at the end of 1984, received 196 complaints during the year.

Tribune United beat out seven other companies for the Montgomery County franchise in May 1983. It was selected by County Executive Charles Gilchrist and ratified by the County Council.

The controlling partner in the company is the Tribune Cable Co., which holds several franchises around the country, including ones in Tampa, Fla., and Lakewood, Calif.

The cable company is owned by the Tribune Co., which owns the Chicago Tribune, the New York Daily News and several other publishing ventures.

John Hansman, coordinator of cable for the county government, agreed with Gelman that the number of complaints was cause for concern.

"We were aware that there was a lot of problems going on out there," he said. " . . . There's basically been a series of things that hadn't been adequately appreciated. They are simply being learned in their field experience with a new set of equipment."

Gelman, who does not have cable television in her home, said she is not trying to discourage subscribers. But, she said, "I want them to know exactly what they are getting -- and they are getting very little for their money."

Tribune United spokeswoman Krauss said the company believes that most customers are satisfied, however, based on the number of cancellations.

Homes are now being wired in the Falls Road area near Rockville. The heavily populated southern and central areas of the county are scheduled to be connected by the end of next year, and the remainder of the county by November 1987.

Tribune United currently charges $1.50 a month for a service with about 40 channels, and $8.95 for about 100 channels.

Tribune United, which is paying about $5 million a year to the county in grants and franchise fees, has said it expects to make about $178 million over 10 years.

But Gelman says Tribune United's new subscribers will frequently be taken aback by these drawbacks in the cable system:

* Viewers cannot record one cable station on video recorders while watching another.

Krauss said subscribers could, however, watch regular television broadcasts while taping a cable channel if they buy a special switch from a video store. They can also rent a second cable line from Tribune, at $7.95 a month.

The same problem exists in Prince George's County, where the extra cable lines cost $3.50 a month.

* "Cable-ready" channel selection features, sold with some television sets, are useless with the Tribune System. Tribune United provides its own channel selection box to subscribers.

* Standard remote-control units do not work with Tribune's cable. For $2.50 a month, however, Tribune will rent subscribers a remote-control unit that does work.

Gelman said her office had received a large number of complaints from cable subscribers who said their television reception went fuzzy when they got cable television, and that their reception sometimes flipped uncontrollably from one channel to another.

Hansman, of the county's cable office, said the flipping is apparently caused by electrical surges and is being worked on by the cable company.

Krauss said some customers experienced problems initially as the new system sorted itself out, but she said most problems have been eliminated.