New York — PBS is fighting back with quality programming.
As Public Broadcasting Service reels from the budgetary blows being dealt it by the proposed Reagan budget cuts, it is simultaneously staggering joyously under the weight of what appears to be its best programming ever.
However, stations affiliated with PBS are desperately trying to cut administrative costs and production budgets in order to survive in the future. KCET - the Los Angeles PBS station - is cutting its staff, putting its Hollywood headquarters up for sale, and almost totally eliminating original productions. All other PBS stations are tightening their belts in various ways. Ten public broadcasting stations are already testing the acceptance of various types and degrees of advertising as a form of economic sustenance.
Edward J. Pfister, president of the Corporation For Public Broadcasting, one of PBS's main funders, predicts the end of PBS if their own (CPB) proposed budget cuts are accepted. At the same time, the parent PBS organization, under the aegis of Lawrence Grossman, goes quietly, nervously, about its business, preparing still another string of superb premieres for March.
This past January proved to be the best qualitative as well as quantitative season ever for PBS, with the highest cumulative audience ratings for both full day and prime time.
One of its shows, National Geographic's ''Sharks,'' became the all-time most-watched public television program. ''Life On Earth'' became the highest-rated weekly series on PBS records.
But viewers had better be prepared for a long March of fund-raising. Most of the 280 PBS-affiliated stations are planning their own money-raising drives to assure the survival of their own stations - so there will be much pleading and cajoling mixed in with what is being supplied under the umbrella title of ''Festival Nights,'' running from March 6 through March 21. (Check listings for show times. Local PBS stations have the option to operate under different schedules.)
Some stations, like WNET/NY, are starting early (March 3) and using their own umbrella title for the series. WNET is calling its season ''Festival 100,000'' in honor of the 100,000 new members it hopes to sign up.
Many of the country's most familiar entertainers will be featured on the festival programs. Names like Orson Welles, Peter O'Toole, Loretta Swit, Beverly Sills, Luciano Pavarotti, Carol Burnett, Dinah Shore, Arthur Godfrey, and Katharine Hepburn. In addition, some local public television stations are planning their own original productions or repeats of past favorites.
Three of the most spectacular of the programs: a three-hour musical catalog, ''The All-Time American Songbook,'' hosted by Dinah Shore and many pop stars with a blue-ribbon panel of experts choosing America's top ten popular favorites; ''Kennedy Center Tonight: Broadway Plays Washington,'' starring a three-hour Who's Who of Broadway stars; and ''Gala of Stars, 1982,'' a three-hour celebration of the performing arts, hosted once again by Beverly Sills and featuring such top artists as Placido Domingo, Rudolf Nureyev, Barbara Cook, Grace Bumbry, Yehudi Menuhin, Leonard Bernstein, and Marilyn Horne.
Two classic films - ''Beckett'' with Richard Burton and Peter O'Toole and ''Mame'' with Rosalind Russell - will also be featured.
Returning to PBS will be last year's movie-buff favorite, ''Starring Katharine Hepburn.'' Also scheduled are ''The Marx Brothers In a Nutshell'' and ''Lights! Camera! Annie!: The Making of a Major Hollywood Musical.''
Add to the list repeats of such wildlife-oriented programs as ''Life On Earth ,'' ''National Geographic,'' and ''Cousteau Odyssey.''
Thus, in adversity, amidst dire predictions of coming disaster, it is reassuring to see Public Broadcasting Service not only tighten its belt for the predicted famine, but hitch up its belt and come out fighting its upcoming battle for survival. In the end, the quality of PBS programming will be the ultimate factor.