The potential loss of sports on so-called "superstations" such as TBS, WGN and WWOR has been postponed for at least a year.

The Federal Communications Commission last week restored its syndicated exclusivity (syndex, for short) rule, which will require cable operators to black out shows from distant signals (such as superstations) if the program is also available on a local station. That could force some cable systems to drop the superstations rather than deal with the expense of blacking out signals.

But the FCC will allow a one-year period for the cable and broadcast industries to adjust to the new rules, and there is considerable debate on whether the change will affect cable operators' status with superstations, which carry a lot of major league sports, particularly baseball.

The situation is this: if TBS is carrying "Leave It to Beaver" and WTTG-TV-5 in Washington also is carrying the show, cable systems in the Washington area would be forced to black out the TBS signal when "Leave It to Beaver" airs on the superstation. Many in the cable industry claim that rather than deal with the expense of a blackout and the trouble of finding substitute programming, cable systems might drop the superstation altogether, thus denying viewers Braves games and the NBA (TBS), Mets games and hockey (WWOR) or Cubs games and college basketball (WGN).

"It's not the absolute, absolute end, but it sure clouds the picture. Our best guess is that we're going to lose several million subscribers from this," said Jeff Treeman, senior vice president of United Video, which uplinks WGN and other superstations for cable systems. "It's going to change programming a whole lot."

But broadcasting officials outside of cable disagree, saying that the ruling actually will open up more programming opportunities than ever before. In addition, officials at TBS and WGN say they will do their best to make their schedules "blackout-proof," thus sparing cable systems the expense of filling in programming gaps. That can be done, officials say, because with this ruling, superstations will be able to buy national exclusive rights to programming for the first time.

So while superstations had opposed the FCC's syndex posture, they think their business could be strengthened. "This ruling will create real administrative problems for Turner Broadcasting and probably involve some expense," said TBS vice president Bert Carp, "but we ought to be able to program our channel with exclusive events and that will help us a lot."

From a sports viewer's standpoint, it's important to remember several things: 1) sports programming will not be blacked out as a result of the change in the syndex rules; 2) sports programming will only be lost if cable systems drop superstations, which may not happen at all; 3) sports programming could increase if superstations or other programmers try to bid for exclusive national rights to sports leagues for the first time.

"Sports will be affected by the marketplace," said Phil Hochberg, a Washington sports communications lawyer. "It could be the best of worlds or the worst of worlds . . . In a worst-case scenario, from cable's standpoint, cable systems drop superstations, which will mean less sports on cable. The flip side is that cable systems might look to fill those blackout holes {if they exist} and look to pick up additional sports programming on distant signals."

"{FCC Commissioner} Dennis Patrick would say, 'There will be more sports on national cable,' " an industry observer said. "He would say, 'It's a good consumer move because it will help baseball get its {proposed} all-baseball cable channel or it will get a good game or package for ESPN or HBO or TNT {Turner's proposed new cable network}.' "

More baseball could happen in the following manner: Some regional distant signals or a WWOR are dropped by systems. Channel space, thus, is opened up. Cable systems, looking to fill the space and hoping to replace the lost sports programming, turn to a new all-baseball channel or a new sports-oriented service such as TNT.

But all of these possibilities, good and bad, could take a while before materializing. The National Cable Television Association and United Video have said they would go to court to fight the FCC's syndex ruling. It could be two years before the new regulations take effect. And even then, nothing is certain other than the fact that, as is usually the case in television, there's an awful lot of money involved.