MPT signs deal with for-profit online service

Fund-raiser: Agreement to promote service in schools and on-air will make money for stations strapped by dwindling goverment funding.

June 29, 2000|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN TELEVISION WRITER

As part of an aggressive push to find new sources of revenue, Maryland Public Television has agreed to promote a for-profit, online subscription service for children on the air and in schools across the state.

In exchange, MPT will earn a commission for every new subscriber it generates for JuniorNet, a commercial, privately held company based in Boston. And, like any millennial media outlet worth its salt, MPT has also won a piece of the action: equity in the Web-based firm.

"We have consciously been looking for ways to become self-sustaining," said Larry D. Unger, the chief financial officer of MPT. "We'd like to think JuniorNet would be just the start of that process."

If all goes as planned, the public network will heavily promote the service in materials distributed throughout public schools. In addition, JuniorNet will be cited on air as an "underwriter" - a corporate sponsor touted on the ostensibly commercial-free station.

JuniorNet, a 4-year-old subscriber-based online service, provides children ages 3 to 12 the chance to read articles from several well-known children's publications, including "Highlights," "Ranger Rick" and "Sports Illustrated for Kids."

The site also features interactive games and puzzles, chat sites and educational materials. Children can trade e-mail messages through the commercial-free service that allows them to message correspondents approved by parents.

A monthly subscription to the on-line service costs $9.95 and requires internet access. MPT will receive a "bounty" equal to the first month's fee for each new subscriber. The service will be free for schools.

Station executives call the alliance a natural match. The television subsidiary of JuniorNet has won 13 Emmys for producing educational programs, such as "Reading Rainbow," which appear on many Public Broadcasting Service affiliates.

Along with similar statewide public television networks in Nebraska and South Carolina, MPT created a partnership called PTV VisionWorks to seek new ventures. From the JuniorNet pact, the three public broadcasting groups will receive some equity in the firm, but the stake's size will depend in part on how many PBS stations they can convince to join the promotional effort.

The material provided by the Web service has been evaluated by educators and students at Maryland schools in Baltimore, Montgomery and Prince George's counties. It is now being reviewed by teachers in 15 other states.

Robert J. Shuman, the president and CEO of MPT, calls its stake in JuniorNet "a sliver" and said that his state-subsidized broadcasting company did not expect to reap much of a financial windfall from the deal - less than six figures.

Were JuniorNet to draw strong investor public interest and issue stock, however, the three state public television stations could stand to gain much more money.

Shuman said the novel agreement reflected a more aggressive approach to generating money at a time of dwindling governmental support.

In 1991, MPT and the state roughly split the operating costs. This year, the station is responsible for generating 70 percent of its revenues, while Maryland paid for 30 percent. Similarly, Republican lawmakers in Washington successfully pushed for a cut in federal subsidies for the Public Broadcasting System during the mid-1990s.

MPT's move follows commercially minded decisions by other public television executives.

Several public television stations have entered alliances with a retailer called Store of Knowledge to hawk videos, soundtracks, toys and clothes linked to shows they air. The nearest such store, based in Arlington, Va., is linked to the Washington-area station WETA.

And, earlier this month, the Public Broadcasting System announced that it would revamp its primetime programming schedule in seven test markets across the country. PBS officials hope to find a lineup that inspires a greater number of viewers - a more typical concern of their peers at commercial networks.

Some observers question whether the emphasis on the bottom line has distracted public television from its intended function .

"The effects of diminished and ever-threatened government funding are taking their toll on PBS as a noncommercial broadcasting service, and are affecting its educational mission as well," wrote Harvard scholars Susan E. Linn and Alvin F. Poussaint in the American Prospect last year. They termed today's public television - rife with merchandising tie-ins and corporate sponsorships - "commercial lite."

But MPT's Shuman is comfortable in operating in such entrepreneurial waters. For a decade, he was the founding president of the not-for-profit Learning Channel. He then arranged its sale to the Bethesda-based Discovery Channel, a for-profit company.

While observing MPT's educational mandate, "We should be a little bit smart here," Shuman said. "We're [already] selling tapes, we're peddling books. But a lot of that is done through third parties and we never see the profit."

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