Report calls for privatizing public TV


Change could affect Md. programming

November 26, 2003|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN STAFF

Tucked away toward the end of a wide-ranging report on the structure of state government - on page 112 of 119, if you're particular about such things - is the recommendation that Maryland Public Television (MPT), the sole statewide broadcaster, be sold to a private group.

If adopted by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., this could spell big, big changes for what happens at MPT's headquarters in Owings Mills and what viewers can see on television, particularly in the more remote parts of the state. Or, potentially, not, say the people who run MPT.

"I don't have any deep-set feelings one way or the other right now - but I would want to make sure it was the right thing for the citizens of Maryland," says Larry D. Unger, executive vice president at MPT. "As a state broadcaster, obviously, you're reaching everyone. We do, I think, more Maryland-oriented local programming than you would otherwise do."

The recommendation was devised by a commission led by former Gov. Marvin Mandel to study how to streamline government, a philosophical desire of Ehrlich's. The report, which awaits formal approval on Tuesday, says cumbersome state regulations add to costs at MPT. The affiliation with state government makes possible donors less willing to send cash to MPT, which receives less than 30 percent of its budget from state coffers. Oh, and by the way - the state could make money off the sale, too.

All in all, it's time for a change, argues Louise L. Hayman, the commission member who wrote the MPT recommendation and who is the chief spokeswoman for state Comptroller William Donald Schaefer. According to her figures, 21 states currently maintain a state agency responsible for public television. In 28 states, private groups run the PBS stations. (Delaware, which can receive signals from Maryland, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, has no PBS station to call its own, though Philadelphia's WHYY TV-12 transmits its signals from Wilmington.)

As Hayman sees it, MPT could be purchased by its private, not-for-profit fund-raising arm, the Maryland Public Broadcasting Foundation. The state would continue to subsidize programs specifically about the state and about education. (As Hayman acknowledges, the draft proposal wrongly claims MPT does no work for the state Department of Education.)

In fact, MPT provides a lot of educational material, even if not all of it comes under the umbrella of the state department. The broadcaster provides 300 hours of instructional programs for teachers at 2,172 schools; it runs institutes and workshops for teachers that attracted 2,500 registrants during the previous fiscal year; and 14,500 students are enrolled in MPT College of the Air, involving 317 hours of broadcast course work.

Many of the strongest PBS stations are, in fact, private, such as Boston's WGBH, Chicago's WTTW, Los Angeles' KCET, WETA of suburban Washington and Pittsburgh's WQED. Parts of Maryland are also served, whether by regular signal or on cable systems, by WETA and WHUT, WQED and WHYY. Since its sale by the Johns Hopkins University, the rechristened WYPR-FM has received steady local financial contributions.

David Nevins, a former chairman of the board that oversees MPT and former president of Comcast Sports Net, says the idea of selling the state broadcaster deserves consideration. Nevins notes that the broadcaster's assets include its facility, property and digital channels. The state currently sends $10.8 million to Owings Mills toward an annual budget of $35.6 million. That subsidy includes $4.4 million to lease digital equipment needed to meet federal rules requiring conversion to digital technology. The report makes no guarantee that such technical subsidies would continue.

The fact that MPT receives only a minority of its funds from the state is not a decisive argument for a sale. After all, University of Maryland, the public system's flagship campus, receives just 27 percent of its operating budget from the state budget this year. And MPT earlier received relief from the General Assembly, giving it flexibility in employment practices.

Yet there is recent precedent for the sale of a government-owned public broadcaster to a

private group. Last month, a financially strapped community college in Orange County, Calif., arranged to sell the public television station it owns, KOCE, for $32 million to its affiliated foundation. The state could similarly see a significant one-time payoff for selling the state system and its considerable technological assets.

It's unclear who else would bid, other than the Maryland Public Broadcasting Foundation. A spokeswoman at WETA says such an "unprecedented" scenario is hard to assess. At WYPR, where officials are both building a new news desk and paying off significant debt from the purchase of the station, a multi-media future does not appear imminent, according to executive vice president Marc Steiner.

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