International shows help image, budget


November 17, 1992|By Ian Johnson | Ian Johnson,New York Bureau

NEW YORK -- When Maryland Public Television wanted to increase its product line four years ago but didn't have the money to do so, it decided that the solution to its financial problem didn't lie in Annapolis but in Berlin, Tokyo and Sydney.

The decision was a gamble that has paid off. Overseas co-productions -- such as "The New Europeans," which airs tonight -- are not only paying off financially. But these high-profile mini-series have turned the once sleepy station in Owings Mills into the fourth-largest producer of programming for the Public Broadcasting Service.

MPT now spends 27 percent of its $23.5 million budget on marketable national and international shows. In addition to six weekly shows that are produced locally and aired nationally, such as "Wall Street Week," "To the Contrary," "Motorweek," and "New Country Video," MPT has produced a dozen internationally co-produced mini-series over the past three years and plans to produce a weekly series, possibly on the environment.

In the mid-1980s, MPT President Raymond K. K. Ho said, MPT's only major product for sale was its 21-year stalwart, "Wall Street Week" with Louis Rukeyser. Now, bolstered by its new line of international shows, it sends 200 hours of programming a year to PBS, placing it just behind the megastations in Boston, New York and Washington.

And while those bigger producers have made a name producing daily shows that rack up broadcast hours, such as the "McNeil-Lehrer Newshour," and co-financed weekly programs, such as "Nature" or "Mystery," MPT makes its sales through some of PBS's biggest series in recent years, such as "Legacy" and "Mini-Dragons I," which it co-produced with NHK Japan and Film Australia.

Besides giving the station a new reputation for international programming, the new shows are also part of a more aggressive PBS strategy to fight off stiff cable competition, Mr. Ho said. "It's essential for public television to distinguish itself from other stations."

MPT's new productions are fed into the PBS network and can be picked up by the 300 PBS affiliates nationwide. A lack of original productions had been hurting PBS's efforts to counter new cable channels, such as Arts & Entertainment and the Discovery Channel, which often feature reruns of old PBS shows, Mr. Ho said.

Another consideration was a belief that only a few public stations will survive the trend toward fewer subsidies and still produce original shows, Mr. Ho said.

Original programming can be expensive, but if the costs are offset through an international partner it can also be profitable, especially when PBS buys the production and feeds it to its affiliates. Video and foreign sales can also help turn a costly production into a moneymaker, he said.

MPT's newest venture, "The New Europeans," is typical in that the company decided from the start to make the program with an international partner, in this case Deutsche Welle Fernsehen Berlin. The cost of making the $2 million program was split and MPT's portion was further offset by national sales of the three-part series. Video sales and reruns could put the venture in the black, said Leo Eaton, senior vice president for national and international production.

By next year, MPT expects its international co-productions to be money-makers for the station, which has seen its state subsidies over the past three years cut to $8 million a year from $12 million. The new business has allowed the station to avoid layoffs, Mr. Ho said.

Besides sharing the costs, Mr. Eaton said, international co-productions ensure that the productions are of interest to international customers.

"We know that these shows will sell overseas. We look at the world as one market," Mr. Eaton said.

"The New Europeans," for example, has already been aired in Germany while "Mini-Dragons" was shown in Japan, Australia, Hong Kong and South Korea. Its successor, "Mini-Dragons II," is due to be aired in Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia.

Les Brown, a senior research fellow at Columbia University's Freedom Forum Media Studies Center, said co-productions have been problematic for PBS stations because conflicts sometimes arise over the shows' direction and focus. If handled properly, however, they can be an attractive way for both sides to share costs.

Mr. Eaton and Mr. Ho said personal reasons also helped convince them to make the leap into international programming. Mr. Eaton, a native of Great Britain, and Mr. Ho, who was born in Hong Kong, said they felt bound to widen MPT's horizons.

"There is a risk in this country to be parochial and ignore the rest of the world. We wanted to make sure that people realize the international dimensions," Mr. Ho said.

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