Helping to put PBS on the map Maryland Public Television is no slouch when it comes to producing quality programs for a national audience. BY Chris Kaltenbach

August 23, 1998|By SUN STAFF

When it comes to guessing which PBS stations produce the most programs,the big ones shouldn't be tough to figure.

Boston's WGBH? Of course. It's got "Masterpiece Theater," "Mystery" and "Frontline," not to mention "The American Experience."

New York's WNET? Makes sense. First, it's in New York, where everything's big. And second, it's responsible for "Great Performances."

Washington's WETA? Naturally, considering it's got Ken Burns among its stable of stars.

But don't forget Maryland Public Television. Because when you're talking about the PBS big boys, it's right up there.

Among the PBS staples produced by MPT are "Wall $treet Week With Luis Rukeyser" (an association that goes back to 1970), "MotorWeek" (since 1990) and "HealthWeek," which began just last year. The roster also includes the popular children's shows "Kratts' Creatures" and "Wimzie's House," plus a raft of cooking shows that over the years has included "Pierre Franey's Cooking in America," "In Julia's Kitchen with Master Chefs," "Country Inn Cooking With Gail Greco" and "Chesapeake Bay Cooking With John Shields."

For the fiscal year that ended June 30, 1996, MPT ranked fourth in terms of the number of programming hours provided to PBS. And while those are the most current records available, the general consensus is that MPT still ranks among the top five.

"MPT is a critical supplier of programming to PBS, year in and year out," says PBS spokesman Stu Kantor, praising the "great leadership that sees the wisdom of good programming concepts and [is] able to see from concept to production, and then on to broadcast."

MPT has also produced its share of documentary miniseries, including "Legacy" and "In the Footsteps of Alexander the Great," with Michael Wood, plus "Seapower: A Global Journey" and "Exodus 1947," a look at the founding of Israel.

MPT's latest programming effort goes on display Wednesday, with the premiere of "Into the Rising Sun," a four-part look at the 15th-century Portuguese explorers who spearheaded the Age of Exploration by becoming the first Westerners to sail around Africa.

John Potthast is MPT's vice president of national productions; as such, he's the one who has to sift through what's out there and decide which projects the station wants to get involved in.

"We look at the quality of the project. We look at the credentials of the production team - What have they done in the past? Is the program they are pitching something they are capable of doing? We will look at whether it makes sense for MPT to get involved with this project - is there a Maryland connection, is it a Maryland-based producer, is it something about Maryland?"

Potthast estimates MPT produces about 10 shows for national distribution annually, for a total of about 500 hours of programming.

"Historically, we've been a producing station," says Robert Shuman, MPT's president and chief executive officer. "When PBS was first starting out in the '60s, the folks that started here in Maryland ... had the vision and foresight to invest in something that has paid for itself many, many, many times over."

And those profits are important, Shuman adds, because they can then be plowed into regional programming, shows with a distinctly Maryland flavor - such as "Newsnight Maryland," "State Circle" and "Outdoors Maryland" - that rarely, if ever, are broadcast outside MPT.

MPT doesn't make money on its programs by selling them to PBS. For the most part, shows are provided to PBS free of charge, which in turn distributes them for free to its member stations.

MPT makes money by attracting corporate underwriters. On network television, this is known as selling commercials, but on PBS, things are a little different. Major underwriters are allowed 15 seconds at the beginning and end of a show, airing spots carefully worded to meet PBS guidelines that limit commercialization.

(MPT can also attract local underwriters for shows produced elsewhere, which is why a PBS show - say, "Frontline" - will be preceded by a voice intoning, "MPT's local broadcast of ... ")

As a general rule, money raised through underwriting is used to defray MPT's production costs; any money raised beyond that is distributed among MPT and its production partners. MPT can also realize profits through so-called "back-end" deals (videotape sales, for instance), along with sales to cable networks and television stations in other countries.

"It's not a multimillion-dollar business, at least not yet," says Potthast, "but it's significant dollars." That's especially important given MPT's increasing reliance on private funding. For fiscal 1999, more than two-thirds of the station's projected revenue of $32 million is expected to come from nongovernment sources.

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