The Not-So-Uniqueness of Public Television

The first time I really thought about it was when I kept hearing the same newscasters and personalities on Maryland Public Broadcasting that I heard on local commercial radio stations, plying their trade on both sides of the street.

What was the "unique" news and public-affairs insight that these dual-role media personalities were providing over at the Owings Mills complex of MPT that was notably missing from the commercial station that employed them? I couldn't find the answer, which made me wonder about the effusive claims during fund-raising beg-athons that MPT offered something commercial stations could not. Certainly it wasn't fresh faces.


About that time, MPT began promoting a new program that plays country-music videos, a sort of MTV with a twang. As hostess, they hired a local commercial-station DJ, who kept her day job.

But a local commercial channel was already filling that cultural void, with a country-music video program that reached most of MPT's viewers. It was winning audiences, even with the taint of paid advertising. That didn't stop MPT from throwing a pile of public money into producing its competing program, "New Country Video."


Another popular production of MPT is "MotorWeek," whose public-broadcasting cachet helps to earn a credibility among viewers interested in new cars and no-nonsense auto maintenance. The idea and much of the format has been used by commercial TV programs over the years, but MPT's slick version has been a clear winner. So much so that the programs are shown the same week on a commercial station, with auto dealers and car-product ads paying the bills. Clearly, this program doesn't need public funding -- donations or tax money -- to keep tooling down the information highway.

These are just some of the examples of MPT activities that spring to mind when the station pleads for survival funding from the federal and state governments and from "viewers like you" at pledge-raising time.

Public television, at least in its current incarnation, could just as easily pass from the scene or into private hands. Particularly with the advent of cable TV, there's ample opportunity for transmitting their programs with assured niche audiences -- and commercial support. In fact, there are any number of public TV shows that commercial stations and networks would love to offer, as well as any number of public TV shows that are knock-offs of commercial-channel programs.

At least public TV comes without advertising and commercials? That's a matter of semantics. "Underwriting" messages are getting longer, more hard-line and more animated. They are little different from subdued commercials, precisely the kind of advertising that best suits many of the companies that choose to contribute to MPT and its siblings. The money these sponsors pay for identification with a popular public TV program is considerable; one recalls the recent bidding war over underwriting of MPT's Number One show, "Wall Street Week."

Cable networks would kill to get this show and its large audience of moneyed investors who hang on every word of host Louis Rukeyser and his guests. It's entertaining to the professional as well as the amateur investor, and it's in no way dependent on being carried by the Public Broadcasting System.

But "Wall Street Week" is an enormous source of wealth for MPT and for Mr. Rukeyser, who has spun off newsletters, books, investment seminars and even financial-advice cruise trips from the show. (A popular trivia question several years ago: Who gets the biggest paycheck from the state of Maryland? Answer: Lou Rukeyser, whose pay was channeled through the public broadcasting account with the state treasury.)

Mr. Rukeyser is certainly entitled to profit from his charm and expertise in the commercial arena, as is Russell Baker of "Masterpiece Theatre," who is also a best-selling author, raconteur and syndicated columnist. They, in fact, are less vulnerable to criticism than many other of the luminaries of public broadcasting.

All the cooking-show performers on public television are selling their own cookbooks and videos, available through the PBS network. "Frugal Gourmet" Jeff Smith is perhaps the most egregious (aside from Big Bird and his "Sesame Street" confederates), using his public TV show as a platform for demonstrating the potholders and utensils, cooking oils and wines that he is liberally paid to endorse on the private market.


That's just the point that many critics of public television are making. The commercial broadcast and cable channels provide ample opportunity to air these same shows, without cost to the public. And public television is more likely to duplicate what is on a commercial channel these days than vice versa. Never mind that public dollars for MPT may produce shows that generate a profit from fees paid by other PBS stations. Seed money doesn't have to come from the public purse; the shows could be financed entirely by commercial producers.

The environment is much different from the days when a few broadcast channels had a limited number of time-slots available and usually aimed for the lowest common denominator in selecting programs. Today, public TV often tries to reinvent the wheel of commercial TV instead of providing a difference.

Cooking shows, which dominate public TV weekends, have been a staple of commercial TV since the early days; public television didn't invent them. Nature programs are a mainstay of Discovery and other cable channels. Educational series are as likely to be found between commercials on The Learning Channel, as they are on PBS affiliates.

Siskel & Ebert took their movie-review shtick to the commercial stations and prospered, while PBS trudges along with replacement hosts who are mostly unwatched. Figure skating on public TV merely duplicates the success of the commercial networks in covering the sport for decades. Virtually any genre of TV program, including controversial religion and politics shows, can be found in abundance outside of public television outlets.

Opera and classical music may be one area in which public TV offers something different on a regular basis. But even that niche is eroding and cable channels would broadcast many of those performances if they could get the rights. A well-known oil company has sponsored weekly radio opera broadcasts from the Met for over a half-century, carried on both commercial and public stations, without a dime of public subsidy.

There's precious little that the non-public channels don't offer, including a 24-hour weather report. Granted, public TV seems to be the only prime-time outlet for the theatrical saccharine keyboard stylings of Yanni -- which makes the case perfectly for pulling the public support from MPT and its ilk.


Michael K. Burns writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.