Cable television - a multimillion-dollar gamble that is under attack by the broadcast industry - is facing its first crucial test in the Washington area with the planned opening in coming months of an Arlington County system.

The Arlington cable venture - buoyed by a promised $2 million investment from a General Electric Co. subsidiary - is seeking to alter the television habits of thousands of Arlington viewers, bringing in channels from New York to Atlanta, and offering specials ranging from first-run movies to comparative supermarket price listings.

If it hits pay dirt, the Arlington cable enterprise appears certain to bolster moves toward cable TV in other parts of the Washington area, including Prince George's and Montgomery counties, where cable is already under consideration. If it flops, the Arlington system would likely dampen othher local counties' capable prospects.

The much-delayed Arlington operaton - the first countywide cable system in the privately owned Arlington TeleCommunications Corp., known as ARTEC. John D. Evans, ARTEC's vice president and chief operating officer, said in an interview that the company plans to start putting up its antennas and laying transmission cable this winter. It expects to begin television service next spring, Evans said.

Historically, cable systems have developed most rapidly in rural areas where television reception is poor. Cable ventures have advanced far more slowly in big cities because of higher construction costs and uncertainty over whether the range of programs the Federal Communications Commission permits them to offer is varied enough to attract wide audiences. Cable systems have also met heavy opposition from the broadcast industry, which views cable as an economic threat.

Cable televisions is, fundamentally, a transmission technique, designed to replace home antennas. Household atennas pluck television signals from the air. Cable systems, instead, transmit television signals through cables or optical fibers, a recently developed form of light-wave communications technology. Cable transmission is meant to provide clearer television reception than home antennas can offer. Normally, a monthly fee is charged for cable service.

Despite years of local government studies and political debate, only a few small cable systems have been started in the Washington area - in communities like Reston and Gaithersburg. The Reston system, which began service in 1970, now is hooked up to about 5,600 homes. The Gaithersbury system, in operation since 1972, now provides television service to about 1,400 households. Both operate on 12 channels, primarily transmitting clear signals of programs regularly available on Washington and Baltimore stations.

The Arlington system, in contrast, plans to offer programs and information on 29 or 30 channels, including VHF and UHF stations in the Washington and Baltimore areas, two New York stations, and during early morning hours, an Atlanta station.

Evans, ARTEC's vice president, said a study carried out for ARTEC by a marketing consultant indicated that about one-third of the 66,000 Arlington households that watch television would subscribe to the cable system.

ARTEC, Evans said, will charge $10 to $15 - the amount has not yet been set - to install a cable hookup in an Arlington home and a monthly fee of $7.95 for cbale service. For an additional $7.95 a month. Arlington families could also buy ARTEC's "pay" cable service - a channel that would show uncut, uninterrupted, first-run movies, like "Network," and sports specials, like National Football League highlights and Wimbledon tennis mathces. No X-rated movies will be shown, Evans said.

ARTEC channels, Evans said, also would include comparative listings of local supermarket prices, 24-hours-a-day ticket-tape-like news and sports reports, stock market quotations and weather, and television and local entertainment guides. Two channels would be available to the Arlington County government to broadcast local events and bulletins. Four channels would be turned over to the county school system.

The Arlington cable system has repeatedly been delayed by federal regulatory proceedings, difficulties in arranging financing and other factors. The county recently granted ARTEC a 9-month extension of its Oct. 18 deadline for the start of cable service. Although officials say they cannot rule out some additional, unforseen disruption, most express optimism that ARTEC has crossed its last major hurdle and will begin service soon.

"I would never have said this before," Arlington County Board Chairman Ellen M. Bozman remarked a few days ago, "but this is the first time that it's sounded like they're ready to go."

The cable system's multimillion-dollar financing has remained among its toughest hurdles. Prospects have brightened, however, with the recently disclosed agreement by General Electric's venture captial subsidiary, Business Development Services, Inc., to invest $2 million in ARTEC. Evans said Artee has also been tentatively granted a $4.7 million loan by Chemical Bank of New York.

