The cable television business has developed slowly in the Washington area, but by the middle of the decade most of the area's largest jurisdictions are expected to have operating systems.

The only major operating system in the area now is in Arlington, where for $9.95 a month subscribers can receive 33 channels, including Cable News Network and Entertainment and Sports Programming Network, around-the-clock news and sports networks. But subscribers could also pay close to $40 a month for a variety of services including an FM radio system and two pay television options, according to marketing manager Van Robinson.

About 18,000 homes subscribe to the Arlington service, which is run by Arlington Telecommunications Corp. (ARTEC), a company 51 percent owned by 54 local shareholders. The other 49 percent is owned by a unit of General Electric Corp. ARTEC began operations in July 1978. When completed, the system will be able to serve about 72,000 homes in the county.

Construction of a system in Alexandria is under way by Alexandria Cablevision Co. The firm is building a 35-channel system for the city's 58,000 dwelling units.

A smaller 12-channel cable system is operated by Warner Amex Cable Communications Inc. in Reston, and Gaithersburg has a small system that recently was bought by the Tribune Co., the Chicago-based firm that publishes the Chicago Tribune and the New York Daily News.

But the complex process for awarding cable television franchises for major suburban jurisdictions is well under way. Most observers expect that in Fairfax and Montgomery counties, two of the nation's wealthiest jurisdictions, franchises will be awarded by the middle of the year.

By this spring, Fairfax County, which is studying the award of a franchise to reach about 211,000 dwelling units, may have issued a decision on its local system. Major industry players are seeking the franchise, including Warner Amex, United Cable Television Corp., Time Inc.'s American Television & Communications Corp., and possibly Storer Cable Communications, as well as several local groups.

That franchise includes the entire country except for the cities of Falls Church and Fairfax, which chose to select their own systems.

In Prince George's Country, Storer Communications has been working aggressively and has already won franchises for a dozen small municipalities in the county, as has Cross County, a New Jersey partnership.

But the county government there is on the verge of awarding two large franchises for the rest of the county's approximately 200,000 homes. The county government there decided to split the franchise into two sections, roughly equivalent to the north and south portions of the county.

Montgomery County's government also appears to be moving quickly to award what is likely to be a very valuable franchise of about 207,000 homes. United is expected to compete for that franchise. The status of Warner Amex is less certain. Observers also expect Times Mirror Co., which owns the Los Angeles Times, Newsday and numberous other publications, to vie for the Montgomery franchise.

But despite the busy suburban activity, the District government, like other large cities, is moving very slowly on the cable front. Its first action is an effort to rewrite a nine-year-old cable television law. It is unlikely that the city could even begin the process of awarding the franchise this year, most industry observers say.

A subcommittee has been set up under D.C. council member Wilhelmina Rolark to look into the writing of a new cable television ordinance. Although two firms have said they will seek the city franchise, cable service for District residents could be as many as four years away.