Voting on the future of MPT Money: The pledge drive that begins this week is a referendum on nonpublic funding of public television.

November 26, 1995|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

It's not often that a public television pledge drive is news. But Maryland Public Television starts a 12-day pledge drive this week that's very big news in terms of the cultural life of Maryland and MPT's future after the firing last month of its controversial president, Raymond K. K. Ho.

Let's be honest about pledge drives in general. To many viewers, they are an annoying, tote-bag, phone-bank, guilt trip with people who usually aren't on television (some for obvious reasons) seeming as if they'll never get off the screen.

There are usually a few splendid programs shown during the drives in hopes of rounding up a large audience of potential donors, but some of the programming is so transparent in its new-found populism and demographic appeal that it insults one's intelligence.

This drive season, a profile of "Twilight Zone" creator Rod Serling, the late Jeremy Brett's last two episodes as "Sherlock Holmes" and Luciano Pavarotti's "My World" are candidates for the former category. Music programs from Lawrence Welk for the World War II generation, along with Jimmy Buffett and Carly Simon for baby boomers, define the latter.

But it's not the programming that makes this winter pledge drive, which starts Tuesday and ends Dec. 10, so important. It's the timing.

Pledge drives are to public television stations what Nielsen "sweeps" audience surveys are to their commercial brethren: quarterly referendums with economic consequences on how the public feels they're doing. This drive is the first major vote on MPT since Ho's firing.

"Pledge drives are like Nielsen ratings, and this is definitely a very important pledge drive for us," said David H. Nevins, the new chairman of the Maryland Public Television Commission, which runs MPT. "But I don't think it is a vote about what happened with Raymond Ho."

It's not a vote about whether Ho should have been fired. There was little doubt he had to go once he started stating his belief that there was a "Jewish connection" of lawmakers and former employees, along with Nevins, who were out to get him.

But Ho left making a barrage of public accusations, including the charge that Gov. Parris N. Glendening -- by appointing Nevins and four other new commissioners this year -- was "packing" the board with the votes he needed to "privatize" MPT.

The matter of privatization set off a public debate about the future of MPT. This pledge drive is in many ways a vote about that.

Ho tried to rig the debate by alleging that privatization meant selling off MPT's valuable real estate in Owings Mills to cronies of the governor and putting public television in Maryland at the mercy of commercial media interests -- like Comcast Cablevision, which does business with Nevins' public relations firm.

Going private

But almost everyone else -- including Zelig Robinson, Nevins' predecessor, who served under William Donald Schaefer -- defined privatization as getting more money from the private sector of businesses, foundations and viewers. In short, to rely less on government subsidies.

That is clearly the trend nationally, according to Douglas Gomery, a University of Maryland College Park professor who writes "The Economics of Television" column for American Journalism Review.

"It started as a response to people like Newt Gingrich saying they wanted to 'zero out' public broadcasting. The idea is to not be too dependent or vulnerable," Gomery said.

PBS recently announced two major, private-sector arrangements that show its commitment to less reliance on government money. One is with Reader's Digest, which will invest $75 million during the next five years with PBS in co-productions. The other is with the USA Networks cable channel, which will fund the "Charlie Rose" talk show with $1 million in 1996.

"This is a powerful example of our new strategy of advancing our mission by doing business with companies that share our ideals while complementing our resources," said PBS president Ervin S. Duggan, promising there would be more.

Nevins, who recently met with Duggan to talk about MPT's future as a supplier of PBS programming, says they are on the same page when it comes to a more diversified funding base.

"During my tenure, I would like my contribution to be helping to develop that private funding source," Nevins said. "We need to look much more seriously at partnerships with the community, doing entrepreneurial things that will bring us revenue.

"As government monies remain stable at best, our future at MPT rests with our ability to increase private sector funding," Nevins added. "So, we are looking to try to do everything we can to try and make certain that the public responds."

For his part, Archie Buffkins, the interim president of MPT, says everything's fine, and "it's business as usual at MPT."

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