WHEN Joe Louis used to defend the heavyweight crown late in his career, fans with a TV set took it for granted that the match would appear on the screen. It was a small screen with round corners, and you had to group yourself around it to stare at somewhat shaky black-and-white images.
But the show was free. You could even make it between some rounds without a commercial. There was a consumer innocence about broadcasting in those days. You assumed any sports event worth watching would appear on the tube - along with commercials, of course. The world was yours for the watching, a ``global village'' bound together by electronics. Oh, a few voices in the wilderness pointed to the embryonic cable field and warned that some day we'd have to pay for the good stuff. But such people were viewed as Cassandras raising outlandish fears.
Today, of course, what would be outlandish is the notion of seeing a heavyweight title fight on free TV. To do that now requires both a monthly cable fee and a special pay-per-view charge.
But were those early Joe Louis bouts really free? What about the huge advertising budgets - some analysts put it at $27 billion a year - allocated by corporations for network sponsorship, resulting in higher product costs paid by all consumers, viewers and nonviewers alike.
This question is being heatedly asked by the cable industry as it challenges a TV ad campaign - waged by the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) - envisioning a future when all free TV will be gone, gobbled up by the buying power of that Pacman of programs, cable. For years, cable spokesmen have traveled the country, delivering an impassioned pitch to media groups that their industry's potential is hamstrung by regulations imposed by federal agencies. They argue - with considerable truth - that a Congress dependent on broadcast TV for political survival has historically taken a dim view of broadcasting's competitor, cable.
Yet cable is thriving. Its quantum jumps in cable viewership may be leveling off, but the industry is all but gloating over figures showing a climbing number of subscribers - from 48 percent of American households in 1984 to about 56 percent (more than 50 million homes) in 1989, and counting. You must pay for cable service to see plum attractions like local NBA basketball and major league baseball games, since a broadcast blackout has long been maintained in a team's home city. Even the Olympics - a traditional TV feast of sports (and commercials) may be in danger. NBC recently said that a lot of its coverage of the 1992 Barcelona summer Games will now be on pay TV.
So despite commercial motives, the ads do touch a legitimate issue: cable's inevitable threat to viewing ``rights'' Americans have long since taken for granted. As cable continues to gain influence, there is a recognizable public interest to be protected, one inherent in the very word ``broadcast,'' with its democratic implications of a universal access uninhibited by the electronic poll tax of cable fees.
Viewers have a kind of electronic squatters' right to certain aspects of the public medium. As it sorts the pieces in an increasingly complex video world, it's those rights that Congress should be looking out for. Not the goals of regulatory agencies, not vested media interests, but something much smaller and much more important: the individual's personal stake in the medium - and what happens to it when long-cherished viewing habits are lost in the shuffle.
Meanwhile, there's always the Superbowl, which is still ``free.''