After the Ho era, what's next for MPT?

November 28, 1995|By Dick George

THE RECENT EXIT of Raymond Ho from Maryland Public Television in a flurry of ''Jewish conspiracy'' accusations was a sad end to a tumultuous period in MPT history.

Mr. Ho arrived nine years ago full of confidence, swagger and promises of the great vision that was to be; he left a pathetic, finger-pointing blamer whose vision may have been less than 20-20.

Certainly Mr. Ho had accomplishments. Fund-raising was up markedly. His personal style was highly visible; MPT got more ink than ever before, even if much of it featured Mr. Ho and not his programs. He was an articulate and ardent spokesman for public television and he managed to get more programs on the air nationally.

But what will he be remembered for in the long run? Probably his graceless departure. This speaks not only to the degree of disgrace he brought on himself at the end, but also to the quality of his programs, which was spotty at best. How many Maryland taxpayers, who are footing $8.1 million of MPT's tab per year, know what ''Legacy'' was? Or ''Mini-Dragons,'' ''After the Warming,'' ''Timeline,'' ''Voice of the Planet'' or ''Seapower?''

Signature programs

These were Mr. Ho's signature programs. Few were good and some were awful. None had any real connection with Maryland, and aside from an MPT logo at the end, they brought little or no attention to Maryland outside the closed world of public television. After Mr. Ho's nine-year tenure, what is Maryland Public Television still most famous for? ''Wall Street Week'' with Louis Rukeyser, the venerable program that had been on the air 16 years when Mr. Ho arrived.

One might ask parenthetically, why do the local media (and MPT) use national programming as a yardstick of MPT success? Why does it matter to a Maryland taxpayer if a program airs elsewhere unless it brings clear profits to MPT, as ''Wall Street Week'' does? Producing national and international documentary programs as envisioned by Mr. Ho is enormously expensive and when all costs are considered, there is considerable doubt as to whether MPT gained or lost money on the deals.

Now that the Ho era is over, what is next for MPT?

The funding question

First we might ask if we can afford the luxury of funding MPT at all, with all the other problems we face as a state. This is a complex question and I won't argue it here. Instead, let's be realistic. If the Republican Congress can't do away with tax money for public television on a national level, it's unlikely to happen in Maryland.

So if MPT is to exist and receive state funding at some level, the question becomes what should it be doing? What is the mission, other than to carry the PBS schedule?

The answer can be found in the reason public television was created in the first place. The idea was to develop and air programming no one else carried. Public television has performed this feat so well that most of what it has done has been copied by cable channels, who now do it better and cheaper. But not everything has been siphoned off. There are still two niches no one else is filling.

Children's Programming

The first is children's programming. We need great children's programs, and only public television has shown an ability to produce them. MPT is now developing ''Kratt's Creatures,'' which sounds like an outstanding children's nature program.

The second niche is local programming. It's clear that if local programming is to be done at all, public television will have to do it. Certainly the local commercial and cable stations have no interest outside standard news fare.

MPT has done some outstanding work in this category even during the Ho era, when local programming was relegated to second-class status. Local producers at MPT are so used to losing crews and facilities to ''national'' programs that they've gotten good at patching together programs on shoestring budgets with whatever meager resources they can scrounge.

Now MPT has the opportunity to vigorously support these producers in the formidable task of creating consistently compelling programs that defy us to change channels.

These can't be just ''feel good'' local stories (although there's nothing wrong with feeling good about something local); they should have conflict and character and tell a story.

University research

They could look at such questions as: What kind of progress is being made in our research universities and how is it affecting our lives? What does it take to be a symphony conductor? Who are the people in our communities who have overcome the deprivations of poverty and how did they do it? Who are the everyday heroes who can teach us about patience and perseverance and commitment? Why do some urban planners think Baltimore is doomed? Thirty years from now, how will the Chesapeake Bay be different? Who's got the best high school football team in the state?

Once in a while these programs will be so good that PBS will beg to have them on the network, and that will be nice. But it won't be the reason they're produced.

These programs require MPT staffers to get out of Owings Mills, to do a lot of research and talk to many people. Adequate funding must be secured in order to do them well -- a major challenge in itself -- and they must be well-promoted. (Maybe The Sun's television critic will even review them). The result will be better programs, a clear vision and an appreciative audience that supports Maryland Public Television.

Dick George is a former producer and head writer at Maryland Public Television, where he won four Emmys for his work on the comedy series ''Crabs.'' He now works in private industry.

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