Ho's Role

January 08, 1995

Raymond K.K. Ho, president of Maryland Public Television, told his colleagues recently that public television can't simply play Red Riding Hood to the conservatives' Big Bad Wolf. Public TV isn't all good, he said, and change isn't all bad.

The enigmatic Mr. Ho himself may be a symbol of public TV's new thinking. More a crafty entrepreneur than a bureaucratic rubber-stamper, Mr. Ho has launched public-funded television in Maryland into a more self-sufficient mode. MPT is now the fourth-largest producer of nationally distributed public TV programming. These productions bring in revenue. And if they're of high quality, they attract viewers, which draws sponsors, which provides more money for more shows. It's a cycle of life for public TV, and a more secure one than living as a chick with its beak open.

Not that Mr. Ho thinks public television should be "privatized," as Sen. Larry Pressler, chairman of the committee that oversees public TV funding, suggests. We already have privatized public TV: It's called commercial television. Critics argue that cable now fills the educational voids left by the networks, but the fact remains that the landmark programming conceived in the petrie-dishes of public TV -- "Sesame Street," the Civil War documentary, Barney -- has not been born elsewhere.

Mr. Ho's enterprising, public-private vision was cited by both Democrat Parris Glendening and Republican Ellen Sauerbrey on the gubernatorial campaign trail as the kind of thinking government must adopt.

Not that Mr. Ho is universally beloved, as some "Heave Ho" bumper stickers attest. He rolled heads at MPT's mother ship in Owings Mills. A religious man, he has offended some by beginning staff meetings with prayer. He's seen as a shameless self-promoter -- though so were executives like Lee Iacocca and Frank Perdue, and look what they did for their products. Like it or not, Mr. Ho's industry is about to follow in his footsteps: out of nurtured serenity and into the political trenches.

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