IF THE '80s were cable's decade of growth, the '90s will be cable's decade of reckoning.

From 14 million subscribers in 1980, the cable industry has grown to a current 53.9 million, about 58 percent of all the nation's TV homes. After years of delay, cable has even come to the District; nearly 53,000 of D.C.'s 252,700 TV homes have been wired.

With the growth, however, has come a revolution of collapsing expectations. In a relatively short amount of time, cable has compiled an awesome record of customer dissatisfaction: skyrocketing rates, atrocious service, and a seeming indifference, if not outright hostility, to the plight of consumers.

Sports fans have seen baseball, football and basketball games they formerly watched on free TV siphoned off to cable as greedy leagues and team owners sign lucrative cable deals. Public television has lost high-quality imported programming to higher-bidding cable channels. And the cable industry has shown itself to be not only a lethal lobbyist, but also Godzillian in its ability to stomp out competition.

There are compensating innovations that have helped give cable a degree of social worth, like the global newsgathering presence of CNN, or the dogged diligence of C-SPAN, which transmits the proceedings of the House, Senate and congressional committees.

But by and large, cable has become a synonym for crumminess -- an unsavory mix of R-rated movies, tattered reruns from broadcast TV, 800-numbers for buying Zamfir records and ginsu knives -- and cable operators have achieved an image of public-be-damned indifference that makes broadcasters look like philanthropists by comparison.

But hey, relax. Relief is just an incredibly complicated legislative donnybrook away. A cable reform bill was approved overwhelmingly, 18 to 1, by the Senate Commerce Committee on Thursday, with ranking minority member Jack Danforth (R-Mo.) hailing it, prematurely perhaps, as "a major victory for the American public."

A House bill -- expected to be weaker than the Senate's -- is being forged from drafts now making the rounds on the Hill, and is expected to be ready for mark-up the week of June 25.

And a study on cable from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is supposed to be ready next month, though no one should expect too much from that.

It's fitting that Congress should finally, if reluctantly, try to untangle cable because Congress helped create the mess in the first place. In 1984, at the height of Reagan de-regulation fever, with the FCC obsequiously quiescent and the anti-trust division of the Justice Department in voluntary coma, Congress passed the Cable Communications Policy Act, a bonanza of goodies for the cable business and a hearty whack across the face of the viewing public.

"It was dream legislation, from the industry's point of view, the biggest giveaway in recent history," says Andrew Jay Schwartzman, executive director of the Media Access Project. "Cable operators were given an opportunity to make as much money as they could grab, and they went out and did so."

Among other provisions, the bill forbade local communities from regulating the rates cable systems charged their customers. Since January 1987, when that provision took effect, average rates for basic cable (without premium services such as HBO and The Disney Channel) have increased by 29 percent, and Danforth's office estimates that prices for basic cable have jumped 40 percent for a quarter of the nation's subscribers since deregulation kicked in.

Among the latest gimmicks by cable operators to disguise rate increases is the "tier" system in which customers are offered a choice between low and high tiers of service. Low-tier corresponds to the old "basic cable" offering of local channels plus commercial-chocked cable channels such as USA and TNT.

But as ESPN and other sports channels bid huge prices for league contracts, these once-basic channels are being pushed by some systems into the second tier. Even though they still have commercials, consumers have to pay added fees to get them.

Then there's the growing pay-per-view market, channels dedicated to super sports events and pop concerts for which subscribers must pay extra. A horrifying prospect that even Congress can grasp is that treasured national rituals like the World Series and the Super Bowl could end up on pay TV, denied to huge sections of the American public. The combination of rising fees and a wretched service record would seem to spell failure for most businesses, but as an unregulated monopoly, cable has been able to enjoy a wild ride. "Cable TV has replaced the phone company as the monopoly everybody loves to hate," says Schwartzman. "If Lily Tomlin were doing her telephone operator bit now, she'd say, 'We don't have to care; we're the cable company.' "

In the late '80s, people started to get royally fed up. At a New York cable hearing last year, then-Mayor Ed Koch railed against the cable companies who were depriving some New Yorkers of, among other attractions, their beloved Yankees. "Deregulation is a fraud and a farce," Koch fumed, "and an attack upon the consumer that leaves him totally unprotected."

Rep. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), who convened the hearing, said, "Cable no longer needs the protection of Congress or anyone else. The question now is, do we need to be protected from cable?"

Emblematic of the myriad grievances against the industry are those concerning Manhattan Cable, one of the systems serving New York, which had to be mandated by law to answer the telephone -- within four rings -- after consumers complained they could not get a response when they called.

"Manhattan Cable Television stinks," wrote Amy Pagnozzi, a columnist for the New York Post, after days of dickering with her cable company over the installation of service. "The employees are surly, the programming is dismal, the service nonexistent," she wrote. Manhattan Cable is a subsidiary of media monster Time Warner, Inc.

Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), chairman of the House Commerce Committee, has been among the leaders for reform. In January, he told the U.S. Conference of Mayors here that since the 1984 bill, "the rapacious cable industry has ratcheted rates higher and higher," and as far as responsiveness to subscribers goes, Dingell said, "In the cable business, 'customer service' is an oxymoron."

When USA Today opened a 900-line to cable commments, the newspaper got more than 3,600 responses, leading it to conclude, understatedly, that "cable discontent seems to be on the rise." One caller, Steve Sutton of Bethesda, said, "Cable is the greatest argument against monopoly in America. The only way they could make more money is to go up and down the street with a mask and a gun."

Commendably attempting to deal with this mounting resentment and with a mammoth image problem, the cable business is taking some steps to upgrade service, though it remains to be seen how effective it will be. In February, the National Cable Television Association (NCTA) unveiled "industry-wide customer service standards" due to be implemented by July 1991. Systems that pass muster will get a "Seal of Quality Customer Service" from NCTA.

