IF THERE IS one thing that public broadcasters can clearly see without a camera crew, it is a rough financial road ahead now that one of its big sponsors -- the federal government -- has a new chief executive. But while the administration and Congress determined just how far they care to go with budget cuts, some of the forward-thinking public broadcasters are looking at other routes -- via private enterprise -- to make money and soften any financial blows. They are taking more and more cues from their commercial counterparts. b

In Washington, for example, public broadcasting outlet WETA has formed a profit-making subsidiary to produce television commercials and arrange meetings by satellite for customers. The subsidiary, unlike its tax-exempt parent, is a for-profit, tax-paying company, with the profits to go back to public broadcasting operations. Similar ventures are being conducted by two other leading public broadcasting operations, WNET in New York and WGBH in Boston.

Big private money and public television also are looking at another joint commercial approach. Many large advertising agencies and their corporate clients, who pour millions into public broadcasting, are seeking changes in the regulations that now prohibit institutional advertising and various program promotions. Translation: They want to sell their names on public television, and the agencies want a piece of that action. This is something different. These proposals to open the screens to advertising, on what has been so proudly if not totally accurately hailed as "non-commercial television," would blur the last remaining difference between public and commercial broadcasting. That is an important enough change to demand serious public scrutiny.