Big Visions, Fuzzy Picture

Robert Shuman sees a rosy future for MPT, but his ideas haven't always come into focus on reality's cold white screen.

Cover Story

April 14, 2002|By DAVID FOLKENFLIK | DAVID FOLKENFLIK,SUN TELEVISION WRITER

The president of Maryland Public Television is a soft-spoken man with sleepy eyes,dark, feathered hair and matching mustache. Despite his job title, pressed shirt and tie, Robert J. Shuman's laid-back affect and circular speaking style suggest someone holding forth at a neighborhood picnic, not in a boardroom. Little about him hints at the corporate heavy now known as The Man Who Fired Louis Rukeyser.

Before last month, in fact, Shuman had a relatively low profile even as he worked to transform the 33-year-old station from a second-tier national player to a regional powerhouse. Hailed as a visionary since taking over in 1996, the 57-year-old executive has grand plans for MPT. An enthusiastic spokesman for the station's mandate to enlighten and entertain Marylanders, he swears the future lies in cutting-edge technologies and new business partnerships.

But if Shuman is a visionary, his ideas have often fallen short in the real world. Six years into his tenure, the future of the state's public television station remains blurry.

Under his leadership, MPT's membership has grown a bit -- up about 2 1/2 percent a year, from 63,000 to 72,000. The station's monthly audience, meanwhile, has increased significantly, from 1.4 million to 2.2 million viewers. Community outreach has been beefed up, with enhanced training programs aimed at teachers and public events organized to attract new viewers. But many of his projects have fallen through. And at least one change has sparked enormous outcry.

Under prodding from PBS, MPT decided to refashion Wall Street Week With Louis Rukeyser through a partnership with Fortune magazine. The alliance, seen internally as a coup, led directly to the controversial ouster of MPT's most famous figure -- Rukeyser -- from its most lucrative show.

The weekly financial news program attracted 2.2 million viewers on PBS stations each week, easily MPT's biggest draw. But two years ago, that figure stood at 2.6 million. In late March, the station offered Rukeyser a commentator's role once his contract lapses in June. A Fortune magazine editor would replace him in the anchor's chair, and the magazine's name would substitute for his own in the title.

Rukeyser angrily rejected the changes, and announced on the air that he was "ambushed" by MPT. He was fired that weekend. A transplanted version of his show, promising to include the same whimsical observations and deliberate discussion of the financial markets, is set to make its debut this Friday on cable station CNBC.

Shuman stands by his decision, but has been hesitant to talk much in public about Rukeyser's dismissal. But in an interview a few months back, the very public falling out nowhere on the horizon, Shuman is expansive in describing his plans for MPT. He tilts his head slightly back, and speaks in catch phrases, marrying such fashionable if vague terms as "multi- platform," and "connection with community."

From his desk, Shuman can look left, through a window, to the verdant Owings Mills campus, or right, to a diagram of the state agency's Chutes-and-Ladders-like corporate structure. In the last six years, MPT's physical plant has been completely renovated, its staff has grown 30 percent to 234 from 180, and its administration mushroomed. There are now 17 vice presidents -- one for every 13 staff members.

Shuman's remarks gather speed as he says, "Our tools are finally catching up with our mission," citing figures for bandwidth, Web-site hits, viewing levels. Yet visitors to Owings Mills end up hearing more about the philosophy behind new marketing slogans than about the content of the programs they were designed to promote.

Moments after the end of the interview, Jeff Hankin, MPT's vice president for marketing and brand management, scurries after a reporter in the hall.

"I just wanted to clarify a few things Rob said," the senior aide begins apologetically. And then, drip by drip, as Hankin ticks off a lengthy series of corrections involving Web pages, membership levels and viewing patterns, the impression that Shuman has mastery of his ambitious agenda erodes.

Local and national

MPT executives long have juggled a mandate to provide state-related programming not offered by other channels with a desire to generate revenue by creating high-profile shows for national distribution. "Everybody wants to have national programs," says Constance R. Caplan, the current chairwoman of the Maryland Public Broadcasting Commission, which oversees MPT. "It's very expensive and very difficult to do."

When Shuman took the job in 1996, he inherited a television station that supplied more programs for national distribution by PBS than all but a few peers. Raymond K.K. Ho, MPT's president from 1986 to 1995, had focused primarily on programs, such as pricey international documentaries, that could be aired nationwide.

But some Maryland officials, such as David Nevins, then chairman of the state broadcasting board, wanted MPT to focus on more local fare.

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