MPT says it's back on track financially

TV/RADIO COLUMN

Layoffs, cuts help ease lack of funds from underwriters

August 28, 2002|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN TELEVISION WRITER

The aftershocks of Rukeyser's revenge continue.

Last week, officials at Maryland Public Television told employees it was laying off 32 staffers, demoting executives and slashing the pay of those left behind to close a projected $2.1 million shortfall for this fiscal year. Most of that shortfall stemmed from the loss of corporate sponsors from the financial news program Wall Street Week after the dismissal of host Louis Rukeyser in March.

The station's executives say those painful steps - including a 14 percent reduction in its work force - have put it back on a sound financial path.

"Wall Street Week as a program doesn't hold the station hostage," says Robert J. Shuman, MPT's CEO and president. "We've had some difficult times, and had to make some responsible and difficult decisions."

But new details coming to light suggest just how much depends on the return of corporate "underwriters" to Wall Street Week With Fortune, the new incarnation of the show.

Starting in October, the weekday public-affairs show Direct Connection is to be scaled back to three times a week. The locally produced half-hour programs Outdoors Maryland and ArtWorks This Week will each fill that slot at 7:30 p.m. once a week.

Eric Eggleton, executive vice president and chief content officer for MPT, says the change is essentially unrelated to the budget crunch: It is based on the results of tests done with focus groups early this year, he says. He also says he hopes to expand the weekly State Circle, a state politics program that currently runs three months a year, to a full year, and add a new regional business show.

"It's a time of change, and I'm trying to work through this in such a way that there is a positive outcome," Eggleton says. "We're going to use our real estate as smart as we can, believe me."

If all goes as planned, Eggleton says, there should be more Maryland-centric content on MPT next year than there is now. But for the moment, there's one hour less each week. (Direct Connection, based on interviews of prominent Marylanders by anchor Jeff Salkin, is the less expensive, year-old reincarnation of Newsnight Maryland.) And new programming depends on having the money to do it.

Meanwhile, officials at Public Broadcasting Service say they are committed to the new Wall Street Week as it evolves. They had pushed for changes in the 32-year-old program to appeal to new potential viewers, and they've agreed to a seven-figure subsidy of the new show in the absence of underwriters.

"Unfortunately, the transition has cost them all their underwriters," says John F. Wilson, PBS' senior vice president and co-chief program executive. "We see that as a short-term disadvantage."

In explaining last week's deep cuts, senior MPT officials said that they were convinced Wall Street Week would not have been given a time slot on PBS' recommended primetime lineup this autumn. And that would have meant losing national exposure and significant revenues, possibly for good, MPT executives say.

But Wilson and other PBS officials reject the suggestion that the show's slot was imminently at risk had MPT not fired Rukeyser or radically altered the show. "Nothing so draconian was ever put forward," says Wilson. "We would have continued working with them, as we have all our other primetime shows, to make changes incrementally to adapt to today's necessities."

Initially, it was thought that Rukeyser would play a different role on the show or work with a new co-host.

But MPT officials say they had little choice in how they handled Wall Street Week. "Our feeling was that had we not reinvented the show, we couldn't have had a show in the fall," says Larry D. Unger, MPT's executive vice president and chief financial officer. "We were trying to preserve this program because it has value for us, and produces a margin for us - that is, net revenue."

Along with the current fiscal year's $2.1 million shortfall, the public broadcaster now acknowledges it lost $750,000 in revenues during the past fiscal year, ending June 30, as underwriters peeled away from the Lou-less Wall Street Week. A related foundation created to help MPT finance its activities sold off bonds to cover that $750,000 drop in revenue.

When creating this year's budget, MPT officials recognized the possibility of a slow transition into the new show with Fortune magazine, predicting that the program would generate about $4.5 million this year, down from $6 million under Rukeyser. That estimate now stands at $3 million - and even that depends on new corporate backers.

Zelig Robinson, a former chairman of the Maryland Public Broadcasting Commission, which sets policy for the station, criticized the judgment of PBS and MPT as "wrongheaded."

Robinson pointed out that the changes to the programs were made during a time of national financial instability. "The leadership of PBS and the leadership of Maryland Public Broadcasting did not plan for an unpleasant outcome," Robinson says.

The result was foreseeable, he says: No underwriters for the show, as Rukeyser wooed most of them to his new cable program, and others blanched during a shaky economy.

Unger says that the state broadcaster's moves were taken only after careful consideration. "We've closed the gap," he says. "If indeed we have underwriters by [next summer], this plan will have put us on very firm footing."

Questions? Comments? Story ideas? David Folkenflik can be reached by e-mail at david.folkenflik@baltsun.com or by phone at 410-332-6923.

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