In a move to attract young audience, MPT to air 'St. Elsewhere'

April 24, 1992|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Television Critic

Challenged by state budget cuts and competition from cable programming, public television, which has never successfully marketed itself to younger viewers, is fighting back.

In an effort to attract a "new, younger audience," Maryland Public Television will begin airing reruns of "St. Elsewhere" on June 1, station officials announced yesterday.

Not only is it rare for a public TV station to air reruns of commercial network shows, but the time slot -- 11 p.m. Monday through Thursday -- will pit "St. Elsewhere" against local late news shows and PBS' "MacNeil/Lehrer News Hour," on Washington's WHMM-TV (Channel 32).

The decision is such a departure from traditional public television programming that Michael Styer, senior vice president of broadcasting at MPT, issued a written explanation to employees.

The memo, titled, "10 Reasons for 'St. Elsewhere,' " suggests how radically the local television marketplace is changing as executives try to compete against cable.

Styer cited the show's "proven appeal to the 35-to-54 [year-old] demographics, which will broaden MPT's base," as one reason for the purchase. He also said buying the series will offer an "alternative viewing choice to the late-night recap of news and talk shows."

In a discussion with staffers, Styer said the show also appealed to MPT because "there's a very active medical community here in Baltimore," which would presumably be a natural audience for the show about life in a large, urban hospital.

"St. Elsewhere," which was produced by MTM Enterprises, ran on NBC from 1982 through 1988. It drew critical raves, won 11 Emmys and a Peabody Award. The hour-long ensemble show depicted life at St. Elegius, a city-run hospital in Boston derisively called "St. Elsewhere."

NBC advertised it at the time as "Hill Street Blues set in a hospital." The series starred Mark Harmon, Ed Begley Jr., William Daniels, Ed Flanders and Howie Mandel among others.

"First of all, for us to do it, the show has to be high quality, because one of our missions is to present quality," Styer said yesterday. But, he said, it's also part of MPT's mission to attract an audience -- especially a younger one.

"The vast majority of our audience is over 50," Styer said. ". . . we have to, like everybody -- like the the newspaper, like the symphony -- we have to start developing those audiences for the future.

"Also, we have to more and more rely on members for our support. Our state budget got cut by over $1 million [about 10 percent of MPT's annual state support] . . . So, we have to find ways of making our membership, which is also mainly over 50, grow."

Styer said he did not feel that MPT was encouraging people not to watch news and such public affairs shows as "Nightline" by scheduling an hour of drama at 11 p.m.

News shows appeal to the same older audience that MPT does, he said. "Our public television people go away at 11 o'clock to watch the news. So, 'St. Elsewhere' is a real counter-program in that respect . . . a chance to bring new viewers to MPT."

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