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MPT battle shows how public TV is changing


HAVRE DE GRACE -- The kamikaze crash of Raymond K.K. Ho, just canned as head of Maryland public broadcasting operations after a series of bizarre attacks on the people he worked for, made good theater if nothing else.

Mr. Ho appears to have elected self-destruction -- or "crucifixion," as he described it -- in the mistaken belief that his friends and admirers, if not a higher authority, would intervene to resurrect him. But that was not to be. The onlookers just stood around with their mouths open in astonishment, gaping at the wreckage.

In line of fire

It's hard to work up much sympathy for Mr. Ho in all this, but it does make one sorry for poor Gov. Parris Glendening, at whom the wacky one fired a few rounds on his way down. The governor, he said, was improperly trying to influence the programming carried on the state's public television stations.

Yeah, right. Maryland's rookie governor has made plenty of doofus decisions in his first year, but his handling of Mr. Ho's little fiefdom wasn't one of them. Republicans such as Del. Robert Flanagan of Howard County, who think they see a partisan issue here, would be well advised to think again.

Editorial "freedom" isn't what this is all about. This is a public television operation, for heaven's sake, and that means politicians or their appointees call the shots. The members of the Maryland Public Broadcasting Commission, who fired Mr. Ho and will hire his replacement, are named by the governor. A governor who deliberately chose to exercise no influence under such circumstances would have to be either negligent or stupid.

Whether it's on philosophical grounds or plain old political ones, the difference between the right side and the wrong side of this little spat is pretty obvious -- and the right side certainly isn't Raymond K.K. Ho's.

The Ho episode does offer an opportunity, though, to do some serious rethinking about Maryland Public Television.

MPT is a $24.9-million-a-year operation this year. It is almost 30 years old and broadcasts statewide from six locations. It has won national recognition for many of its programs, including that venerable bellwether, "Wall Street Week with Louis Rukeyser."

In recent years, a new fiscal awareness in Annapolis has reduced MPT's reliance on the Maryland taxpayer substantially, and the organization is better off because of it.

The state contribution was $10.4 million in 1992, but is only $8.1 million now. This trend has upset Mr. Ho, but it hasn't significantly hurt the programming, and has moved the entire operation closer to self-reliance. It's now halfway there, and the governor and the legislature ought to ignore the yowling and push it the rest of the way as soon as possible.

Money matters

Almost exactly half of MPT's money, about $12.4 million this year, currently comes from private sources. This revenue includes support from the viewers who respond to those interminable telethons, corporate contributions, royalties, sales of transcripts and other materials, and so forth.

The federal government, for no logical reason, is pouring in about $4.4 million this year to help support MPT. The Republicans in Washington have promised to turn off that particular tap, and although they haven't gotten around to it yet, they may eventually.

A national search

To replace the crucified Mr. Ho, the Maryland Public Broadcasting Commission promises the usual nationwide search. If this process produces another bureaucratic veteran of the government television network, it will have been a giant step backwards. To oversee the continued weaning of MPT from tax revenues, it would be much more constructive to select someone from that group which so horrifies Mr. Ho -- the Maryland business community.

As for Mr. Ho himself, who says pathetically that he has been shattered by his recent experiences and needs sedatives to get to sleep, a few personal suggestions might be in order.

First of all, don't look for scapegoats to blame for your troubles. And don't, please, repeat your assertion that you're a victim of a Jewish conspiracy. That makes you sound like you-know-who, and you don't even wear a bow tie.

Secondly, although getting fired can be hard on the ego, recognize that it needn't be the end of the world. I was fired from a corporate job a few years ago, and can't say that I enjoyed it, but it turned out to be one of the best things that ever happened to me. You're only 44; you may soon find that while you've lost a job, you've been given a chance to resurrect the rest of your life.

As for your insomnia, that'll probably pass. If it doesn't, I can recommend watching television, commercial or otherwise. As a last resort you could sit for a few minutes in front of a television tuned to an MPT telethon. That will make anyone nod off.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

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