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The next time you are slouching on your couch and watching the Food Network, Discovery, HGTV, BBC America, CNN, the Fox Business Network, the Motor Trend Network, the History Channel, the National Geographic channel, and even The Weather Channel, lift up your beverage of choice and salute Public Television. If your kids watch Nickelodeon, add it to the list. Why? Because Public TV was a pioneer in bringing all of this very targeted content to viewers decades before we were forced to drink from the fire hose of cable stations now cascading toward us.

When the Baltimore TV market had only four stations, broadcast schedules were filled with what the big networks had to offer (soaps, game shows, talk shows, national news and sports, musical variety shows, sitcoms, police and medical dramas, and old movies) plus the expected local news, talk, and sports. That was true until public TV came on the scene in 1969.

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This year marks the 50th anniversary of Maryland Public TV. Its six station network blankets the state from Oakland to Salisbury and continues to be the sole source of a rich and varied menu of content suitable for all ages and tastes, from do-it-yourselfers to nature lovers.

I’ll fess up at this point and admit that I am a proud, 16-year veteran of MPT, or as it was called back in the old days, the Maryland Center for Public Broadcasting. My first job there was in 1971 at its initial station and broadcast hub in Owings Mills, Channel 67. A recently minted product of the University of Maryland’s Radio-TV-Film Department, I was hired to work as an assistant producer on a series of programs designed to teach teachers how to use television in the classroom. In these pre-internet days, TV gave teachers a unique window on the world through which students could “visit” the state’s many notable and historic landmarks, learn language arts via clever skits, or even master calculus as explained by master teachers.

It was a heady time back then. The center had three busy studios, and while a live or taped production was taking place in two of them, a set was often being assembled and lit in the third. Both managers and staff were relatively young and willing to take chances. The top brass green-lighted many fresh program ideas, including a black soap opera, a series of on-location costume dramas about early Maryland history, and a financial news show. The last, dubbed “Wall Street Week,” soon became a national sensation and aired for 32 years.

In these pre-Interstate-795 days, the Owings Mills locale was still very rural. MPT’s neighbors were Jean and Elmer Worthley who owned a large farm next door. One day Jean, a naturalist and preschool teacher, wandered over to see what this large, new building was all about. She soon had her own show, “Hodgepodge Lodge,” entertaining and educating kids about the wonders of nature from 1970 to 1977. That was — and is today — the magic of public TV.

The contemporary television scene is congested as viewers have their pick of hundreds of broadcast and internet program providers. MPT is able to cut through this cacophony by offering a one-stop shop for all kinds of content with a big difference. The programs are locally produced about intensely local issues. While you might find a show about Tanzanian cheetahs on National Geo, only MPT offers a more accessible experience by featuring wildlife in and along the Savage River on its lush nature show, “Outdoors Maryland.” Likewise, you’ll find the art of Chesapeake cooking, advice from a New Windsor dairy farmer, and in-depth news and analysis of events in the Annapolis Statehouse only on MPT.

Equally important are the unique learning opportunities MPT offers to the state’s young children, many of whom lack access to any other preschool education. And when some short-sighted national legislator claims that commercial TV has equally good programs for kids, simply compare the edifying qualities of “SpongeBob SquarePants” with PBS’s venerable “Sesame Street.”

Too, the kind of work I once did producing instructional TV programs for schools has been replaced by MPT’s Thinkport, a rich menu of digital learning experiences, from credit-bearing online courses to classroom videos — developed in partnership with the Maryland State Department of Education and PBS.

Tune in to MPT on Saturday from 5:30 p.m. to midnight to see a cavalcade of archival TV shows, including a documentary at 8 about its five decades of service. You, dear reader, have an ongoing stake in all of this “TV worth watching,” since MPT depends in large part on state funding and contributions of “viewers like you.” Thanks for your investment. It’s been paying big dividends for 50 years and counting.

Frank Batavick writes from Westminster. His column appears every other Friday. Email him at fjbatavick@gmail.com.

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