Viewers are trying to put the 'Public' back in MPT

Z on TV

March 01, 2009|By DAVID ZURAWIK | DAVID ZURAWIK,david.zurawik@baltsun.com

Changing TV for the better is much harder than it might seem. In fact, after 24 years of writing about television, I am starting to believe that for all the fire-breathing, bent-on-reform critics of my generation, the medium is in many ways worse than it was decades ago.

But suddenly, I find myself in the middle of a local discussion that looks like it could take a small slice of the TV pie and make it better. I am talking about the conversation about Maryland Public Television (MPT) that has been going on recently at my Z on TV blog on baltimoresun.com, in the ombudsman's column on pbs.org, in the pages of The Baltimore Sun and at radio stations like WYPR (88.1).

It started in December when I complained on the blog about MPT not airing two extraordinary independent films from the celebrated PBS series Independent Lens and P.O.V. One was Doc, a revelatory biography of the post-World War II literary figure and founder of The Paris Review, Harold "Doc" Humes. The other was Inheritance, the searing account of a woman named Monika Hertwig and her journey to come to terms with the legacy of having a father who was a Nazi camp commandant.

I was floored by the response to that post among area viewers who were clearly fans of public TV - but not MPT.

Here is how one Sun reader and local PBS fan, Lois Flowers, described the situation: "I simply want to view most of the P.O.V. and Independent Lens programs because of the interesting topics and in-depth coverage. I subscribe to the online P.O.V. newsletter, and it is very disappointing to read about an upcoming film only to be unable to see it on the local PBS channel. Similarly, TV Guide will describe an Independent Lens program scheduled nationally, and it will be nowhere to be found locally. As I said, IRRITATING!"

I kept writing on the blog about daring independent films and outstanding TV journalism that Maryland residents were only able to see if they had access to Washington's WETA, because MPT was not airing them. And area viewers voiced a deeper frustration than I ever imagined. (And this toward a public TV outlet that last year received $10 million from the state in which they live.) The focus this time was a brilliant Frontline report, "Inside the Meltdown," that chronicled the week in September when the economy went off the rails.

"So here we go again," Andrew Manzardo wrote. "Zurawik recommends quite highly the PBS Frontline 'Inside the Meltdown' as excellent. The New York Times covers it as well on the first page of their Arts Section. Again, for those in Baltimore it is only available on WETA. Why bother funding MPT for again the best programming is AWOL. Maybe MPT will show us Celtic Woman or Deepak Chopra in its place or maybe they will move Are You Being Served to weekdays. I am fed up."

Again, I was surprised by the number of people who complained about what they saw as excessive fundraising with the same specials, Celtic Woman and Doo Wop Special, played over and over. Many said they have simply stopped watching MPT altogether after calling or writing to the station and not getting a satisfactory response.

In the past, MPT has not been very responsive to my questions and inquiries, but maybe that is changing. In an interview last week, Michael Golden, the managing director of communications for MPT, addressed some of the complaints from readers and viewers.

"We've got a new manager of our viewer services area, and they have really pulled that unit together, and I think we're doing a much better job than we have in the past," he said. "Certainly, we're not always going to give the answers that people want to hear, and that's probably when people say we're not responsive. I don't think that's a fair assessment."

Golden said that MPT didn't air "Inside the Meltdown" because the station is programmed two months in advance, and it only had a "TBA (to be announced)" listing from Frontline at that point.

Many of the pre-emptions that viewers and I have complained about, like "Meltdown," have been shown on the MPT's new digital channel 22.2, he added. But he also acknowledged that management has "no clue" as to how many Maryland viewers have access to those channels. (He said "Inside the Meltdown" will air on MPT's Channel 22 on April 7.)

Here's Golden's response to the excessive fundraising charge: "It's fair criticism, but the explanation is quite simple: We need funding," he said. "We do show Celtic Woman and Doo Wop a lot, and the reason is because we're successful raising money by showing those."

You can see a feistier exchange between me and Golden at baltimoresun.com/zontv from Feb. 14 under the headline "MPT: More pain for fans of great TV journalism."

But this is a start toward an open, transparent discussion about whether or not MPT is serving Maryland viewers the way it should. If enough readers and viewers join the conversation, maybe we can make a difference. Public broadcasting is too important to simply be tuned out.

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