After being trapped in the "ghetto" of Sunday morning television programming and then canceled by CBS last January, the prestigious weekly TV series "Camera Three" will be given new life tonight when WETA Channel 26, spotlights the program at 7 p.m. Its comeback in renovated form is the result of a rare joint effort on the part of commercial and public television.

Ron Devillier, vice president in charge of programming at PBS, says "We have been trying very hard to get a new arts-magazine format program onto Public Broadcasting, but we couldn't raise enough funds to do an entire original series. 'Camera Three' gives us a starter package."

Like its acclaimed predecessor, the new "Camera Three" is an authology, a record of the arts and culture of our times. It explores the human creative spirit and examines the techniques and ideas of innovators in the arts.

The 25-year-old, award-winning, 30-minute show was ousted in a major upheaval of CBS' Sunday morning programming that made way for a new 90-minute "Sunday Morning" magazine show. Quite simply, "Camera Three" wasn't making money for CBS.

As John Musilli, a 20-year CBS veteran and the executive producer of "Camera Three," says, "Now more than ever on commercial TV, if the audience isn't there, it's 'goodbye, Charlie." If a show isn't successful no matter how good the quality, it's gone."

Musilli and producer-writer Stephan Choderov could easily have found work elsewhere, but they chose to remain loyal to the program. They were having so much fun producing it they were unwilling to stop, so they formed their own independent company called Camera Three Productions (CTP). Choderov explains, "John and I went to PBS and asked them if they'd like a new show, rather like the old show." PBS was interested and so CTP began negotiations with Gene Mater, vice president of the CBS Broadcast Group. They worked out a deal in which CBS licensed their "Camera Three" library to CTP for inclusion in a series on PBS.

Mater says, "We feel there's a certain value to something like 'Camera Three' having a second life in another part of television."

Retired CBS president Frank Stanton also offered his support. He was largely responsible for getting Atlantic Richfield Co. to provide the funds to underwrite the new "Camera Three."

Because of the structure of public television, CTP had to find a PBS station willing to "present" the show. WGBH in Boston agreed to go to bat politically for it. It had to win the best possible air-time and convince other PBS stations not only to accept "Camera Three," but to agree to run the show at the standard feed time. (PBS will feed the program on Thursday nights, but WETA here is carrying it on Sundays, repeated on following Fridays at 12:30 p.m.)

During the next year "Camera Three" will broadcast 16 new shows, 24 updated and re-edited shows from the repertoire amassed at CBS, and 12 reruns from the 1979-80 season. CTP will produce 12 of the new shows and WGBH will produce four.

The premiere program will be an original broadcast, "Portrait of Marvin Hamlisch," the composer who has written the scores of 15 motion pictures including "The Way We Were." It also will be about the creative process of scoring music for film and stage and will demonstrate how music gets from a composer's head to the sound track.

Topics for new programs now being considered include the work of Henri Cartier Bresson, the art of storytelling, H.L. Mencken (whose 100th birthday is in 1980), D.W. Griffith's development of the motion picture medium, and the American wolf (of the canine sort.)

Programs selected from the repertoire of "Camera Three" include one of America's leading choreographers, Anna Sokolow; The Modern Jazz Quartet and the Julliard String Quartet, and reggae.

It will cost less than a million dollars to produce an entire year's worth of the renovated "Camera Three" -- little enough in a medium where a single commercial TV pilot can cost half a million dollars. Nonetheless, "Camera Three" draws upon some of the world's most expensive artists. Richard Burton, Richard Tucker and Andre Watts have contributed their talents for little more than union scale.

It seems illogical that a media giant like CBS had to write off "Camera Three" as financially unsound, whereas the public system could support it. But PBS can afford it because public television relies on grantors instead of sponsors.

A grantor is something like Charlie the Tuna taking up cultural pursuits because he thinks Sunkist wants tunas with good taste. Musilli explains, "A grantor wants his name on the show because that show is doing something for the American public. A sponsor wants his name on the show because he wants to sell his product."

"Camera Three" never had a sponsor. It was a "sustaining" program -- that is, its cost was sustained entirely by CBS. Back in the '50s, networks offered their affiliates such programs to help fill gaps in the program schedule. But over the years, religious broadcasters began to offer programs like "Oral Roberts" that they would pay the local stations to pick up. With this, the local stations had no further use for the free "sustaining" programs that offered no income. By the time "Camera Three" was canned, only a quarter of the CBS affiliates were picking it up.

Since its ratings were so low, "Camera Three" couldn't attract a sponsor. Without a sponsor it couldn't move out of Sunday morning; and as long as it was stuck in that out-of-the-way time slot, it wouldn't get high ratings. It was a Catch-22 situation.

Now that public television has rescued "Camera Three" from obscurity, it has great hopes for the program. PBS has a broadcast pattern that will blanket the network. In some areas it may be possible to catch the same show at six different times in one week. PBS officials expect at least 80 percent of their 281 affiliates to pick it up. "'Camera Three' has been positioned in prime time," says PBS' Devillier, "so it can attract the audience which it richly deserves."

Over the past 25 years, "Camera Three" has presented more than 1,000 programs and has won numerous awards including two Peabodies, a Christopher and many Emmies. The 1978 Peabody award citation said, in part, "When network television programming was in its infancy, CBS decided to sponsor a half-hour weekly series devoted to culture. The result was an experiment in serious television . . . . Its single goal -- to explore the marketplace of ideas . . . . 'Camera Three' has vigorously explored the arts world with such sustained interest over the years that a retrospective of shows could provide a most fascinating glimpse into the best of our cultural life."