One regulatory dispute is still pending before the FCC - a challenge by local broadcasters, including The Washington Post Co.'s WTOP, against ARTEC's plans to transmit some Baltimore programs. The FCC turned down the broadcasts' challenge by a 6-1 vote, but the broadcasters have asked the FCC to reconsider its decision.

The broadcasters' contentions have centered largely on technical issues involving FCC regualtions and Policies. One of their underlying arguments, however, has been that ARTEC's transmission of Baltimore programs might jeopardize prospects for new UHF stations in the Washingotn area. The broadcasters also contend, according to a lawyer in the dispute, that ARTEC's Baltimore offerings would amount to unfair competition because broadcasters, unlike cable systems, must bargin for such programs at considerable cost.

Across the United States, cable television's development has taken place against a backdrop of often bitter controversy, with disputes continuing in the courts, Congress and the FCC.

Broadcast officials have denounced cable television as "parasitic," asserting that cable systems siphon off programs and them charge viewers for television shops the public could otherwise watch for free. At the same time cricics, including House staff members who drafted a report last year, have attacked the FCC for following a "protectionist" policy that, they contend, favors broadcasters over cable systems.

The cable industry received a boost earlier this year when the U.S. Courts of Appeals here set aside a series of "pay" cable channels may offer. Boradcasters and the FCC are seeking a U.S. Supreme Court review of the ruling.

In Washington area, the possible growth of cable television has been hampered by political squabbles skepticism about whether cable systems would be ecomomically sound, regulatory obstacles and a variety of local issues.

The Prince George's County Council approved legislation last year to clear the way for cable television, but because of the county's tight budget, a spokesman said, County Executive Winfield M. Kelly Jr. has not yet appointed a commision to carry out the plan.

The Montogmery County Council is scheduled to hold hearings next month on a bill, backed by County Executive James P. Gleason, that would authorize cable operations.

Fairfax County shows no sign at present of moving towards cable televiosion, and despite some preliminary discussions, officials say, the county has not undertaken a through study of cable TV's prospects. The Alexandria City Council shelved a cable proposal several years ago.

The outlook for cable television in the District of Columbia remains uncertain. The D.C. City Council, which had briefly examined the issue in the early 1970's held hearings on cable TV again earlier this year. However the costs of setting up a cable system in the city - where many of its communications would have to be laid underground - are considered a major barrier. In contrast, 93 percent of the cable lines in the Arlington system are expected to be attached to utility poles above ground.

"I would say that the District of Columbia will be the last place that will enjoy cable television service in the Washington area. I almost want to say, if ever, but that would be unfair," Lee G. Lovett, a lawyer who has represented a number of cable systems, including Arlington's, said in an interview earlier this year.

Nevertheless, cable's prospects in the District may eventually change, Lovett added, if cable systems start marketing special services geared for downtown business and professional firms. He also suggested that an experimental cable system might succeed in the District if it were limited to only one section of the city.

Cable television had been under consideration by Arlington County officials since 1979. The county adopted the first cable ordinance in the Washington area in 1971, and ARTEC was awarded a franchise in March, 1973. At the time, ARTEC was partly controlled by Republican politicians, including former County Board Chairman Harold J. Casto. Casto, who had been ARTEC's president, died in 1974. A rival bidder for the cable franchise had been dominated by Democrats.

The Arlington system's main antennas are expected to be erected on the roof of a luxury, 18-story condonminium known as Tower Villas, which is located near the centre of the county. The building on N. Fairfax Drive, is among the tallest in the area. The antennas will pick up television signals, which will be transmitted through cables to Arlington homes.

The two independent New York stations ARTEC plans offer are WOR and WPIX, whose broadcasts include games played by New York-based sports teams. The Atlanta station ARTEC intends to carry in early morning hours is WTCG, mainly for its after-midnight movies.

The years of uncertainty and repeated delays have led Arlington officials to avoid predictions of a cable bonanza. Even ARTEC vice president Evans has added a cautious note to his optimism. "It's not going to be the most profitable cable TV system in the United States," Evans asserted in an interview, "but it's going to be profitable enough to pay off its multimmillion-dollars investment."