MPT back to old fund-raising ways: telethons


The news came in a somewhat confusing message in the Maryland Public Television magazine that is sent to the station's members.

Toward the end of president Raymond Ho's monthly letter in the magazine, he notes that MPT's attempt to replace the traditional telethon-like membership drives with shorter on-air spots, direct-mail solicitations, and such has worked, "but not nearly as well as traditional pledge telethons."

So, Ho goes on to say, "In August we hope to blend the most successful elements of all the campaigns we've done" as MPT seeks new members.

What that means is, a year after it was supposedly banished for good, the on-air telethon is back at MPT. They'll be ringing the phones and rattling the tin cups and interrupting your favorite shows with all that annoying stuff once again between Aug. 13 and 25.

Frankly, MPT viewers, you have nobody but yourselves to blame. You didn't send in money in nearly the same amounts during this no-telethon year as you did under the old system.

"The new approach just has not resulted in the same kind of membership that we got before under the traditional philosophy," Michael Styer, an MPT vice president, said of the return.

Styer termed the drop off in fund-raising "significant." Other sources said that income from memberships was off by as much as two-thirds. Word is that the new approach kept the old members but didn't bring in any new ones.

"With the recession and the cutbacks in state funding, eventually we have to go back to what we know will work," Styer said.

Tom McSorley, the development director who cooked up this scheme, has left the station. He tried the no-telethon approach once before at a public station in Miami, which has also reverted to its program-interrupting ways after a similar drop in support.

As for this move being a black eye for MPT, the station has nothing but itself to blame. Last summer, when Ho announced the end of the telethons, he said MPT would never return to that fund-raising method. Instead he promised that a whole new vision of a public station's relationship with its viewers would be worked out, that MPT would pioneer this path and other stations would soon follow.

And now, with nothing more than a few confusing sentences in a letter to members, it's back to business as usual.

This isn't the first time that the hyperbole of the rhetoric in the Ho era has made MPT look ridiculous. Years ago, when he announced the station's backing of "The Blue Revolution," it was to be one of the most important programs ever made for PBS. But Ho dropped it like a hot potato when it ran into funding problems. "The Blue Revolution," which turned out to be a fine program, ended up on cable's Discovery Channel.

MPT touted its co-production with Turner Broadcasting of "The Voice of the Planet" as another ground-breaking piece of television that would raise environmental awareness, but it disappeared virtually without a trace on Turner's cable superstation, TBS, and has yet to show up on MPT or any other public station.

Similarly, the producer of "Voice of the Planet," Michael Tobias, was once hailed as the visionary who would bring great national programming to MPT and was given the title of executive producer. But a few months later, as PBS started frowning on co-productions with cable channels, the name Tobias hardly rang a bell around the station.

"Timeline," the half-hour news from the past, was another series that was going to use international co-productions in India and China to blaze MPT's trail into the upper echelons of PBS' national program suppliers. But those waiting for news of the underwriting needed to proceed with the program are standing in line just behind those waiting for Godot.

The fund-raising turnabout is just another example. Last year, Ho should have simply said that MPT was launching an experiment with the no-telethon membership techniques and that he didn't know if it would work, but it was worth a try because so many people complained about the telethons. Instead he handed out yet another promise that MPT couldn't deliver, the type of thing that damages the relationship a station has with its viewers.

"I think in the enthusiasm for a new undertaking like this, some people might have gone overboard," Styer said. "But we had every intention of never going back to the telethons. We just got hit with a recession."

At MPT, they need a rhetoric recession to curb the rampant inflation during Ho's tenure in office.

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