Among the standards: "telephone answer time by customer service representatives shall not exceed 30 seconds." New installations are supposed to be performed within seven business days and outages -- when all the channels disappear -- are supposed to be corrected "immediately in most cases, but in no event later than 24 hours."

Customer complaints did not seem to be uppermost on the minds of cable operators when the NCTA held its 1990 convention in Atlanta last month, however. Prior to the convention, a press release announced the agenda: "Cable industry leaders will address such issues as factors involved in building a stronger business for the long term, how to better promote and market cable television, and how to more effectively position cable in the increasingly competitive entertainment marketplace."

Jeez Louise, how much more effectively positioned could it be? Not only are most cable systems monopolies in their communities, but the national cable lobby has done a highly efficient job of keeping competitors and potential competitors locked out of the game.

Congress' pending legislation may force cable programmers to sell their products to the fledgling "wireless cable" industry (which delivers multiple channels over the airwaves) and the young Direct Broadcast Satellite (DBS) business. Until now, wireless cable and DBS have been largely shut out of acquiring programming that is partly owned by the cable industry. Legislation might also give a break to the nation's 3 million home satellite dish owners who've been able to get some of the premium services only by paying outlandishly high fees.

The legislation also addresses the problem of vertical integration by which the largest multiple-systems operators (MSO's) also have controlling interests in the production of programming and the channels that buy it.

Unfortunately for the public, the cable industry has reached that vaunted corporate state of being able to dictate to the government how much regulation it will accept. Schwartzman says the NCTA has proven itself a potent lobby. "They've been unbelievably effective and unbelievably sophisticated," he says. "They can turn on a dime."

No sooner had the Senate Commerce Committee marked up its bill last week than NCTA President James P. Mooney declared his opposition. The bill "goes too far," he said in a statement. "We cannot accept legislation that hampers the ability of our industry to continue to grow, and to serve our subscribers."

One of the major whines of the cable biz is that if a cap is put on the rates it can charge subscribers, it will have to cut back on the generous banquet of channels it provides. In fact, many of the channels are there primarily as revenue-producers for cable systems.

Cable TV Arlington, in suburban Virginia, has increased its channel capacity in recent years, but services added include two shopping channels, three pay-per-view movie channels (one offering soft-core pornography), and the ridiculous Movietime channel, recently rechristened E! Entertainment. Twenty-four hours a day E! spews plugs and promotions for current theatrical films and pay TV offerings. One must almost admire the ingeniousness with which cable operators dream up new sources of revenue. Last year, the Time Warner cable system in Rochester, N.Y., started its own TV station and gave it a choice location -- Channel 5 -- on the dial. The old Channel 5 was shunted off to Channel 31, a much less prominent location.

Preston Padden, president of the Independent Television Association (INTV), noted in an angry letter to the FCC and to House and Senate committees that as a major program supplier, Time Warner "sold itself its best programs" for airing on its own new channel. He also said that Time Warner had the technological capacity to program all the cable boxes in the system so that when they were turned on, Channel 5 would automatically pop up.

If this kind of enterprise were applied to programming and service, cable TV might not need the reregulation Congress now proposes.

Dennis Fitzgibbon, a spokesman for the House Commerce Committee, sounds optimistic about passage. "Our target is a bill this session, definitely," he said Friday. "There's a fair amount of momentum behind it. We have broad public support in the form of cards and letters and phone calls."

As for the Senate, its bill could reach the floor in a few weeks. With summer recess scheduled to begin Aug. 3, it really has to. The bill would re-empower local communities to regulate basic cable rates; reinstitute a "must-carry" provision requiring cable systems to allocate channels to local broadcast signals (thus preventing, among other things, a lock-out of public TV stations); and limit the growth of the giant companies that now control cable TV.

The bill essentially forces the FCC to get back in the regulation business it abandoned under Reagan-appointed chairman Mark S. Fowler, the man who said TV sets were just appliances like toasters. Albert Sikes, the current FCC chairman, is considered less of an ideologue. He is also a friend of Danforth's.

One hurdle for both bills is the very touchy and complicated matter of allowing telephone companies (or telco's) into the cable TV business in order to increase competition for existing cable systems. Naturally the NCTA, which opposes all competition for cable systems, is wildly opposed to the idea.

Of course, the legislation faces many other hurdles, one of them, potentially, the White House. In a letter to Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Ernest F. Hollings (D-S.C.), Secretary of Commerce Robert A. Mosbacher declared, "The administration opposes the current legislative proposals for re-regulation of the cable television industry."

The letter was cosigned by James F. Rill, assistant attorney general of the Justice Department's so-called antitrust division. Rill could not be reached for comment Friday. A spokesman said he was not familiar with the content of the letter.

Much more than cable rates and reruns of "The Patty Duke Show" are involved in the re-regulation movement. This, we are forever being told, is the information age, and as the wiring of the nation continues, cable operators will function with increasing authority as gatekeepers, controlling access to data, opinions and ideas.

Ideas considered threatening to the economic welfare of the cable business already have a hard time getting through. On the other hand, Ted Turner's CNN runs occasional features that point out ratings drops and other economic woes befalling the nation's broadcasters.

Information is power, and cable represents an ever-increasing concentration of that power. Reregulation is an attempt to return some of it to the people who watch and buy and vote.

Prospects for the legislation are anything but rosy, despite the momentum and the public outcries. The NCTA's statement on the Senate bill indicates a dig-in-and-fight mentality. "By the end of June, the whole thing may be dead," notes Schwartzman sadly. "At this point, it's anybody's guess. But there's still a 50 percent possibility that the last major cable legislation of this century will pass in the next six weeks."

Tom Shales is The Washington Post's television critic. His most recent book is "Legends."