The direction of public television in Maryland could be decided Monday when the state commission that runs the network meets to resolve a bitter, behind-the-scenes battle over the future of its controversial president, Raymond K. K. Ho.
Mr. Ho, whose performance has been under scrutiny for months, may have forced the hand of the Maryland Public Broadcasting Commission by going public with a series of accusations against Gov. Parris N. Glendening and commission Chairman David H. Nevins.
"The Monday meeting is certainly a turning point in the history of Maryland Public Television," said Mr. Ho, who has been MPT's president for nine years. "It will say a lot about where the commission wants to go."
In an interview with The Sun this week, Mr. Ho said that the Glendening administration is trying to get rid of him and use MPT for political purposes, such as currying favor with business and political leaders.
Mr. Ho said he was informed this week of plans to cut $1 million in state funds to MPT and possibly "privatize" the network. Mr. Ho said the administration's plans for MPT have "destabilized" its operations and have made its future highly uncertain.
Dianna D. Rosborough, Mr. Glendening's press secretary, labeled the charges "preposterous" -- a term that was echoed by Mr. Nevins in a separate interview.
The unusual public airing of internal MPT tensions comes six months after the governor named Mr. Nevins, who served as an unofficial spokesman for the Glendening campaign last year, to do a thorough review of the agency's operations.
Mr. Nevins promised at the time to address "staffing problems" and "morale issues," provoking speculation that Mr. Ho's days as MPT president were numbered.
Mr. Ho's public denunciation of the administration is an apparent effort to rally support among the public and General Assembly for a reprieve from the budget ax and to continue his sometimes stormy reign.
But state Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, D-Baltimore, who heads the Senate panel that oversees MPT, predicted Mr. Ho would find few allies in the Legislature, saying his credibility is "not high."
"If he thinks that the public and the legislature will rise up in a body and defend him, he's wrong," said Senator Hoffman. "It seems to me that he's the one that, by doing this, is making it easier for the commission to get rid of him."
During his tenure, the 44-year-old Mr. Ho has been credited with building MPT into the fourth-largest producer of programs for PBS. In August, MPT enjoyed a record fund-raising drive that brought in nearly a half-million dollars, up 27 percent from the previous year.
Among his successes were international co-productions, such as Legacy," "Mini-Dragons" and "After the Warming" with James Burke.
But he has also been criticized for poor staff morale, frequent turnover of top MPT executives and questionable programming decisions.
Perhaps his greatest programming failure has been MPT's inability to come up with a news or public affairs show with agenda-setting clout for Maryland.
"He's very admired for some of the things he's accomplished. At the same time, some things he's done have been expensive failures," said Senator Hoffman.
During the interview, Mr. Ho complained that his annual job evaluation has been drawn out for five months and the process still is not complete.
"Working under these conditions is a bit like having your hands tied to a pole in an open field and water is being dripped on you. The temperature is dropping and the wind chill rising as day turns into night," said Mr. Ho. "It has certainly created an atmosphere here that has destabilized the staff."
Mr. Ho said Mr. Glendening has attempted to seize control of the commission by appointing five new commissioners in five months, which he called an unprecedented turnover of the panel. He noted that no commission meetings were held from June 5 to Oct. 3.
"The fact that monthly commission meetings have been canceled until five new appointees of the new administration came on board is an indication that there is a whole new game taking place," Mr. Ho said. "If any one politician can control MPT, which reaches into every home in the state, the possibility of abuse for political purposes is real."
Mr. Ho said he was "stunned" by what he characterized as "last-minute proposals" that would cut $1 million in state funds from MPT's fiscal 1997 budget.
He said the proposed million-dollar cut would amount to 13 percent of MPT's state financing, which makes up about one-third of MPT's annual budget.
Mr. Ho also raised an alarm over what he characterized as a proposal to "privatize" MPT and suggested that Mr. Nevins might have a conflict of interest because he is a public relations spokesman for Comcast Corp., a major cable television operator.
The danger of privatization, he said, is that "it might drive us into the hands of the kinds of private sector people that David [Mr. Nevins] is part of -- the Comcasts and the rest of them."
Asked whether Mr. Glendening was trying to politicize MPT, Mr. Ho said, "absolutely."
Mr. Ho cited two examples. He said Mr. Nevins had told him to air interviews featuring prominent Maryland business leaders and to cover events weekly across the state, taking care to visit as many counties as possible.
When he asked Mr. Nevins why he wanted such programming, Mr. Ho said he was told:
"If you are thinking politically, you think in terms of votes and geographic spread. Whereas, when you are thinking television, you think what is of interest to the public. There's a fundamental difference in thinking."
Ms. Rosborough flatly denied the administration had any intention of politicizing MPT.
"In the nine months that the governor has been in office there is not one program that the administration has asked to be aired, so I'm not certain what influence he believes is occurring on programming," she said.
The governor's spokeswoman denied that MPT was being asked to take any budget cut beyond that being asked of any other agency. She said the administration has asked all agencies to submit budgets holding spending to fiscal 1996 levels, with no increases for inflation.
"We are asking all of our agencies to make difficult budget choices," Ms. Rosborough said. At this point, she said, MPT's state allocation in fiscal 1997 is tentatively slated to be $8.1 million, the same amount it received for fiscal 1996.
On the issue of privatization, Ms. Rosborough said that was a matter for the commission to consider and has not reached the governor's office.
Mr. Nevins, reached by phone yesterday on a cruise boat where he was vacationing, said he was flabbergasted at Mr. Ho's charges, which he dismissed as "completely untrue and groundless."
"Neither the governor nor any of his representatives and I have ever had any discussion about any attempt to politicize the agency whatsoever," said Mr. Nevins, who operates the Nevins & Associates public relations firm in Owings Mills.
Mr. Nevins denied that the administration was "coming after" Mr. Ho. He said the commission was in the process of evaluating Mr. Ho's job performance -- an annual exercise that he said had been delayed by the need to fill positions on the 11-member, unpaid panel.
The commission is scheduled to meet Monday in a continuation of an executive session that began at a meeting in early October. Mr. Nevins said the agenda was about "sensitive personnel matters," but he did not elaborate.
Mr. Nevins said he had not ordered Mr. Ho to schedule particular programming and had only discussed goals with him in general terms. He declined to be more specific, saying only that, "My private discussions with Raymond will remain private."
The commission chairman said the suggestion he could have a conflict of interest because of his representation of Comcast came "clearly out of the blue."
He disputed the assertion that Comcast, a cable company, had designs on MPT's broadcasting assets.
"Why would Comcast have any interest in that? They don't do broadcast," Mr. Nevins said.